For 22-year-old Bong Chamsambath, the murder of political analyst Kem Ley one year ago marked a sad day for Cambodia and his attitude towards politics.
“To me, the death of Dr. Kem Ley marked the lowest point of freedom of expression in Cambodia, probably in the past four or five years,” he said.
“I became a lot more pessimistic about the direction Cambodian democracy is heading after his assassination – it points out that the right to speak our thoughts in this kingdom is still under constant threat.”
The Politikoffee member, a youth-oriented political discussion group, which itself has been labelled as being at odds with Khmer culture, said it was still vital that youth remain passionate and involved in politics, despite the threats and deterrents they face.
These deterrents were highlighted in a report authored by Chamsambath and others at Politkoffee and released last month to determine the level of political participation among young people in Cambodia.
Using secondary data, the group wanted to challenge the dominant negative narrative that the youth of Cambodia are disengaged with politics due to the hierarchical, authoritarian nature of the kingdom’s political institutions and its culture.
“Fear of getting into trouble impacts negatively on youth’s willingness to participate in politics, while dominance of a single party and absence of rule of law discourage young people to become politically active,” the report states.
“Historically, a culture of obedience to elders and authority has been an integral part of Cambodian relations, which is not conducive to youth playing a key role in influencing government policies.”
This is exacerbated, Preap Kol, the director of Transparency International Cambodia, notes, by the older generation, who have seen activists such as Chut Wutty and Chea Vichea killed allegedly because of their work, with Ley being one more possible example to keep
their children away from politics.
“They have seen many political activists who were suppressed, imprisoned or even killed over those years,” he said.
“Therefore, parents often advise their children to stay out of politics and focus only in their studies.”
Politikoffee’s research suggests that this is indeed the case when it comes to formal political participation, which the report defines as directly participating in government institutions including voting, lobbying etc.
However as Vannaka Chhem-Kieth, a Social Sciences and International Relations lecturer at Pannasastra University of Cambodia and a Politikoffee member who oversaw the report’s research notes, when the definition of political participation is broadened, the theory that young Cambodians are disengaged evaporates.
“I would say this definition of political participation is too narrow,” he said last week.
“Non-traditional participation is a much broader definition which directly and indirectly effects policy, whether it’s discussion of social issues, it doesn’t have to be on the rule of law or taxes, traffic, it can be any issues that youth engage with,” he said.
The report’s findings suggest that social media has become a key tool in young Cambodians being involved in non-traditional political participation, noting that 82 percent of all Cambodian smartphone users are university students and graduates.
“The youth voter turnout, the explosion in internet and social media use – especially among Cambodian youth – are depicting a demographic actively engaged via informal participation platforms,” the report states.
However, the report also notes that limited education means that political engagement can be too abstract a construct for many to understand, alongside the financial constraints young Cambodians face making participation in politics an impossibility for many.
Chhem-Kieth notes that for those who are involved, young Cambodians are becoming increasingly savvy of the power of social media as well as some of its more insidious aspects.
Chamsambath noted that while social media has played a crucial role for young Cambodians to become more politically aware and involved, this has largely been in reaction to the majority of traditional media sources being government aligned.
“That is how we balance the scale between the information we get from government-aligned media and what we see on Facebook,” he said.
Fellow author Sen Chantarasingh said that social media’s increased impact has the potential to increase institutional accountability, using the example of Ley’s memorial services across the country in recent days as a litmus test for the youth’s willingness to engage and connect politically with the help of social media.
“Before if you went to a memorial like that and there was not press there, it would amount to little, but with social media, and the involvement with youth, even small actions, that instant can spread across the country,” he said.
“So in a way, by having that kind of participation, accountability will be able to increase.”
While the majority of the information the report draws on stems from the 2013 elections, the report concludes optimistically thanks to the high voter turnout in last month’s commune elections.
“Though we will have to wait to obtain more detailed trends on youth engagement, it is safe to say that it will be significantly high, and will continue to play a key role leading to the 2018 national elections,” it states.
“Our assessment is that youth’s political participation in Cambodia will continue to grow, alongside technological advances and against social and political limitations.”