Politics is one of the most controversial terms in the Cambodian context, where it is often linked to manipulation, corruption, violence and worse. Citizens are often warned to stay away from politics if they do not want to put themselves in danger or in an unpleasant situation. As a result, Cambodia has long faced a low level of political participation.
Negative views of politics are not surprising given Cambodia’s past. Many people have suffered from political turbulence and civil wars over the past four decades. Doubtless the most tragic period of Cambodia’s history was the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, in which millions of lives were lost and many had to endure unfathomable suffering for nearly four years. Subsequent political development after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991, which was supposed to be a watershed moment for Cambodia’s future, turned out to further demoralize the public.
The impact of this history is deep and dramatic. Although it is hard to measure how much they affect people psychologically, these incidents without a doubt play a role in shaping public opinion and attitude toward politics.
Major political parties have always been locked in fierce and sometimes deadly competition. Each side is eager to destroy the other if given the opportunity. Their fighting and bickering are often featured in news headlines. Furthermore, many voters are also fed up with politicians making and breaking promises in every election. In short, Cambodia’s political situation faces a severe lack of public trust.
Another problem is that many people strongly stick to a traditional view of politics, which is that government affairs should only conducted by those in positions of power and wealth. Such a view is so entrenched that many believe even if they want to be involved in political activities, the impact would be minimal or nonexistent.
What happened during and after the July 2013 election offers a hopeful sign. A large number of voters now see the need to engage in politics in order to get the reforms they desire. The sheer number of people participating in the election campaign was unprecedented, and they also actively mobilized public support for their preferred political parties.
Despite such progress, the public understanding of political participation seems to be limited to just the election, political rallies and other party activities, while their input in the policy-making process remains limited. What many fail to notice is that policies and laws enacted by politicians affect almost every aspect of their life.
This is a typical problem not just in Cambodia but in other well-established democracies, and the most-cited reason is the lack of trust and confidence in politicians. Yet, it should be these very same reasons that encourage people to get more involved in politics; in order to keep their leaders in check. More importantly, their contributions should go beyond the political sphere to include economic, social and cultural activities.
For a country to develop, its people must do their share. They have the role and responsibility to respect the laws and help implement policies. Moreover, an engaged populace can also offer their solutions and ask the government to seriously consider them. If people want to improve the delivery of public goods and services, they have to demand it. Wishful thinking or ignoring the facts will not help them get what they want.
Strong civic engagement is good for the government. Indeed, many countries are now concentrating their efforts and resources on promoting it. Engaging the citizenry in the political process is not necessarily a bad thing. The biggest concern for the ruling elites should be when people say nothing at all while their discontent toward the government is growing.
Therefore, the Cambodian government should take this opportunity to support any initiatives that seek to promote political participation. Allowing people to express their concerns and interests will help the leaders design policies in a way that will boost public trust and confidence.
Phoak Kung is vice president for Academic Affairs at Mengly J. Quach University in Phnom Penh.
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