By Rupert Abbott, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The views expressed are his own.
The scenes in Phnom Penh last week were astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of people, including many young people, welcomed opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who had just returned to Cambodia after four years effectively in exile. Not to be outdone, the very next day, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) staged a huge youth rally and concert in Phnom Penh for more than 10,000 supporters. Amid the election fever that has gripped Cambodia ahead of the national polls on Sunday, one thing is clear – people seem less afraid than ever to voice their opinion.
Anyone in the capital or provincial centers will have seen activists and supporters of the main political parties campaigning peacefully. And no one can have missed the “moto-rallies,” in which hundreds of young people ride around the streets on their motorcycles, loudly promoting their parties and policies. The atmosphere has often been electric, and generally peaceful.
Yet this eagerness to speak out and openly call for “change” may seem surprising, given that Cambodia’s government has not generally looked kindly on critics.
True, the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are protected in both Cambodia’s constitution and key international treaties the country is party to. But there have been consistent and disturbing violations of these and other rights.
Excessive force has been used against those exercising their right to freedom of assembly, particularly in the context of land and labour disputes. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, continue to face harassment, intimidation and death threats. Some, including environmental activist Chut Wutty, have even been killed.
The courts have been used to target critics and rights activists, while perpetrators of human rights abuses are rarely held to account. While housing rights activist Yorm Bopha is in jail, convicted on trumped-up charges after an unfair trial, those responsible for the murder of trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 are still free, with two men – Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun – imprisoned as scapegoats.
And as the elections approach, many Cambodians are well aware of what has occurred around past polls, which saw violence directed against those affiliated with opposition parties. Indeed, the rhetoric around this year’s elections has sometimes been terrifying. The CPP has reportedly warned of possible war, a return to the bloody Khmer Rouge days and the destruction of national infrastructure, should the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) win.
So why is it that so many people are willing to take to the streets to campaign?
Partly, it may be down to the overall reduction in violence against the opposition, with no reports so far of politically motivated killings in the run-up to this year’s election. The Cambodian authorities should be commended for having ensured that party activists and supporters have so far largely been able to enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and assembly around the election.
This is not to say that the campaigning period has been without problems. Voters have still been harassed at the local level, foreign radio broadcasts were briefly banned, and the government has called for the arrest of individuals who allegedly distributed poll data favoring the opposition.
But it is the young age of Cambodia’s population that has perhaps been the most important factor in reducing the level of fear.
According to official figures, more than a third of registered voters (over 3.5 million) are aged between 18 and 30. Described by one human rights activist as the “post-Khmer Rouge baby boomers,” these young people were not around for the horrific Khmer Rouge period, and their childhood memories of the political violence of the 1990s are hazy. Threats of a return to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge or civil war just don’t resonate in the same way as they do for older generations.
Many young Cambodians recognize that successive governments have made some progress over the last three decades, but they want a greater say in how their country develops. They are calling for equal opportunities and an end to corruption, for land and natural resource grabbing to stop, and for greater respect for human rights and the rule of law. Those in urban areas are using online social networks to access information, discuss ideas and organize. And they are bypassing mainstream media, which is either government controlled or exercises self-censorship.
Some might argue that opportunities for expression around the election and youth involvement distracts not just from ongoing rights abuses, but also voter fraud and other election irregularities. But valid as these serious concerns are, this less fearful young population presents Cambodia with a potentially pivotal opportunity, one that the next government would do well to seize.
If Cambodia’s government can be persuaded to respect and protect freedom of expression, the whole country will benefit from a more engaged youth sharing their ideas and contributing to the country’s future. And if the government can work to ensure that young people enjoy equal opportunities for employment and business, Cambodia will see more sustainable and equitable development.
The run up to Sunday’s election has demonstrated that Cambodia’s young people have found their voice. Ignoring them is surely not an option.