Authoritarian rule shedding its populist skin: How loss of independent media in the 2017 crackdown shapes rural politics in Cambodia

15 March 2018

What is the effect of the crackdown on media and opposition politics in Cambodia?

Cambodia burst onto global news headlines when its Supreme Court, stacked with ruling party affiliated judges, dissolved the main opposition party in November 2017. Behind this political spectacle lay a series of smaller changes — legal reforms, closures of independent media outlets, criminalisation of activists, creation of state-controlled social media platforms, as well as broader geopolitical shifts legitimating authoritarian rule — that paved the way for the crackdown.

We argue that the Cambodian ruling party’ s crackdown in 2017 signals a move away from an explicitly populist authoritarianism centred around Hun Sen -- the world’s longest ruling Prime Minister -- towards a deepening of authoritarianism that sheds much of its populist rhetoric. The ruling party’s brand of authoritarian populism previously focused on rural areas, making the rural a key part of the national imaginary, while at the same time subjecting rural areas to violence and state intimidation.

Now, Cambodia’s ruling elite are turning their attention to urban areas and closing the spaces people have carved out for rural emancipatory struggle, targeting in particular independent media outlets. We interviewed fifteen Cambodian journalists who lost their jobs in the crackdown. Their accounts make clear the pervasive theme of loss in the wake of the crackdown: loss of accountability; loss of rural people’s voice; and loss of hope for rural social movements. These Cambodian voices illustrate another dimension of loss: the loss of contentious journalism practiced by justice-oriented citizens who communicate to the population analytically rich accounts of the forces reshaping their country.

Regionally, authoritarian politics have co-opted what were once heralded progressive online spaces, particularly social media, disciplining online users and retooling the platform to promote the leader and the party. Left behind is the rural: farmers who cannot listen to independent news while harvesting rice; organizers who cannot reach out to journalists to cover their plight; and a media landscape that is being remade around online platforms just as rural activists delete their social media to avoid imprisonment.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"