The deadly spiral of political violence in Cambodia is a red flag that Prime Minister Hun Sen cannot afford to dismiss. More bloodshed and mayhem might well follow if the recent harsh crackdown by the authorities spurs further public anger.
Although the protesters have been dispersed, it would be naive to expect the status quo to be speedily restored after weeks of agitation involving tens of thousands of people – opposition supporters and striking underpaid workers from the garment industry, a key source of export earnings.
The wily strongman, who has been in power for almost 30 years, will have to go against his political instincts to keep his country from self-destructing. He has dealt with mass protests with a firm fist before but the mood seems decidedly different now, and he cannot but be aware of the persistence of people power in neighbouring Thailand and elsewhere.
One aspect of change is the impulse of younger Cambodians who are less weighed down by Cambodia’s sad past.
After a 1970 coup deposed King Norodom Sihanouk, the nation endured two decades of upheaval – suffering for which its own countrymen and others are complicit (American carpet-bombing during the civil war, genocide and famine under the Khmer Rouge supported by China, and the Soviet-backed invasion by the Vietnamese army).
Older Cambodians who have endured these times might cling to the notion of political stability but the young, who are familiar with transitions in Myanmar and elsewhere, are supporting the opposition in droves.
Similarly out of sorts are impoverished rural Cambodians who have been hit by land grabs at the hands of corrupt elite and Chinese and Vietnamese investors.
Law and order must be restored, but crushing dissent will not bring about social peace. Instead, Hun Sen should take a hard look at the message from voters during last year’s general election, which opposition leader Sam Rainsy claims was rigged, as well as the post-election angst among his people.
Beyond just energising the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Hun Sen also needs to engage the opposition in addressing social tensions, corruption and policy reforms (notably in education) to boost investor confidence.
Dismal training standards are leaving firms short of skilled workers. Even among college graduates, over 70 per cent lack suitable skills. Meanwhile, high-ranking government officials and businessmen are falling over themselves to blatantly acquire fake doctorates, as observed by The Cambodia Daily’s managing editor.
Clearly, the time has come for those in power to stop glossing over their county’s difficulties, and to tackle pressing national issues openly and collaboratively.