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Democracy stumbles in Cambodia

Chan Sophal / Khmer Times Share:

Chan Sophal argues that the current form of democracy in the country is a recipe for continued division and a huge barrier to national unity.

The history of Cambodia from 1970 to 1998 has its roots in violence and deep division, complicated by foreign involvement. I think what Cambodia needed, after coming out of that tumultuous period, was a few decades of healing, reconciliation and national reconstruction. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

Instead, what was imposed on this country, weakened at the core by all aspects, was a political regime that encouraged the four gun-toting factions to continue fighting, ironically through so-called democratic means. Naturally, the four main parties basically represented the four fighting factions in the 1980s, which obviously had different development policies for people to choose in general elections. Their differences ran deep down to being brutal killers (Khmer Rouge faction), Vietnam-backed government (CPP), royalists (FUNCINPEC) and seemingly pro-US groups (BLDP).

The continued fighting between them made it seem ridiculous that they would take turns running the country, as would be expected in Western democracies. There has been no trust between them, with each treating one another like bitter enemies and if given the opportunity would slit each other’s throats.

Repeated efforts have been made for different parties to work together but to no avail. It’s doubtful if they have found any common ground given their deep mistrust, complicated by foreign political ideologies, among others.

It seems that there is a huge gap between on-the-ground realities and the grandiose ideas brought from developed countries by certain groups. Two extremes prevail.

For one group, it seems so easy to rampantly develop a nation that is still recovering from a traumatic past. On the other extreme, there seems to be no limit for some to amass fortunes from the vast opportunities created by the country’s openness and the weak rule of law.

There are at least two major constraints operating in Cambodia in this kind of partisan environment. After the brutal killing fields period, Cambodia was left with a serious shortage of skilled capacity with its education system in tatters. In filling the vacant positions, it was only natural that those who belonged to certain parties were chosen – disregarding those who chose not to have any political affiliations. This put further constraints to the already limited space for capacity in the country, impeding the building of institutions.

Down at the grassroots level, trust is critically important for the building and strengthening of communities and cooperatives, which is a critical factor for many smallholder farmers to improve their competitiveness region wise. Belonging to different political parties with such enormous adversity does not help communities or cooperative members to trust each other in building successful community-based organisations.

At times I believe that democratic competition among individuals under the national umbrella of one party would work better for a Cambodia devastated by prolonged civil war and internal strife. It would be better to give a fair chance to capable individuals in the country to serve in the public sector in the way they want and it would be more conducive to building national unity, without one group being blacklisted by another one.

Democracy in Cambodia, in its current form, seems to be a recipe for continued division and a huge barrier to national unity, especially when the two main political forces seem to be aligned with competing world powers.

What’s needed is some kind of transitional democracy – the type that Thailand is searching for despite its practice of holding general elections for nearly a century.

It now seems too difficult to reconcile between those who demand ideals and those who seek to be pragmatic, manoeuvering between the many stumbling blocks. The short-lived culture of dialogue that brought some hope previously seems to be dead for some reason. How can a fragmented small nation withstand the mega waves created by world giants? Also, who can promote national reconciliation and unity in such a politicised environment? Or is there no need to do so, since one side can take all?

Well, only free and fair elections in July will tell.

Chan Sophal is director for the Centre for Policy Studies.

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