Youth Mobilization, Power Reproduction and Cambodia's Authoritarian Turn.

AuthorNoren-Nilsson, Astrid

National elections in 2018 institutionalized Cambodia's unusual transition from competitive authoritarianism, in which the electoral arena "is a genuine battleground in the struggle for power", to hegemonic authoritarianism, where the electoral arena "is little more than a theatrical setting for the self-representation and self-reproduction of power" for the incumbent Cambodian People's Party (CPP). (1) The emergence of youth as a key category in political life has not only accompanied this shift but also helped provoke and, in important ways, define it.

This development reflects the increasing youthfulness of the population--33 per cent of the Cambodian population is estimated to be between 16 and 30 years of age (2)--and the entering into political life of a generation of post-war baby boomers. These made up the majority of the electorate in the 2013 elections, delivering Prime Minister Hun Sen and his long-ruling CPP a major electoral challenge. (3) The disconnect between Cambodia's young generation and the CPP at the time included this generation having lived through an era of sustained economic growth, peace and stability, experiencing regular competitive elections in a multi-party system while lacking memories of the Khmer Rouge regime, the defeat of which is foundational to the CPP's legitimacy. At the same time, most of them were marginalized from key political processes and economic opportunities, while facing a lack of mobility and a disconnect from personalized networks of dependency. (4)

The 2013 elections confirmed an incipient realization by the ruling elite that managing the country's youth is key to regime survival. This article explores a central pillar of its response: the mobilization of Cambodia's youth through state-sponsored initiatives. These initiatives are tied to three key organizations: the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), the Cambodia Scouts (CS) and the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC), which together have hundreds of thousands of members. While all three organizations date back decades, the innovation resides in the expanded scale and reach of their activities targeting young people and, at the same time, serving as novel forms of interlinkages with the CPP and state structures.

This article analyses the rise of the political category of "youth" in the context of Cambodia's shift to hegemonic authoritarianism. Beyond the policy reforms initiated after the 2013 elections to address youth concerns, (5) it is argued that the ruling elite has engineered avenues for youth participation which serve to recalibrate power relations between the young generation, powerful elite networks, the party and the state. The ruling elite has also mobilized a definition of youth that privileges civil servants, utilizing youth participation to extend the ruling elite's control over the young generation through state structures rather than functioning as an avenue for genuine youth input. State-sponsored youth organizations also enable elite regeneration, serving as a platform for scions of the ruling families to build their reputation and careers. Youth participation may offer some, albeit limited, possibilities for the injection of new blood into the elite, primarily by providing opportunities for those who control access to young people. The ability to mobilize youth participation has thus become an asset which brokers use to gain power within the state.

Youth Participation without Democracy in Cambodia

Youth mobilization through state or party-led associations is emblematic of modern authoritarian states. In socialist, communist, post-communist, as well as fascist states around the world, youth associations have functioned not only as "an integrated part of the formal political matrix" but also "a prerequisite for political reproduction". (6) Common to youth organization in these different polities are "ideals of conformity, militant-style mobilization and the institutionalization of structured social activities, all with the intention of homogenizing, disciplining and controlling youth in accordance with dominant ideology". (7) Youth associations help disseminate a hegemonic discourse on youth as the leading force in state-led modernization, precluding much-feared subversive counter-discourses of youth which are associated with opposition and resistance. (8)

Youth associations in Cambodia have, since their emergence, served as tools for state control. Anne Raffin shows that successive regimes, from the late colonial era (1941) to Democratic Kampuchea (DK, 1975-79), "relied on young people to consolidate power and protect the nation from external and internal threats". (9) Raffin's study examines the Yuvan Kampuchearath (Youth of Cambodia) under the French protectorate, the Royal Khmer Socialist Youth (RKSY) under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People's Socialist Community), the Salvation Youth during the Khmer Republic and the Kampuchean Communist Youth League during DK. The state's instrumental use of this successive string of youth organizations, mobilizing young people for political projects to counter international and domestic threats, formed a continuity over the various regimes. Raffin's argument applies beyond 1979. Mass organizations were a key feature during the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK, 1979-89), and were under the responsibility of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK) that had founded the regime. (10) The Communist Youth Alliance of Kampuchea was formed in 1979, with branches set up throughout the country. (11) For the first few years at least, although the Communist Youth Alliance was "only minimally effective in mobilizing popular support and raising the consciousness of the masses", it was regarded as the "right hand of the party". (12) In the era of nominal liberal democracy since 1993, the incumbent CPP, which emerged out of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) that led the PRK, has continued to rely on previously established youth organizations, as detailed below.

Yet, analysing the sustained reliance on youth organizations squarely as an unvarying attribute of authoritarianism is a blunt tool for capturing unfolding dynamics in contemporary Cambodia. This glosses over variation in youth mobilization over time within a single regime, as well as across different less-than-democratic regimes. This is made visible by Cambodia's "transition" within the authoritarian regime-type category. Moreover, an exclusive focus on a main state-sponsored organization or party youth organ is belied today by the existence of organizations and networks of various forms, which sometimes seek to position themselves at an elusive distance from the state.

A finer tool for making sense of the role of youth organizations in Cambodia today is the application of key insights from the modes of participation (MOP) approach, initially proposed by Kanishka Jayasuriya and Garry Rodan (13) and further developed by Rodan. (14) Jayasuriya and Rodan argue that contemporary Southeast Asian states engage citizens in particular modes of participation, thereby defining which conflicts over the organization of social and economic power are permissible and which are not in the political process. Sophisticated regimes seek to structure the form that politics can take by increasing political participation while narrowing the channels for political contestation. They do so by establishing modes of participation: institutional structures and ideologies of representation which shape the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and groups in the political process. (15) These new patterns of political participation cross the state and civil society divide: they are sometimes located outside formal political arenas, and sometimes within formal institutions. The ruling elite seek to absorb political energies by steering participation into state-sponsored sites, which, unlike sites of participation that are autonomous from the state, do not provide opportunities for political contestation. Increased participation, Jayasuriya and Rodan find, has often constrained contestation.

Seen from this perspective, the changing patterns of youth mobilization in Cambodia are at the heart of the management of political dissent, in connection with the CPP's shift to hegemonic authoritarianism. Jayasuriya and Rodan suggest that a political regime should be analysed not only in terms of its formal political institutions, but also from the vantage point of the broader power relationships and, in particular, the management of conflict over the organization of social and economic power through new patterns of political participation. This transcends regime type--between authoritarian and post-authoritarian regimes in the region, (16) or even democratic and authoritarian regimes in the world. (17) Rodan specifies that this perspective poses "more fundamental and open questions than those preoccupying hybrid regime theorists, namely: What forms of political participation and associated representation are emerging, why, and what does this mean for regime directions?" (18) This provides an important perspective to complement the transition from competitive to hegemonic authoritarianism paradigm, which centres on the ability to viably contest for executive power. To understand the manifold changes and developments that have accompanied and intersected with this shift in Cambodia, we should identify novel authoritarian practices designed to shrink spaces for meaningful public political participation. (19) The MOP lens thus offers a competing appreciation of how the loci of power are changing in Cambodia, shedding light on how new sites of participation are established and consolidated to constrain contestation from below and within.

The following analysis, while not an application of the MOP framework, does take its starting point in this framework's essence: "to subject institutions of...

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