“Two-thirds of the population is under 30, making Cambodia one of the youngest nations in Asia (...) The first generation to grow up after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime faded and the economy began to grow at a rapid clip, they are better educated and more skeptical than previous generations”.
Thy Sovantha (18), a charismatic student, rocketed to fame during the 2013 elections, when she backed the opposition to unseat Cambodia’s authoritarian ruler Hun Sen. Her Facebook page drew hundreds of thousands of followers. The opposition nearly won the election, and protests led to a Government crackdown. The political battle came down to a single standoff: the Government threatened to arrest opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, if he set foot in Cambodia. Mr. Rainsy, traveling abroad, vowed to return. Ms. Sovantha rallied hundreds of supporters to meet him at the airport. But he canceled his flight and fled to France. “I was very angry”, Ms. Sovantha said. “If he does not come back, how can we change the leader? How can we win?” For 30 years, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge fighter, has wielded power through threats, clever deal-making and sheer willpower. Sam Rainsy, a French-educated former Finance Minister, has been his foil. Mr. Sen, tolerates periods of relative freedom and political dissent, but resorts to crackdowns and court cases when serious challenges arise. Two-thirds of the population is under 30, making Cambodia one of the youngest nations in Asia. The first generation after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge faded and the economy began to grow, they are better educated and skeptical. They get their news online rather than traditional TV and print media. Politically, they are restless against the authoritarian style and patronage system of Mr. Hun Sen. Having come so close to ousting him and failed, many are disillusioned. Now they are giving up on Mr. Rainsy as well. “Youth have two things,” Mr. Ou Ritthy, a young activist, said. “Information from social media and smartphones. They are more independent in terms of information. They are not told what to do by their parents like in the past”. Mr. Sam Rainsy, believing demographics are on his side, has vowed to return by the next election, in 2018. The question for Cambodia is whether his followers will still be waiting. Ms. Sovantha has moved on. She has told followers (1.2 million) of disillusionment with Mr. Rainsy.