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Complexities of Democratic Development in the Mekong

Leap Chanthavy / Share:
Myanmar security forces have used increasing force to quell huge nationwide street protests against the coup. AFP

The recent Myanmar coup, offers hope and despair. Hope that the democratic inspiration in Myanmar still lives on, and for some, that inspiration should serve as a model even for Cambodia’s democratic uprising. Despair that the democratic icon is not a magical solution to all complexities of Myanmar’s domestic challenges.

Looking at Myanmar now, should Cambodia learn from Myanmar or the reverse? This is a tricky question. For some, Cambodia is the only last hope for enduring democratic development in the Mekong sub-region. Laos and Vietnam hopeless in this case.

Despite Cambodia’s democratic development, with the so-called “democratic back-sliding”, Cambodia can still be subject to the EU’s 20% withdrawal of Everything-But-Arm (EBA) trade preferences. Cambodian high-ranking officials are still subject to visa restriction from the United States.

But no one dare to talk anything about Thailand’s coup in 2014. It was all business “almost”-as-usual. No sanction, no condemnation. But it is unlikely that poor and not-so-well-connected or not-well-allied countries like Myanmar can be exempted from sanctions from the West.

Indeed, multiple sanctions are already underway, and multiple-standards are applied obviously.

What else do the Western countries know in engaging with the development of democratic development hiccups beside sanctions? It seems that advanced democracies especially Western countries are extremely intolerant to internal social adjustment. Advanced democracies in Asia do not hold similar views and do not express such arrogant reactions like the Western democracies.

The Western countries always question state legitimacy by limiting state recognition. In real practice, it does not make sense at all when a country declares that they would engage with the country in question only through its people without engaging with the government. Government is the overarching service provider. Alienating the government is equal to discrediting it in front of its people, to sowing distrust against the government’s delivery system. When a foreign government is expressing its preferences on different political actors other than the country’s government that it has diplomatic relations with, what else can be called beside interference in domestic affairs?

If Cambodia’s democratic development, which is currently the last hope for the Mekong region, can tell us anything, below should be some of the key elements.

Firstly, democracy is a process, and thus it requires “graduality”. For that “graduality” to happen, it requires peace and stability. With wars, democracy is nothing; human rights is nothing. There is only life and death. When wars happen, no countries would want to care anymore because they cannot do anything; no sanctions, no humanitarian interventions, and everyone is trying to avoid accepting war refugees.

Secondly, “idealism” should be differentiated from “pragmatism of state governance”. State governance is politics that require constant negotiations and power struggle or balancing among various key actors, based on the common acknowledgement of the limited resources to address the overwhelming challenges. “Idealism” breeds over-expectations on state’s deliveries, and often provides over-simplified imaginative solutions to complex issues. For example, when assuming power, everyone would have had expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would have been the total cure to all issues of Myanmar’s society. In reality, she could not manage internal strife, and the Rohingya crisis has developed under her watching eyes. She had been losing her international fame and popularity already. She was lecturing everyone and then she became the subject of her own lectures. It was not her fault alone, but the biggest mistake is the faulse conviction that “ideal rhetoric” can cure all things bad.

Thirdly, democracy requires strong deliveries and strong state institutions. To have many voices means to have many demands. But state institutions are very weak for most post-colonial governments, incapable of handling the most basic needs, not to mention high demands of political and economic rights.

Except for Thailand, Mekong states are former colonies with poor infrastructure and weak state institution. In some countries, civil strife is commonplace. The thin line between war and peace is imminent. External observers often overlook the limited resources these states have when they often demand for “immediate” democratic transformation, just like they always demand for “immediate overturn of situation”, which cannot happen. To sustain democracy, countries need to have basic state institution and delivery capacity of basic public services first, without which they can easily be shaken by frustrations and over-demands by their constituents or even external actors in contrary to the limited supply capacities of their state structures.

Fourthly, only domestic actors can provide durable solutions. Interference from external countries most of the times can only exacerbate the situation and destroy trust among domestic actors. Unless, that external actor is seen by domestic actors as impartial like the case of Japan’s mediation after the 1997 clash in Cambodia. The worst form of interference is that external actors support exile government and arm guerrilla warfare. Cambodia’s experiences provide plenty of lessons on suffering and perpetuating superpower rivalry at the expense of Cambodian people’s lives. At the end of the day, Myanmar people should be the very actors that provide solutions, and external actors should support that in a tolerant, patient and respecting manner.

Fifthly, “win-win” solution is a must. For a society that has been divided for so long, a “win-win” solution is required to maintain social cohesion, and avoid armed conflicts. It is the real Cambodian lesson that has helped sustain its two decades of total peace, which is unprecedented since its independence from the French colonist. The “win-win solution” has been put forth to integrate the Khmer Rouge back into Cambodian society, knowingly that war can never totally eliminate another armed faction unless another genocide occurs. Win-win solution had put the final piece of jigsaw puzzles to make Cambodian territory become one piece for the first time in its modern history.

Back in 2016, Myanmar’s case seemed to have such element of “win-win solution” when Aung San Suu Kyi first came to power. It is very unfortunate that people often ignore the important role played by the military, especially former President Thein Sein, in offering the chance for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the country. It was a mutual compromising act to accommodate various stakeholders with differing interest and strong adversities. Of course, the military had the choice not to do so if Thein Sein was not there.

However, with her latest landslide victory in 2020, it appears that Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to remove the military totally from state governance. This is like removing the very structures of the country because the military has been there for decades. No political actors, especially those with arms, will accept total removal from power and worse still to stand accused of committing genocide. It is natural that they would not accept to be the only one to be blamed because it is the duty of the military to restore public order and maintain security. And in the warring situation, how do we distinguish the thin line between violence and the maintenance of public order, and what is the role of the military in that regard?

Of course, comparing democratic development in the Mekong region might sound like citing “the bad, the worse, and the ugly” but that is because we are using the most advanced frame of democracy from Western standard.

But we have to remember that whenever these countries fall into wars, there were no angels fallen from above to help them either. We have to remember that these countries, or the entire sub-region has rarely experienced total peace, and no one is preaching democracy and human rights in a warring situation.

In evaluating democratic development in the Mekong region, to avoid total despair that often leads to sanctions and disengagements, it is more practical that one should understand the historical context and complexities of the region, and make effort to use the sensitive lens of war and peace, state-building and sustainable development.


Leap Chanthavy is a Phnom Penh based political analyst


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