The social transformation of Cambodia, 30 years after the Paris Peace Accords
30 years have passed since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. If it is a person, this person must become an adult who can be responsible for his own destiny with full working energy. It’s a long journey for Cambodia and the path has not been easy.
This article proposes to raise some observations on certain aspects of social transformations since the Paris peace agreements that local populations have witnessed in their daily lives.
First, safety and security. In the 1990s, many foreigners wrote about Cambodia’s “culture of violence” and attributed it to the Khmer Rouge tragedy and seemingly endless civil wars. Elderly Khmers like to use the word “Cham Srok San Tran”, meaning to wait for the nation to become peaceful and quiet. It seemed like an impossible dream for them as they experienced endless wars. Many of them had experienced up to five different political systems and ideologies in their lifetimes and much of the political transition still involved bloodshed. Cambodia is the real university of experiments in political ideology, in their harshest and most cruel forms.
In the 1990s, armed robberies and shootings were commonplace, killing lives on the streets in broad daylight. We used to see groups of bodyguards on Nighthawk motorbikes carrying AK47s all over Phnom Penh. Kidnappings for ransom have appeared in the news from time to time. Honda Dream 100 motorcycles were so popular back then among people and also among armed robbers. Weapons were easily accessible. People even shot at the sky when it was raining. Traveling late at night or too early in the morning meant risking lives. Traveling across provinces was difficult both in terms of logistics and security. There have even been train robberies. Mine explosions were also the usual headlines that people didn’t seem to care about anymore.
Today, it is a huge difference in terms of everyday life for people. Now people can go out to exercise at 5 a.m. in public parks or go drinking late at night without fear of gun violence as long as they follow the rules of the road. Safety to travel from provinces with better road access is something people take for granted, and past insecurity is long forgotten.
Secondly, the management and the climate of the elections are improving a little.
For the general perception of the Cambodian people, election means unrest. Election can also mean instability. During the election period, food prices rose as people tried to secure their stocks in the event of instability, chaos or violence. Economic activities, investment plan, real estate purchases, etc., everything was to be suspended until after the election.
After the election, there was still a long-running political stalemate, protests over voting irregularities, demonstrations and street violence. Some wealthy people often evacuated their family members abroad until the political situation calmed down.
Today, in recent elections, with the digitization of the voters list, accusations of voting irregularities have been significantly reduced. Nevertheless, the fear of chaos remains, although not as high as in the 1990s or early 2000s. This is how democracy is adapting in Cambodia. There is no simple answer or easy way to do it, but surely all of society needs gradual adaptation, and probably trial and error on the way to the peaceful consolidation of liberal democracy. multiparty as enshrined in the Constitution. Peace and stability is not something to play or bet with political games. The mentality of fear among the general Cambodian people about political chaos during the election period is still a social feature within Cambodian politics that is struggling to fade, at least in the near future.
Third, better pay and better jobs. In the 1990s, the salary of civil servants was extremely low, and it was always late for months or sometimes missed. There weren’t many types of jobs in the private sector you could dream of. The economy of the 1990s was an NGO economy and an aid industry.
Now teachers, the armed forces and civil servants are better paid. It’s not luxury but it’s paid for regularly now and you have to admit the significant change from the 1990s.
Today, the economy is moving towards a commercial economy, more diversified industries, high-end tourism, not just for backpackers, increased development of financial industry, real estate and construction. Jobs for younger generations are more diverse; more STEM-related jobs. There are more universities, more scholarships, and young people have more overseas exposure, triggering domestic ambition to catch up and compete with the region.
Fourth, the social media revolution. Facebook is an agent of change in Cambodian politics and society. People often say they’re more afraid of Facebook than the police. People can complain directly to the Prime Minister if they face injustices. It’s hard to hide any controversy when people have smart phones and the Internet. And almost all Cambodian adults with a regular salary have smart phones with internet. Also, the internet is cheap. Information becomes more and more abundant that it becomes extremely difficult to conceal social controversies or problems affecting the public interest. You can access any news source you want to hear, read or on Facebook, like, dislike or share.
Fifth, a gradual transition to social security and protection. It is a historic milestone that the government has started using the national budget for social security and protection in recent years. This is probably the future trajectory of Cambodia’s socio-economic development.
When you have jobs, people worry that if they get sick? What would be the future of their children after their retirement or their loss of working capacity? What if they have to sell their land or property to pay for health care? Could they survive on a pension or how would the private sector do without a pension? Is there affordable health insurance with reliable medical care? Is there a hospital in the country that people can count on?
Civil servants, workers in the private sector or in civil society organizations, they all share the same concern for the future, for their work, their lives and the safety of children. Making people feel more secure and inclusive for the future is the next social evolution that Cambodia is heading towards. Although Cambodia is still at the initial stage in terms of security and social protection, the dream and the actions are there. So there should be hope and optimism for Cambodia as it marches towards a safer, more secure and more inclusive future for all.
Is 30 years long enough for us all to look back to see what Cambodia has been through? What did Cambodia do wrong? And what did Cambodia do well? There are many ways to appreciate social change, but at least as it stands, it’s fair to say that Cambodia is moving in the right direction as it reflects on its dark, tragic past.
There is hope and there is a bright future for Cambodia as a nation.
- Keywords: Cambodia, Paris Peace Accords