A protest against U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi last week has sparked fierce debate on social media in Cambodia, with many young people going online to distance themselves from ruling-party linked demonstrators.
A group of students, at least some of who are linked to the CPP-aligned youth organization the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), used a forum following a speech by Mr. Subedi on international investment law to denounce the special rapporteur as biased and call for him to stop reporting on the human rights situation in Cambodia.
Within hours, pictures of the event had hit Facebook, the most popular social network among young Cambodians, with both support for the protesting group and outrage. Some people altered images of the protesters to express their disagreement, changing the wording on their banners to pro-Subedi sentiments.
Others altered photos of Mr. Subedi, with one putting him next to the late Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary, and suggesting that Subedi’s reports about Cambodia are only negative because they are based on the country as it was during the Khmer Rouge era.
In a video monologue to a webcam—the format of choice for young Cambodians wishing to put forth their views online—and posted to his Facebook page, Chea Chheng—a Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) student linked to the UYFC who took part in the anti-Subedi protest—delivered a critique of Mr. Subedi. The post has received 3,105 comments, both for and against its content, but Mr. Chheng complained about bad language used in the debate.
“There is nothing to get angry or mad about in my post. I’ve noticed most commentaries are immoral in the way they use their freedom of expression,” he said Monday.
In another monologue, a young man, who now lives in South Korea, declares himself to be a former student of RULE and describes his shock at the protest. The student describes how those wanting to join youth groups at the university were pressured to join the CPP.
“Students studying in the first year, or foundation year, are targeted and persuaded to join the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said. “The student association is a place created to manage students, to resolve matters for students, but it is also a place to serve the political party.”
Another user, Samady KS, says in a video, “everything [Chea Chheng] has said is totally wrong.”
“[Mr. Subedi] recommended three things such as NEC [National Election Committee] reform, [solving] the problems with economic land concessions, and human right violations. Is he wrong? Absolutely not!” the young man says to camera.
“We all know the NEC is the arbitrator for all the political parties in the election, so what is wrong with calling for reform? The members of the NEC all come from the ruling party.”
You Thirith, 25, a student in RULE’s English language Bachelor of Law program who was present at last week’s protest, said the incident had sparked unusual discussion in classrooms as well as online.
“The youths feel that this affects all the youth in Cambodia’s reputation,” he said. “The youths mostly don’t think these students [who protested] should represent Cambodian youth. They represent only a particular group.”
Peou Chivoin, a doctoral candidate studying social transformation and young people in Cambodia at the University of Melbourne, said the online response to the protests among those young Cambodians with Internet was “unprecedented.”
“The past several days have basically [shown] an online rage against the protest, and, surprisingly, there has been so little defense for the protest,” Mr. Chivoin said by email. “The rage seems to have surpassed any anticipation even by the organizer.”
He said young Cambodians were increasingly sharing and debating events in their country online, which appears to have brought to life a formerly apolitical youth. “The coming general election and incident of protest against the U.N. envoy comes at a time when the needs and habit of expressing thoughts and contention are shaping up.”