More than seventy-thousand Cambodians turned out to watch exiled politician, Sam Rainsy, return home. They were said to line the streets from the airport to the river side.
It was ten days before the national election in 2013. Sam Rainsy was the leader of the unified opposition party. He had just received a royal pardon from politically motivated charges that had kept him out of the country and away from campaigning for four years. But over the ensuing week tens of thousands flocked to see him as he made a circuit of the major cities. There was a palpable buzz in the air.
The election was held, and in the following days the government went silent as the opposition party claimed victory. After a ten day delay, the official results finally (some would say inevitably) gave the ruling party a majority of the vote.
The Economist called it "the humbling of Hun Sen" and added "Cambodia's strongman gets a shock at the polls." It was the worst showing for the ruling party in its history - but it was not over yet.
The opposition declared they would march every week until election irregularities were properly investigated. Huge numbers of Cambodians joined marches through the streets of Phnom Penh and camped out in "Freedom Park" (the designated area for peaceful protest). The government brought soldiers into the capital to provide "security." Razor wire barricades blocked the streets to prevent people from easily joining the demonstrations and marches, and checkpoints on the roads surrounding Phnom Penh turned busloads of people away.
The largest march, in December 2013, drew hundreds of thousands of people (the highest estimates say close to 500,000 joined).
More than half of the registered voters in Cambodia are under 30 years old, and a third are under 24 years old. This young Cambodian majority does not rely as much as the older generation on television news, which they know is controlled by the ruling party, but more and more read news online and connect on Facebook.
The official news media ignored or downplayed the marches and demonstrations. There were also veiled threats and increasing numbers of soldiers in the streets. Parents told their children not to get involved. But many young Cambodians saw a ray of hope and reached for it.
As one Cambodian blogger wrote:
This is the generation we want to reach as Alongsiders. They are the future of broken nations like Cambodia, even if their time is delayed. We're not content to reach hundreds, we want to reach thousands of them in a way that prepares them to serve and lead for change.
In all the countries where Alongsiders is expanding, including India and Indonesia, and in other countries where Alongsiders is breaking ground, young people are the majority. In Indonesia, half the population is under the age of 28, and in India half the population is under the age of 25!
Alongsiders as a movement is raising up young people to be Godly leaders who know that following Jesus means putting love in action over time, starting with loving and serving their own young neighbors who are marginalized.
They are getting to know by experience the Grace that can transform the world without being overcome by the world's values.
And here's a reality check.
Those were heady days two years ago. I remember the feeling of being stopped in traffic at an intersection as an interminable line of people passed by waving flags and cheering. Bystanders stood by their cars and motorcycles taking pictures and calling out support. I walked into the street and stood a few feet away as Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha rolled by on a customized tuk-tuk with a platform installed so they could wave to the crowds.
I remember talking with young Cambodians at that time who had never expressed interest in politics before, who had actively joined the movement in one way or another.
But those days are a memory now.
- The demonstrations stopped when the government cleared "Freedom Park" and surrounded it with razor wire barricades, then began to unleash violence on protesters.
- Sam Rainsy and the opposition party were quieted when eleven prominent party leaders and activists were arrested on trumped up charges of insurrection. Their case has since been held in limbo, improving or looking grim depending on how well the CNRP cooperates with the ruling CPP.
- The unity of the opposition has begun to crack under the strains of time and forced compromises. Sam Rainsy himself was accused, fairly or not, of corruption by a party insider.
Change isn't easy, even with overwhelming popular support. The "Arab Spring" is proof enough of that.
The young generation, like the generation before it, has never been empowered. They have received, at best, a poor education, and they have suffered a sore lack of quality leaders.
What if they had won and toppled the government? Some say it would have been a disaster.
The youth are the future of Cambodia, but will they be ready for it?
Many Alongsiders joined the demonstrations. They are hungry for change, too. They see that change is slow, and full of set-backs. But their faith is in God, not a political party, politicians or even a system of government. It is founded on their hope in the Reign of God with real peace and justice.
Do you want to help change the world? It may sound trite, but we must begin with ourselves - BE the change you want to see. Live it out in your own sphere of influence, starting with the most vulnerable. Faith in God is faith that is lived out in love. It endures, suffers, and celebrates. And it bears fruit in life.