One of the most significant and memorable aspects of the fiercely contested July 28 national election was the explosion of youth engagement during the campaign season, with hordes of young Cambodians driving through the streets on motorbikes calling for change.
The youth vote has been widely credited as one of the reasons the opposition CNRP made major gains, with preliminary results giving them 55 parliamentary seats to the CPP’s 68.
But with the country in limbo as a dispute over the results drags on and the CNRP threatens to call mass protests, the mood among the youth has dampened.
There has been a visible military buildup in Phnom Penh following the vote to ensure security in the eventuality of demonstrations, and its impact around Phnom Penh university campuses on Tuesday was evident.
Twenty-two-year-old Ung Kanha, an English literature student at the Institute of New Khmer, said he would like to participate in protests against the election results, but would refrain from doing so due to the fear of reprisals from authorities.
“I do not think that the CPP bringing in the army is a good idea because it is intimidation to make people afraid,” she said. “I would like to join demonstrations but I will not as I am worried about violence, and also my parents will not let me.”
In the run-up to the election, the fearlessness of young campaigners was clear for all to see, perhaps as they were unable to remember the political turbulence of the past.
But interviews with students Tuesday showed how much more wary they have become in recent days.
“I have heard that most students are in favor of the demonstrations, but I am not sure how many will really go,” said 20-year-old Leam Sovannrathana, an accounting student at the Cambodian Mekong University in Sen Sok district.
“Some of my friends said they want to go home to escape and my parents asked me to leave university but I said I will wait and see,” he said.
“The election was a fraud and the CPP know this, so it is very important to demonstrate,” Mr. Sovannrathana continued, adding, however, that he was unsure if he would join in as he too was afraid of violence.
Outside the Royal University of Law and Economics, students gathered in clusters preparing to take exams.
One group of three women—all law students aged 20 who were too afraid to give their names because a security guard was standing close by speaking into a walky-talky—said that the election was neither free nor fair and they hoped that any opposition demonstrations would draw large numbers.
Yet only one of the three said she would attend.
“People will get angrier after the election and this is why the government brings out the army and tanks because they are afraid of the people who voted against them,” one of the university students said.
“However, the problem that the CNRP has is that any demonstration will draw two groups wanting different things—one protesting the unfair election and asking for an investigation, and those who think we won the election calling for [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to go,” the law student said, before the reporters were escorted off the premises by university authorities and security guards because advanced written permission to enter the grounds had not been received.
Ou Rithy, a political blogger, said that the problem the CNRP faces is that previous to the election, the message was simple: Change.
Now, it is more complicated.
“Sam Rainsy is calling for mass demonstrations but no one else in the CNRP is asking people to do this, they are talking about peaceful responses, so even inside the CNRP they cannot agree which way to protest,” Mr. Rithy said Tuesday.
CNRP candidate Mu Sochua said Tuesday that the party continues to engage its youth supporters because this was their election.
However, she stressed that mass demonstrations were definitely a last resort.
“The people have spoken, the change has been made and they won’t accept less than that,” Ms. Sochua said.
“However, we won’t jump into a mass protest—that is the last resort.
“First, we must address the irregularities, then sit down together and resolve our differences.”
But even if demonstrations were to occur, there was still no reason for the government to respond with such a show of strength, she said.
“We had many demonstrations before the election with many thousands of people, and was there any violence then? No—so by bringing in the tanks it is clear whose side the government is on,” she said.
“The people ask for change from this style of leadership and then this leadership brings tanks onto the streets.
“Is this the change they think people wanted?”
Still, for 21-year-old law student Bou Veasna, joining the protest is far from certain.
“It is the opposition’s right to protest because even though the National Election Committee announced the result, we cannot believe it yet, but [I] don’t want to join because I can’t predict what will happen,” Mr. Veasna said outside the Institute of Technology.