Why you should care

Because a strongman’s rule rests on keeping enough of his foes out.

A prominent government critic murdered under mysterious circumstances. An opposition leader exiled. Protesters arrested. Vanna Hay is closely watching Cambodia’s political tinderbox, rallying supporters as one among a new generation of leaders who will help Cambodia shed strongman Hun Sen. All from 2,700 miles away.

Bespectacled and boyish, the 30-year-old lives in Tokyo, where he works for a renewable energy company. Inspired by a November 2015 meeting with Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy in Japan, Hay started to pay more attention to events back home, sharing his opinions on Facebook to his 93,000 Facebook followers. He’s joined a global drumbeat against Sen’s regime’s human rights abuses and subversion of the democratic process. From Cambodian millennials to the prime minister who broadcasts everything from his village visits to a reality singing show finale on Facebook Live, social media has shaped how Cambodian politics are now contested, and Hay is a member of a Southeast Asian internet generation engaging with new vigor. Like longtime government foe Rainsy, who has been banned from returning to the country, Hay sits far from the protesters who turn out each Monday wearing black shirts to denounce the government. It’s a safer route, and one that complicates Hay’s political future as a potential challenger in 2018 to the regime that so many young Cambodians are hoping to topple.

Last year, Kung Hun Thearith asked Hay to return and join the Cambodia National Rescue Party as Thearith’s deputy leader in rural Mondulkiri Province “because I think he is capable.” But Hay’s plan remains nebulous. He tells us he wants to move back to Cambodia closer to the 2018 election to run for a seat in parliament on the CNRP ticket, running on a platform of better education and greater renewable energy investment. But Thearith says in order for Hay to run in 2018, he has to return now to register to vote in the 2017 local elections. Presented with this conundrum via email, Hay employs an amateur politician’s dodge: “When the real democracy is existing in Cambodia, I can jump into politics anytime.”

Meanwhile, the heat builds in Hay’s absence. Kem Ley, a prominent political analyst and regime critic, was gunned down outside a gas station in July. While the gunman claimed he shot Ley over an unpaid debt, many observers see a message to others who would critique the prime minister over corruption and repression. Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, also faces criminal charges. Hay’s parents, who live in Phnom Penh, don’t want him to return. In August, police officers approached Hay’s family members asking for identification and grilled them about Vanna’s overseas activity. “Since then, everything is silent,” says Vannith Hay, Vanna’s younger brother. “But we all live in fear.”

The rise of the Facebook generation cost the Cambodian People’s Party seats in an unexpectedly close contest in 2013, as young voters discovered news sources beyond government control. Hun Sen still won another five-year term — and became a social media convert in an effort to remake his image. But two years ahead of a re-election bid, he’s resumed a crackdown on dissent. Not everyone’s against him, of course; he retains widespread support among villagers, with whom he has a common touch and who point to the fact that he’s presided over three decades of peace and rising incomes since the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Though Hay critiques the national issues of freedom of expression, he’s also full of wonky eagerness over local politics, excited to lure new industry by expanding the electrical grid. He’s well qualified on the latter; his company converts palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia into fuel, and Hay sees an untapped resource market in Cambodia. But in the past, Hay’s area has been difficult terrain for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in part because residents are less connected to nongovernment-controlled media.

And after living abroad for eight years, Hay may face resistance in returning to tackle the politics of villagers whose lives seem distant from his own. “For a long time, there was this insider/outsider mentality,” says Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy. “The term is ‘anikachhun,’ a particularly strong and sometimes derogatory term for Khmer foreigner.” Plus, he’s a social media maven attempting to connect in a place where good internet is sparse. (He says he’ll bring a solar panel to charge his devices if he has to.)

If he does hit the campaign trail, Hay may be able to tell a more heartland story. Raised in a farming village 40 minutes from Phnom Penh in a thoroughly apolitical household helmed by a chef and a housewife, he “was just a frog in the pond,” he says, rarely leaving the sheltered environment. When he hopped to university in the capital, Hay met Americans and learned English and the internet. A scholarship took him to Tokyo for graduate school, where he launched his career. Today, his English is mostly smooth, and he has more of the affect of an engineer than the earthy rural politician he aspires to be.

It’s been two years since Hay set foot on Cambodian soil. He misses the natural beauty and fresh food of home, he says, and he speaks with an early politician’s big promises of change: “I need to be in the arena and working directly with people.” But for now, there are no megaphones, campaign banners or throngs of supporters wearing matching baseball caps. iPhone politicking will have to suffice.

OZYRising Stars

People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but you'll soon need to know 'em.