Cambodia’s democracy in an international context

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Cambodia’s democracy is still in a nascent stage. KT/Chor Sokunthea

From the perspective of historical background and state capacity, we can say that Cambodia is still in elementary school when it comes to democracy, but we are sure that we are among the high-scorers.

To explain the above view, I would like to discuss three points: 1) An international comparison of the democracy process; 2) The Cambodian way of democratisation; and 3) The failure of the opposition in peaceful democratisation.

1. International comparison

We all know the best standard of democracy should be. But comparing without a proper framework and context can be misleading and stir uneasiness and frustration.

My way of comparison has two implications.

With Ukraine and Syria, it is about the danger of foreign intervention that leads to domestic bloodshed, the so-called “Colour Revolution” and the “Arab Spring” that some describe as great successes for democracy at the sacrifice of millions of people.

With Thailand and the Philippines, it is about the capacity of state. Most countries in Asia are former colonies that lack state capacity to govern and provide sufficient public service that a modern state requires. Public discontent easily arises and then they lack the capacity to manage anger, and then violence occurs. This is the sort of vicious cycle that developing states around the world have to face.

With such dilemmas in the conduct of state governance, and without proper management, post-conflict nations can easily derail and fall back to violence.

If you compare Cambodia to the US, it is like you are blaming an elementary student for not being able to write a doctoral thesis. We can compare this: When was the first election organised? When was the constitution adopted? When was independence proclaimed? What was the situation of the state’s apparatus after independence?

Now, applying these contexts to Thailand and the Philippines. Despite those countries never having a war, and their level of economic development, democracy for them can still be a lengthy process. And if states don’t have the capacity to manage, it can be brutal.

We recall some countries telling Cambodia to learn from Myanmar’s model of democracy. But now Myanmar’s situation is not very good and those people don’t want to admit that Cambodia’s way of peaceful democratisation worked and they only dare to put pressure on Cambodia while being reluctant to put pressure against the democratic model they created, even if they know it is a total failure.

2. Cambodian way of democratisation

I notice that foreign countries always try to take credit for their country even when they have so little, which is in contrast with Cambodia, which tries to discredit itself all along. And the result is, those who try to take credit, they win. They win an award, they win respect, and they win international fame.

The same goes for the Cambodian way of nation building, which does not receive the international recognition it deserves.

The Cambodian way of nation building involves three elements that have to go all in tandem: peace, development and democracy promotion.

In Myanmar’s case, we can clearly say that democracy is not the only element in state governance. Focusing only on democracy makes us lose sight of the totality of the state building process. And we have to be always reminded that states like Myanmar and Cambodia have never yet had a strong state apparatus that really delivers the public services the like of modern states.

On the element of peace, Cambodia has a very unique lesson to give. Cambodian peacebuilding is different from Sri Lanka or Yugoslavia, not through ethnic cleansing or total war to eliminate the Tamil Tigers. It is based on a win-win strategy that integrated the Khmer Rouge into society, for we understand that eliminating one faction is equal to killing the same Khmer people and military means cannot create lasting peace with social harmony.

That win-win strategy has provided a strong basis for national reconciliation and for peace to take root.

On the element of democracy, we have to ask how well are we prepared for this? Is our society really mature enough to embrace the high standard of democracy as demanded by the so-called international community? How many of us can distinguish between freedom and duties and responsibilities?

Despite the level of educational attainment, how many of us can really practice “agree to disagree”? As divisive as it is and so prone to violence, how much of our society can really tolerate differences, especially at the grass root level?

On the element of development, we have to improve education, build capacity for states to deliver better healthcare, better infrastructure, find jobs for people, create economic opportunities, etc, all to achieve people’s wellbeing. But how much capacity do we have to deliver? We are in a situation where the “means to protest” exceeds the “means to deliver”.

Foreign assistance mainly focuses on how to strengthen the “means to protest”, but they ignore the “means to deliver”. A case in point – they don’t help us build electricity but they ban us from building hydropower plants when people are protesting for not having electricity or having one that is expensive. So what is the choice left for the state?

How many young professionals are willing to get involved with the government without complaining about wages and nepotism and mumbling that the state doesn’t appreciate their talent? Now the government has open recruitment that does not limit the age of doctorate degree holders, how many people are interested in joining in the “means of deliver”. Their intelligence and energy is being invested in “means of protest” instead of “means to deliver”.

3. Failure of the opposition to promote democracy

It is still unclear whether the opposition in Cambodia wants to promote democracy through parliamentary debates, elections or demonstrations. For what we have seen, they haven’t provided a good role model of democracy, a healthy debate on policy input that ensures development based on social harmony and peace.

We have only seen them teach people to divide, protest and incite based on racial discrimination and civil disobedience against the state apparatus. In Germany, they would have been fined $50 million for incitement and the party would be dissolved.

But they operate with strong foreign support in Cambodia.

For a country like Cambodia, how many weak points can we find? Finding weaknesses is so easy that people lose their focus on solutions and they create political support based on anger, incitement and social discontent.

How many times do we see the opposition sit in the parliament to address social discontent instead of going to the streets and borders? How many policies have they proposed so far? Can they conduct a policy debate like in Japan and the United States based on policy feasibility from think tanks and ministries? Can they do that?

I don’t think they would lose their parliamentary immunity if they conducted debates and fight in the parliament rather than using Facebook to publicise fake maps or prepare plans to take power with foreign funds and foreign agents’ instructions. Such grave violations are subject to severe punishment by the law in every country’s criminal codes.

From what I perceive, Cambodia will need another generation that can really practice “agree to disagree”. But the current generation shall provide a good role model of policy debates and tolerant attitudes towards the practice of “agree to disagree”. With peace and development, the current level of democracy will be further developed step by step. We have to ensure that our democratisation is peaceful for it to take root without derailment.

From the perspective of historical background and state capacity, we can say that Cambodia is still in the elementary school of democracy, but we are sure we are among the high-scorers.

Soun Nimeth is an independent analyst based in Phnom Penh. The opinions expressed above are the writer’s and Khmer Times welcomes all sides to contribute to our op-ed page.

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