This lack of interest in public opinion is not a huge surprise, given Cambodia’s shaky democracy. Since its independence from France in 1953, the country has been characterized by long periods of political turbulence. Cambodia’s darkest moment was the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for killing around 1.7 million people and almost destroying the country.
Throughout the 1980s, Cambodia was entangled in another protracted civil war between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the precursor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the resistance movements. The signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on October 23, 1991 brought an end to the conflict, but a cloud of uncertainty still hung over the country. Still, Cambodia was at least moving a step closer to democracy.
The most significant democratic outcome of the peace deal was probably the arranging of elections in 1993 under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which subsequently led to a rapid expansion of traditional media outlets such as radio stations, foreign language newspapers, and opposition newspapers, among others. These changes provided politicians with a means to better understand the concerns and needs of millions of Cambodians.
Although politicians were seeking to obtain as much information as possible from public opinion surveys, their main purpose was simply to refine existing policies. The general assumption in the Cambodian government is that people are not as rational as they believe they are, and so may act in a way that is not in their own best interests. Thus, it is the responsibility of leaders to make tough decisions on behalf of their supporters. This view shaped political parties’ perception towards public opinion in many important ways.
It has not, however, prevented public opinion from taking center stage in Cambodian politics. Since 1993, civil society organizations (CSOs) have proliferated, working on a wide range of issues. They are often seen as representing the voice of the poor and vulnerable and help put a spotlight on public discontent. It is not uncommon for CSOs to be engaged in fierce arguments with the government. The fact that CSOs often get financial support from Western countries makes the ruling elite all the more dubious of them.
Since the early 2000s, donors and international organizations such as the Asia Foundation and the International Republican Institute have conducted several large surveys in Cambodia. These surveys have touched on some of the most critical issues facing the country today, including corruption, the judicial system, and human rights. In response, the Hun Sen government tends to dispute the findings, and accuses the organizations of misleading the public and siding with the opposition.
Perhaps, the single most important factor that has helped turn public opinion into one of the most potent forces in Cambodia’s politics is the growing use of information technology in recent years. According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the number of mobile subscribers reached 20 million in 2013, while the number of Internet users stood at 3.8 million. Meanwhile, Social Media Plus shows that there were almost 740,000 Cambodian Facebook accounts in 2012.
With the arrival of this new medium, a new platform has emerged, where people can share information with little or no government censorship. More