Stop Squabbling—Cambodian Leaders Need to Work Together

By Peter Tan Keo

Cambodia is tarnished with so many years of political and civil unrest it’s hard to keep up, even for seasoned analysts. Some people look back to early 20th century, when King Norodom Sihanouk was placed in power by colonials; others look to 1953 when Cambodia won in­dependence from France. Yet, others claim that Cambodia’s present day deadlock dates back to March 1970, with General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak overthrowing Norodom Sihanouk from power, planting the seeds of unrest further leading to, well, we all know what happens next.

Me, I say, “Who cares?” The origin of Cambodia’s conflict is less relevant than present-day leaders lacking the foresight to overcome today’s political differences, for once in history. Both Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy are guilty of this ineptitude. Everyone else—from blind party sympathizers to diplomats to loyalists to apathetic civil servants to overzealous Khmer expatriates to eager journalists—are equally guilty of going along for the ride, without adding new insight to push the country away from the grips of politics, and into a century based on discovering economic opportunities for the populace.

And because leaders can’t get past the past, focusing on how to create reforms in the present, I’d like to point out a few things. Build schools. Create jobs. Get people out of poverty. Sounds simple but to date, I haven’t heard a single party speak eloquently to these reforms, other than a whole lot of political projectile targeting electoral reform.

Any party seriously pushing reforms here will take the 2018 electoral spoils.

What’s more interesting, though, is the inability to avoid recycling old explanations, causes, arguments, whatever in ex­plaining why the CNRP refuses to negotiate with the CPP, or why the CPP does what it does. The CPP finally recognizes that the people have spoken—and, ipso facto, authentic reform needs to happen, now. Yes, we know that promises have been made be­fore, then broken, then made, then forgotten, then broken. But, what’s different this time is that the ruling party has to concede—perhaps beyond its will—to the fact that demographic shifts in Cambodia threaten the party’s ability to maintain its continued grip on power.

Simple math leads us to believe that, with youth under the age of 25 representing more than half the population, and 70 percent un­der the age of 35, it’s clear as day, at least to me, that the one factor which deviates from years past is this: Young people are voting for change, but not the kind of change that the CNRP continues to throw around or the kind of change that CPP youth groups address superficially, if not tangentially. Planting trees won’t get you votes. Jobs will.

If the CPP’s “call for reform” is authentic, regardless of partisan politics, reforms will have to get at the heart of providing educational and employment opportunities for young people, especially students carrying, often blithely, two bachelor’s degrees. Policy wonks call this the education-workforce gap.

It’s not rocket science. But what concerns me most is this: Cambodians are moving, again, down a potentially dangerous path, mimicking a traditional pattern that has for decades led to war. There’s a clear growing division in the country in which the op­position CNRP may be, perhaps carelessly, dousing the flames of civil unrest, though its concerns over the ruling CPP are not entirely unfounded. After all, Mr. Hun Sen is the longest serving prime minister in South­east Asia and the fifth longest in the world.

But Mr. Rainsy’s frustration appears to be more personal, as he targets Mr. Hun Sen and not so much the CPP. The concern is that too much time and energy are being expended on removing Mr. Hun Sen from power, and on electoral reforms, when knowing that it’s not just about one man or elections.

Cambodian leaders on both sides lack foresight, and that in­eptitude may once again prove to be costly, if not disastrous, for the country. Leaders are encouraged not to get caught up in the excitement of the possibility of im­mediate change because nothing changes over night. And, frankly, that impatience doesn’t seem authentic to the local reality.

The ruling party, in particular, needs to quickly self-assess, as it tries to push out re­forms that truly benefit the country. They may pay dearly at the polls in five years. The opposition CNRP must find a more moderate approach in negotiating reforms, which would lead to gradual change.

Stop fighting. Work together.

An alumnus of Harvard University and the University of Chicago, Peter Tan Keo is an independent analyst and founder of think tank Global Strategy Asia.

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