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Are There Lessons for Cambodia from Philippines’ People Power Movement?

January 8, 2014

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

While the rest of the world launched fireworks to usher in the New Year, in Cambodia, an estimated 50,000 protesters marched in the streets of Phnom Penh on December 29, chanting “Hun Sen, get out.” The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which rejected the official results of the July 28 national election, has been leading demonstrations and marches since December 15, demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down or call for a new election. The CNRP alleged that the July 28 elections were riddled with irregularities and boycotted parliament, even though they won 55 seats compared to the 66 won by Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party.

Cambodia Protests

Protesters march in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Photo/Véronique Salze-Lozac’h

The protesters represented all segments of society, including youth, rural farmers, and, more recently, garment factory workers. It is telling but not unexpected that the majority of the protesters were young, as they make up 68 percent of Cambodia’s total population. These youth did not go through the Khmer Rouge regime, nor have they experienced the violence brought by more than two decades of civil war and the brutality that was hurled upon dissenters. As a result, many say that, unlike their elders, they weren’t afraid of joining the demonstrations.

However, on January 3, protests in the capital took an ugly turn as military and police officers opened fire during clashes with factory workers, killing five and injuring more than 20 people. The factory workers had joined the mass protests demanding a wage increase from the government’s recently announced $95 per month to $160 per month. This segment of Cambodia’s society is significant, as the garment industry is the country’s largest industry, accounting for 80 percent of exports with about 400 factories employing 600,000 workers.

These daily protests in Cambodia are reminiscent of the 1986 People Power movement in the Philippines when hundreds of thousands of protesters called for the removal of then dictator and president, Ferdinand Marcos. Defending the “legitimacy” of his regime and authority to rule, Marcos succumbed to criticisms (more because of hubris than anything else) and called for snap elections in February 1986. The rigged elections angered the people even more and motivated them to undertake mass demonstrations. With the international community joining in the calls for him to step down, Marcos eventually fled the country and retreated to Hawaii where he died in exile in September 1989.

In fact, there are some lessons that Cambodian citizens and leaders could take from the People Power movement in the Philippines. First, it takes more than the ouster of a dictator to rid the country of the culture of impunity and corruption that have been ingrained in society. As seen from the Philippines experience, it takes political will and the constant vigilance of citizens for true reforms to flourish. Decades after the ouster of President Marcos in 1986, the same issues of corruption and impunity have continued to hound most of the country’s presidents, who, because of their resolve to keep themselves (and their families and cronies) in power, committed the same mistakes and blatant abuse of authority of which Marcos was guilty. Two of these presidents, Arroyo and Estrada, have been convicted of graft and corruption charges, with Arroyo being under hospital arrest as of this writing, and Estrada being pardoned and given a new lease on life as elected mayor of Manila.

Second, because of its history of protracted civil war, Khmer Rouge-inflicted genocide, and extended occupation and influence from Vietnam, it will take decades for Cambodians to enjoy the fruits of democratic awakening. Similar to the Philippines experience, there should be constituencies that will not only demand reforms but also see through and participate in the reform processes. As we saw in the Philippines, violence and suppression of dissent will only delay the hard decisions that need to be made to keep the country on a track of prosperity and growth. This leads to a question that begs for an answer:  Will Hun Sen allow this transition? He and his family dynasty stand to lose and he will certainly not go without a fight.

Third, there was the need to de-politicize the military and armed forces in the Philippines for reforms to take place. During the heyday of the Marcos regime, an elite group of military personnel enjoyed the privileges and patronage that Marcos provided to his cronies, allowing them to benefit from government contracts and rent-seeking opportunities. But privileges came at a steep price, and blind obedience led to military abuses and human rights violations. Wither go Cambodia’s military and police?  Will they be loyal to the Hun Sen regime till the end?

Fourth, a charismatic leader should emerge and ride on the crest of people power movements. In the Philippines, this charismatic leader was former president Corazon Aquino, whose very reluctance to take on the reigns of power endeared her even more to the Filipinos who were tired of the abuse of strong-man rule. Does Cambodia have a charismatic and reform-minded leader who will embrace the hard and difficult road of transitioning to a reformist government?

The current Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, son of former president Corazon Aquino, was a reluctant leader as well, emerging as a presidential candidate only upon his mother’s death in 2009. However, he rose to the occasion and embraced the road to reforms and turned out to be a much better president than expected. True to his anti-corruption campaign, he has achieved what most presidents after Marcos have failed to achieve: the courage to follow through with the convictions of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a former president, and an Ombudsman. And yet, even Aquino has not been spared from protests under his tenure. It was only when protesters hit the streets in August 2013 against the misuse of taxpayers’ money and demanded the abolition of the corruption-riddled Philippine Development Assistance Fund (aka pork barrel funds of lawmakers) that he eventually announced that it was time to abolish it.

However, it remains to be seen if in the “last two minutes” of Aquino’s term (he often likens his regime to that of a basketball game, of which Filipinos are fanatics), he is able to advance his reform efforts, including the passage of the Freedom of Information Act and the Anti-Dynasty bill.

In Cambodia, it remains to be seen whether the mass demonstrations will continue well into the year. After last week’s violence, opposition leader and CNRP president, Sam Rainsy, called for the government and protesters to practice restraint. After the crackdown, CNRP called off the protest rally that was planned on Sunday, January 6. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the violence. Meanwhile, an umbrella group of local rights NGOs and independent election monitors has asked for a reelection in 2015.

And, what of Hun Sen?  As of this writing, he has no plans to step down or call for new elections, and affirms that he has done “nothing wrong.” The Ministry of Defense issued a statement on January 3 reiterating the Royal Cambodian Army’s commitment to protect Hun Sen and the results of the July elections. Citing security reasons, Phnom Penh’s governor, Pa Socheatvong, has banned the use of Freedom Park – the venue of the protests –as well as street marches for the coming weekends.

Days after the Friday shooting, the streets of Phnom Penh are clear of protesters, Freedom Park is empty of rioters, and citizens avoid congregating in public but continue to vent their anger and criticisms in Facebook pages. It is the calm before the storm, and the world still awaits the ultimate results of this political upheaval in 2014.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s director of programs in the Philippines, and currently serves as acting representative in Cambodia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. An interesting article. It is worthy of note, however, that the police are loyal to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, rather than Hun Sen. Currently there is little difference as Sar Kheng is (for the time being) himself a Hun Sen loyalist. Nevertheless, control of the administrative networks that govern the population could be crucial in the event of a regime change.

  2. I applaud your article about ways in which Cambodia could learn from the Philippine experience in moving toward a truly democratic form of government. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Four Faces of Truth, the culture of impunity, nepotism, and corruption has marked Cambodian governance from Sihanouk to Pol Pot and now to former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen. Your article presents some concrete measures taken by Philippine leaders to change such an ingrained mid-set and culture. I hope these lessons learned from the Philippine experience will be adopted by those leading the protests against Hun Sen today. Thank you again for raising these issues.

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