“The days when the Government could entirely control the flow of information are gone. Public opinion has arrived in Cambodia’s politics, and it is a game changer”
The July 2013 election was critical in Cambodia’s politics. After what transpired in the aftermath of the deadlock (the opposition denounced fraud) and the violent protests it produced, little attention was paid to the role of public opinion in shaping the political landscape. Since independence from France (1953), the country has seen long periods of political turbulence. The darkest moment was the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge, and the killing of 1.7 million people, almost destroying the country. In the 1980s, Cambodia was entangled in a protracted civil war between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (resulting from the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, and the precursor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party or CPP), and the resistance movements. The Paris Peace Agreements (1991) ended the conflict, but a cloud of uncertainty remained. Since 1993, civil society organizations (CSOs) have proliferated, representing the poor and vulnerable, and channeling public discontent. However, the most important factor turning public opinion into a force in Cambodia’s politics is information technology. Mobile subscribers reached 20 million in 2013, while Internet users stood at 3.8 million, and 740,000 Cambodians had Facebook accounts in 2012. Now citizens can share information without Government censorship, challenging traditional media outlets, giving voters different sources of information to form their own opinion, and allowing people to mobilize support for various causes. Political parties are taking note. Social media is the backbone of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) campaign strategy. In contrast, only a handful of CPP leaders engage in new media. Driven by fear of punishment at the polls, politicians are paying more attention to what people say. Even Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook account asks visitors to opine on Government policy.