News of growing protests against Hun Sen’s government comes nearly a week after Cambodia surprised the region by “upgrading” its relationship with Japan and supporting the protection of freedom of aviation. The announcement resulting from the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Tokyo has been considered a rebuke of China’s unilaterally announced air defense identification zone.
That was a clear dig at China, which has stirred new fears about its territorial aspirations by announcing an air-defense identification zone across a vast stretch of the East China Sea.
It also reveals some shrewd politicking by Hun Sen. He realizes that putting all his eggs in one basket (China) exposes the country to risks. Watching his support come under pressure after the contested elections in July, Hun Sen has also asked Japan for help in needed electoral reform.
Japan will send experts on electoral reform to Cambodia “soon” according to the AKP. Ironic too, as Abe’s government must push for electoral reform in Japan.
But the nature of the protests in Cambodia suggest this is the kind of broad shift occurring in the region where a wealthier, younger population with more access to international media through social network sites, have grown tired of the rusted-on government of Hun Sen. In Cambodia’s case, the younger voters have no memory of the holocaust there, and so don’t live with the same fear.
While Sam Rainsy has been able to get ahead of the opposition movement, it remains – with the exception of the unifying desire for reform – pretty diverse with pretty diverse interests. It’s still not clear which way this thing is headed. But Rainsy’s decision to build bridges with Japan – including potentially direct flights between the countries – shows his wily ability to read a situation. He should be smart enough to know that sometimes having more power means having the strength not to be a hardliner.
Anyway, watch this space. Cambodia is considered a bit of a bellwether for China’s influence in the region.