Don’t Expect a “Cambodian Spring”

Prominent Cambodian human rights activist Ou Virak came to Stanford to speak last week, and his stance on the possibility of a political “spring” in politically tense Cambodia is clear: not likely.

“I don’t think a spring in Cambodia will happen, nor do I think it’s desirable,” Ou said, in the early February talk. “We don’t even have a word for spring in Khmer. The closest word is revolution, which reminds people of Khmer Rouge.”

Ever since the hotly contested July 2013 elections, Cambodia has been experiencing political turmoil unprecedented since the 1997 coup by current Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have been calling for “change” — and for Hun Sen, who helms an unquestionably corrupt and undemocratic government, to step down from the post which he’s held since 1986.

In the months since summer, Cambodia’s garment industry has been drawn into the political turmoil and has formed alliances with the opposition, asking for an increase in wages for the factory workers behind some of America’s most iconic brands, including Nike, the Gap, and H&M.

At least four garment protesters were shot dead after security forces responded to a protest, answering stones and Molotov cocktails on the garment workers part with live ammunition. Now, some are concerned that the intensifying call for increased salaries and increasing political uncertainty may cause Western garment and other business interests to move away from Cambodia

It’s into this restive political environment that Ou Virak made his comments at Stanford. A long-time opponent of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party via his human’s right organization, he’s come out in recent months against a recent uptick in violence against Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority — which he suspects has been fueled by Rainsy’s aggressive opposition to supposed Vietnamese encroachments on Cambodian turf.

“Is Sam Rainsy a moderate? I think he is, but he is not a man of principle,” said Ou. “He’s not a man of principle because he’s chosen the politics of convenience. He’s all over the place.”

To exemplify Rainsy’s scatter-shot tactics, Ou pointed to Rainsy’s willingness to blame Vietnamese influence for a wide array of Cambodia’s ills, as well as his willingness to associate himself with the Chinese, who hold considerable business interests within the fertile Southeast Asian nation.

“He cannot escape the mental trap of the 1980s. He cannot run the country,” said Ou. “The anti-Vietnamese sentiment is being used to polarize Cambodia. It’s a game that used to be played but the CPP, and now by the CNRP.”

Per Ou, the last thing that Cambodia needs in its current state of political confusion is an outburst of ethnic cleansing. “Fear, hate and anger are already there in Cambodia,” he noted. “All they need is power for a possible Rohingya situation.”

Primarily, the Cambodian activist is worried that the CNRP — even if they do manage to oust Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-time government — lack any kind of coherent political strategy. And that could allow political radicals to seize the reins if a “spring” style ouster of Hun Sen took place.

“I haven’t seen an agenda…The only thing I’ve seen is how much we hate Hun Sen, and how much we hate Vietnam,” he said in the talk. “That’s a formula for disaster, going in with so much hate. We have no idea what we are fighting for.”

“If you win the revolution and get your, way you need a plan for not letting radicals win the day,” he added. “It’s easy to be frustrated, but it’s not easy to have a long protracted movement.”

Ou, a US-trained economist, is also opposed to any kind of economic sanction against Cambodia, which some have proposed as a redress for exploitative sweatshops and recent human rights violations committed by the opposition party.

“Definitely no sanctions, not now. It’s easy for us to call for sanction,” said Ou, referring to overseas observers of the current situation in Cambodia. To Ou, it’s questionable just how long garment workers making a mere $50 a month would be able to hold out in a protracted street fight over democracy.

“Boycotting products made in Cambodia is a terrible idea,” said Ou. “Isolating Cambodia and Hun Sen would walk us back very far.” He proposes a more moderate increase in salaries for garment workers over time, which he says would avoid spooking overseas investors while also improving living conditions for Cambodia’s working poor.

Although Ou Virak may advocate for patience, he remains hopeful that change will come sooner, rather than later, for Cambodia.

“There’s a lot of people with their own initiative locally in Cambodia. There’s a lot of smart young people,” he said. “Due to what’s taking place on the ground, Hun Sen can’t get away with his behavior. Things are changing.”

“People in Cambodia don’t have the luxury of romanticizing the world “revolution,” warned Ou, in a trenchant answer to those calling for another burst of political upheaval.

And indeed, Cambodians circa 2014 are playing with political fire, and should be mindful of that reality. Any approach towards democratic change in this country with a painful past must of necessity be a careful one, lest painful memories are summoned again.

Image: CNRP supporters rally in Phnom Penh in August of 2013 – Faine Greenwood