From Phnom Penh to Kiev, People Are Calling for Change

At first glance you may not think Ukraine and Cambodia have much in common. Think again.

Observations and interviews conducted in Cambodia following the hotly contested election in July 2013, and on the streets of Kiev last month, offered some interesting parallels.

In Ukraine in February, more than 80 people died when clashes erupted in Kiev between armed police and anti-government protesters who had entrenched themselves at Maidan, the central square in the heart of Ukraine’s historic capital.

Maidan was a picturesque Eastern European plaza until November 30, when hundreds of peaceful protesters were violently dispersed at 4 a.m. by truncheon-wielding police who used the cover of darkness to carry out their attack.

The protesters—mostly students—had set up camp and were protesting against President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of forming closer economic ties with Russia.

During a trip to Kiev in early February it was apparent that the grievances voiced by the Maidan protesters were remarkably similar to those voiced by Cambodians six months previous in the aftermath of July’s contested national election, which delivered the worst election showing for the CPP since 1998.

Take the 42-year-old manager of a boutique hotel in downtown Phnom Penh, who just days before the election explained why he wanted an end to the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“We just want to change the leader. I hope a lot of people think like me,” he said over a coffee at one of the new cafes popping up around the city.

“Educated people, I can see some. The rest are just doing a lot of corruption. Now it’s time to change this country.”

Compare those comments with those of Ruslan, a 25-year-old medic who was volunteering at Kiev’s City Hall during the height of the political crisis in February. Behind blue curtains, a makeshift cubicle had been assembled where Ruslan was treating the wounds of opposition protesters who had spent the night fighting against “titushka,” the name given to government-hired thugs.

Their name was coined after the eponymous Vadym Titushko, who was one of the dozens of burly men in tracksuits that attacked journalists attending an anti-government march on May 18.

“Simple people who are in Ukraine do not agree with our government because the president does not work with the people,” Ruslan said of the now-deposed President Yanukovich.

“He only works for himself,” Ruslan said of the former president as he tended to the injuries of men who had gathered in the putrid smelling triage room after a night of fighting with government forces.

“Everything is about money. Everything he has and we have nothing. It’s all corruption in our Ukraine and people don’t want more.”

Drawing parallels between the social and political experiences in one country and transposing them directly onto those of another is highly speculative. Yet, Ukraine and Cambodia do share some similarities.

Opposition supporters in both countries blame the country’s leadership for supporting their historic enemy: Russia in the case of Ukraine and Vietnam in the case of Cambodia.

In religion, Ukraine’s clergy is split along political lines with the Kiev Patriarchate and Greek Orthodox Church behind the opposition and the Moscow Patriarchate strongly behind Russia. In Phnom Penh, pro-opposition Buddhist monks have rallied against their religious brethren who support Mr. Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP.

The opposition in both countries is becoming increasingly aggrieved at the crass displays of wealth by their country’s ruling political class.

Yanukovich may have taken the cake with his fleet of luxury automobiles that included a 1950 Bentley Continental S1, a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, a Mercedes-Benz AMG G-Class and an International MXT. But some of the vehicular glitz on display in Phnom Penh is not far behind the Ukrainian leader’s tastes. And many Cambodians now know it.

And the violent men of the “titushka” find their match in the civilian thugs of Phnom Penh’s district security force and the masked men armed with cudgels and iron bars who—alongside police and military police—charged and beat peaceful protesters while clearing Freedom Park on January 4.

Protesters have also died in both countries: more than 80 in Kiev and seven shot dead and more than 40 wounded by military police and police gunfire in Phnom Penh.

On her knees gazing up at a shrine of candles and a painting of the Lord Jesus Christ, Natasha, who works at a bank in the West of Ukraine, had come to a makeshift church set up in the middle of Maidan in early February.

“I’m here for my children to have opportunities, have good studies and after studying to have a good job and live in a country that has better conditions. I don’t just want to survive,” she said, only giving her first name for fear of retribution from the authorities.

Natasha said she did not want to judge Mr. Yanukovich’s leadership but stood firmly behind the people’s desire for a better future.

“I hope this is the last protest,” she continued, pointing out how other countries like Poland and Romania were developing much quicker than Ukraine.

And in Phnom Penh, Piseth, 24, who owns a construction business with three friends, said prior to Cambodia’s election that, above all, he wanted to see more transparency in government.

“Now we have no historical documents about what the government is doing. There is so much secrecy,” he said.

“On TV, we see beautiful images of the country, but we never see what lies behind. On the other side of that landscape there are a lot of problems—there is violence and corruption.”

Natasha’s and Piseth’s concerns possess common threads: a desire for change, reform, and more accountability.

In the aftermath of Cambodia’s election—which saw the CPP narrowly win and the opposition allege widespread electoral fraud—CPP Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the vote had shown “the political maturity of Cambodian people.”

“Despite the [opposition’s] vitriolic racist campaign (remember France’s Le Pen), despite the empty promises, Cambodian people chose the CPP,” the minister wrote.

“At the same time this is also a wake-up call for the CPP not to sleep on its realizations. We need to improve our work. But the strong point of the CPP is that this party has the ability to re-adapt to change and know how to take advantage of the most difficult situation.”

Nicolas Agostini, who previously worked in Cambodia with local rights group Adhoc and is now a delegate to the U.N. working at the International Federation for Human Rights, said Cambodia is a “textbook example” of a country where change through violence is likely due to weak institutions and democratic dialogue in the National Assembly. In fact, “Ukraine is less striking in this regard, as political discourse does include these elements, to some degree,” he said.

“Generally speaking, a lack of strong institutions, mechanisms to ensure that the rule of law prevails, and a democratic culture make violent change more likely.”

“In both countries, the fight against impunity and the need for accountability for human rights violations will be key to progress,” he said.

According to Agostini, Cambodia now faces the threat of a return to the politics of violence.

“The prime minister has increasing difficulty in feeding his patronage networks and is certainly realizing that the system is unsustainable. However, despite these mid-term concerns, he seems to be ready to use violence to perpetuate his rule and confident that a political spring will not happen in the near future,” he said.

What is really needed is reform to the judiciary and the country’s National Election Committee. But by doing so, Mr. Hun Sen’s regime would be weakened, Agostini pointed out.

On the ground floor of the Ukraine Hotel, nearby Maidan, Dmytro Simanskyi, a media consultant, was optimistic in late February at the prospect of Ukraine without Mr. Yanukovich as the ruler.

“The revolution taking place in the country today shows that we can change the country and ourselves without one leader. It’s not a problem, it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

One might ask how many Cambodians feel the same way, and where those sentiments will lead.

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