At the Bonna Business Center, a tiny Internet cafe near the opulent mansion of Cambodia’s long-
ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, coffee is served with a big lump of dissatisfaction.
“They talk about seven percent economic growth,” said Ou Rithy, 27, who hosts weekly political discussions at the cafe with other young Cambodians. “But I’m still a poor man.”
He blames Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which won a recent general election widely criticized as rigged, but lost the nation’s heart and soul — its restive, tech-savvy and increasingly outspoken youth.
About 70 percent of Cambodia’s 14 million people are under 30, a demographic whose growing political clout is challenging the country’s aging and corrupt leadership, while breathing life into a once-moribund opposition who have called for the mass protests that began yesterday.
Hun Sen cheated his way to victory in the July 28 election and it has vowed to protest until an independent committee is formed to investigate alleged voting irregularities, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) said.
Hun Sen has denied the allegations.
According to initial results, the CPP won the election with a greatly reduced majority, revealing widespread unhappiness with Hun Sen’s iron-fisted rule despite rapid economic growth.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy urged supporters to “pray for peace” at yesterday’s protest, but many fear it could lead to months of political deadlock or even violence. In recent days, thousands of riot police armed with batons and shields have rehearsed crowd control methods in Phnom Penh’s parks.
It is Hun Sen’s biggest crisis in two decades, threatening to destabilize the tiny Southeast Asian nation with strong economic and political ties to China.
Cambodia owes its youthful demographic to its tragic past. Whole generations were wiped out from 1975 to 1979, under the “Killing Fields” regime of the Khmer Rouge, when more than 1 million people were killed or died of disease.
Hun Sen has long hailed himself and the CPP for rescuing the country from the ensuing years of chaos and poverty. However, such appeals increasingly fall flat with young people born long after the Khmer Rouge’s terror ended.
“Young people want social justice, they want jobs, and they want a good education system,” said Ou Rithy, a political science graduate who has watched many peers desert his home province of Pursat to seek work in neighboring Thailand.
Soaring use of smart phones and the Internet have allowed young Cambodians to sidestep the government’s strict control of television, radio and newspapers.
In 2008, when Hun Sen easily won the previous election, only about 70,000 people had access to the Internet, according to government statistics. By last year, that number had soared to 2.7 million, helped by a similarly exponential rise in mobile phones. There are now more cellphones used in Cambodia — 19 million — than there are Cambodians.
Also accelerating communication since the last election is the Khmer-language version of unicode, a computing encoding standard used for different languages and scripts. This allowed Cambodian Internet users to easily write and share information in their own language.
“Even those who don’t speak English can still create Facebook accounts in Khmer,” said But Buntenh, 34, a Buddhist monk and blogger at the Bonna Business Center.