Photo: Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo: Bloomberg; Illustration by Bloomberg View

“Dho ri min dho?” The cry rings out every night in Phnom Penh, chanted by thousands of teens as they roar past on cheap motorbikes. The riders are merry; they wave flags, bang drums, call out to passers-by. The oldest among them look like they’re in their 20s. They have one question about this weekends’ elections, the fourth round of polls since the United Nations restored civil rule to Cambodia in 1993: Change or no change?

For many Cambodians, the answer isn’t obvious. Survivors of the demented, bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge crave an end to war and political strife. They’ve already suffered enough under leaders who promised to transform Cambodian society. In recent years the international community, too, has focused on bringing resolution to victims by prosecuting former Khmer Rouge leaders.

This is strongman Hun Sen’s pitch to voters -- that, in the words of one recent hagiography, he has delivered “total peace.” The economy is projected to grow almost 7 percent this year. Phnom Penh’s once-sleepy riverfront is lined with tapas bars and coffee shops. Shiny Range Rovers and the occasional Prius fight for road space with tuk-tuks and mopeds. According to a recent poll, almost 80 percent of Cambodians think the country is headed in the right direction. Changing leaders now, Hun Sen argues, would plunge the nation back into chaos and misery.

Cambodians’ desire for stability is understandable, but “no change” has become more dangerous than change. Cambodia’s growth is hardly assured. Myanmar, with its much bigger, English-speaking population, has emerged as a potent rival for foreign investment. Much of Cambodia’s natural resources have been sold or exploited by cronies linked to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. Weak demand in the West is suppressing exports.

One economist in Phnom Penh likens Cambodia to a runner sprinting across a bamboo bridge, with planks falling away as he steps on them. To keep up its recent momentum, the country must undertake serious, systemic, institutional changes. The government needs to invest hugely in educating and training its citizens. (Almost 70 percent of Cambodians have no secondary education.) A farcical court system, in which decisions go to the highest bidder, destroys investor confidence. Health outcomes remain shameful: Four out of 10 Cambodian children are stunted.

These failures can be laid at Hun Sen’s door. Asia’s longest-serving leader (not counting the sultan of Brunei), he has either held or shared power since Vietnamese troops drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh in 1979. In the last five years, he has made Cambodia a one-party state. The CPP controls the news media, both print and broadcast, as well as all the levers of power -- the military and police, Parliament, the judiciary, the bureaucracy in the capital as well as in the villages where three-quarters of Cambodians live. Government cronies dominate an economy rife with corruption.

Hun Sen has acquired all the trappings of a megalomaniac. He’s created a cult of personality, identifying himself with a legendary commoner-turned-king. And he’s grooming his three sons to succeed him.

Cambodia’s leader wants more than a victory: He craves international legitimacy. CPP campaign ads show him chuckling next to Hillary Clinton and shaking hands with a pained-looking Barack Obama during a regional summit. After making himself out to be a god-king, Hun Sen can’t afford to be seen as just another tin-pot dictator.

That’s exactly how the world should treat him if this weekend’s vote is rigged. The pressure can’t end there either. However many seats the opposition wins, they must be included as full members in the legislative process, allowed to question the prime minister regularly and guaranteed positions on all parliamentary commissions. Ministries must make their decisions more transparent, opening up bidding processes to public scrutiny.

Perhaps most important, space must be preserved for Cambodians to face their challenges. The youth of Phnom Penh have organized themselves largely using Facebook, which they access on cheap smartphones. Keeping this digital arena open will do much to nurture a viable, organically grown opposition.

“Dho” -- “change” -- will come. More than 40 percent of Cambodians were born after the 1993 elections. They have no memory of civil war: The Khmer Rouge leaders on trial are just old men to them. They have moved beyond Cambodia’s awful past. It’s time for the country and its leaders to move with them.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.