There Will Be No Cambodian “Spring”


Last week Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) brokered a deal that ended the CNRP’s year-long parliamentary boycott. The CNRP disputed the results of last summer’s election (which they lost) and refused to take the 55 seats they won until an ‘independent’ election committee could audit the results. The opposition’s strategy had a clear Bangkok vibe: mobilize the urban demographic whose votes they had captured and march them through the streets until the pressure of a paralyzed capital became too great for Hun Sen’s regime to withstand. The crisis was at its worst back in January. After repeated opposition marches  100,000 men strong and strikes by factory workers on a similar scale the government decided to crack down before things spun out of their control. They quickly ended all protests in the city with a a barrage of bullets and batons

At that time it was difficult to predict if matters would escalate. Quite a few people suspected it would and many Southeast Asia hands felt that the time was ripe for Cambodia to have a “spring” or “color revolution” of its own to kick out Hun Sen for good.

It was right about then that Ou Virak (អ៊ូវីរៈ), former director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, showed up on the scene with a smart presentation arguing that Cambodia would not and could not have a democratic revolution of the ‘spring’ mode. [1] While the long term consequences of last week’s settlement can only be guessed at, it seems like Mr. Ou’s short term predictions have proven true.

I have embedded his presentation at the beginning of this post and I encourage my readers–especially those with an interest in Southeast Asia or democratization–to listen to it in full. It is easily the most insightful thing I have watched, listened to, or read about Cambodian politics or society this year. Ou touches on dozens of topics of interest to readers of the Stage, but I will only summarize a few of the most thought provoking here. You will have to watch the video to get the full thing.

Every point that follows is coupled with the approximate time he begins to discuss it in the video. I have added my own notes where I think they will be useful.

10:45 — In many ways Cambodia is more “ripe” for a democratic revolution than any other country in the region. The Arab Spring was by and large the work of men and women under 30; it is difficult to imagine the Arab Spring happening in a less youthful Middle East. Cambodia shares the Middle East’s demographic profile. Cambodia is one of the youngest countries in the world. The median age is 24 and the “18 to 35” demographic is by far the largest voting block in the country.

It might seem strange to group those 18 and 35 in the same demographic until you say the statistic in a different way: the majority of Cambodians were born after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. Most of the electorate has no memory of the killing fields.

T.G. notes: 1. An easy way to get your head around these numbers is to look at the population pyramids of the countries involved. [2] Here is Cambodia’s and Egypt’s, side-by-side:

For context, compare these to the population pyramids of Japan and the United States:

 An error Americans easily fall victim to when they talk about the electoral intrigues in foreign lands is a failure to think critically about the demographic structure of the country in question. America’s population structure is actually quite unusual; most nations are far younger or a bit older than our own.

In concrete terms this means we need to think harder about commonly used terms like “the youth vote.” Even if young adult voting rates were the same as America’s across the globe, “the youth vote” is far more important in countries like Cambodia than it ever could be in America. Conversely, there is a direct relationship between Japan’s population structure and the immense difficulty Shinzo Abe has had pushing through his “third arrow” economic reforms. In Japan, the future is the country’s smallest voting block. 

2. This also explains the resentment most young Cambodians feel at the way their country is portrayed in the global media. Everybody in Cambodia knows of someone who died during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule, but most of the country’s population has never met any of them. For most Cambodians the killing fields belong to the past that rarely seems relevant to them or to the problem’s the country faces today. But when the rest of the world looks at Cambodia, they see nothing but the killing fields. 

When you sit down and talk with bright Cambodians born in the 80s or 90s about Cambodia’s place in the world today or what they believe will be the defining issues of their time, the frustrations they feel with the role the wider world asks them to play are palatable. They are not interested in acting the part of the victim.

One can–and some of my Cambodian friends do–make bigger deal out of this than is truly warranted. But they have a point: how often do pundits today begin their speeches on China with references to the Cultural Revolution?

12:01 – Mr. Ou does not trust many of Cambodia’s official statistics. The facts on the ground are changing faster than Cambodia’s unreliable government offices can update them. Urbanization is the example in point: official statistics issued by the Cambodian government (and copied by everyone else) claim that Cambodia has an urbanization rate of 20%. This means that four out of every five Cambodians still live in rural villages. Ou says this claim is false. He estimates urbanization to be much higher — perhaps 50% of the population.

T.G. notes: This is of course a guess on Ou’s part. But it raises an interesting question: Cambodia is not the only country with a shoddy government and an exploding urban population. How many other states issue statistics that are 20 or 30 percentage points off the mark?

 26:45 – Cambodians face a linguistic barrier to any successful democratic protest movement. “Spring” is a meaningless word in Khmer. There is only word in Cambodian that can describe a democratic mass movement: bodivat (បដិវត្ដន៍), or “revolution.”

Unfortunately for Cambodian democrats, this word is inescapably tied up with the Khmer Rouge and the communist revolution of 1976. It is a poor rallying cry for anyone protesting in 2014. Simply describing the project is one of the greatest hurdles any potential regime-toppling agitators will face. In Ou’s words, “Cambodians do not have the luxury to romanticize revolution.

T.G. notes:  1. Ou says there “is no such word for ‘spring’ in Khmer.” He is being quite literal. Cambodians traditionally divide the year into redouv kedaw (​រដូវ ក្ដៅ), the “hot season” and redouv pliam (រដូវ ភ្លៀង), the “rainy season. Some Khmer further distinguish between the first part of the rainy season, when the monsoon is at its full intensity, and the latter half when the rain has subsided but the temperature has yet to climb back to its hot season highs. This is called redouv rongia (រដូវ រងា), or “the cold season.”

Notice that there is nothing close to “spring” in there. [3] Lacking a seasonal equivalent for the word used in the international media, most Cambodian news reports on the Arab Spring simply called it “the Arab Revolution” or the “Revolution in Egypt/Tunisia/Syria.” [4]

2. Use of the word bodivat is further complicated by the old name of Hun Sen’s party: the Cambodia People’s Revolutionary Party (Kanakpak Pracheachon Bodivat Kâmpuchéa គណបក្សប្រជាជនបដិវត្តន៍កម្ពុជា). American political writers who have to resort to clunky phrases like ‘little r republican’ and ‘little d democrat’ understand the kind of cumbersome work-arounds Cambodians have to use when they talk about disrupting the sitting government. 

30:50 – The CNRP and other opposition parties exist because of donations from the Cambodian diaspora. They are financed mainly through remittances. The problem is that most of these donors emigrated three decades ago. Thus the ideas that most Cambodians living in Long Beach or Lyon have about their home country are thirty years out of date. For example, the hostility donors from the diaspora feel towards Vietnam reflects the relations between the two countries when they fled Cambodia in the ’80s. Things have changed since then. The educated and well-to-do who have spent their entire life in Cambodia are much less hostile towards the Vietnamese.

T.G. notes: I have been invited to one of these diaspora fundraising meetings before. Circumstances did not allow me to attend, but I was able to see some of the promotional material written for the meeting. Anti-Vietnamese rhetoric is an easy way to grab any Cambodian’s attention and most Cambodians’ sympathy, but these posters belong in their own category. They were laughably shrill even when measured by the low standard set by Cambodia’s standard nationalist polemics. 

A full discussion of Khmer and Kinh ethnic relations, and the way the tensions between the two groups shape both Cambodia’s domestic politics and the broader region’s geopolitics, deserves its own post. I cannot adequately summarize it here and will not try. I will only note that the hope many observers have that a CNRP government would end Cambodia’s role as China’s favorite spoiler in the ASEAN boiling pot is misguided. An ‘enemy of your enemy is your friend,’ the saying goes, and Cambodian nationalists have made it clear who their enemy is.


[1] Virak Ou, “Will Cambodia See a ‘Spring’?“, presentation given to Stanford Center on Democracy, Development, and The Rule of Law, Youtube video, 1:20:1, 7 February 2014.

[2] These images were all created by the CIA World Factbook

[3] There are other terms that might count as ‘spring’ as we think of it in the west. The 1977 Headley Khmer-English dictionary suggests that nidiay redouv (និទាឃរដូវ) means “spring” but other dictionaries simply list it as another word for ‘rainy season’ and the two Cambodians I asked about it had never heard of the word. Redouv bromoulpol (រដូវប្រមូលផល), which I would translate as “gathering” or “harvest” season, also seems to fits nicely with the time frame we usually have in mind when we say ‘spring’, though (as its literal meaning suggests) the imagery the word evokes is the the opposite of what we associate with the English word.   

[4] For example, a Voice of America News follow up report on the human rights situation in post-spring Arab nations published earlier this year starts with the headline, “បដិវត្ដន៍​នៅ​ក្នុង​ប្រទេស​អារ៉ាប់….”

Ou Thuak (អ៊ូ ធួក), “Revolution in Arab Countries has Mixed Human Rights Results (បដិវត្ដន៍​នៅ​ក្នុង​ប្រទេស​អារ៉ាប់​ទទួល​លទ្ធផល​ល្អ​និង​អាក្រក់​លាយឡំ​គ្នា​ ខាង​វិស័យ​សិទ្ធិមនុស្ស​)”Voice of America: Khmer (5 June 2014).

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