Today is November 9, 2050. Cambodian people are proudly and cheerfully celebrating the 97th anniversary of their country’s Independence Day. Impressively, Cambodia is now a knowledge-based economy and a developed country with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of around US$ 12,600, thanks to strong economic growth and well-functioning democracy for the last few decades.
I am now 56 years old. I am a very proud Cambodian to have witnessed how my country has progressively transformed itself from a lower-middle-income nation in the 2020s to a high-income country in 2050. I have countless great-hearted memories to talk about the Kingdom’s progress; however, given my background in political science, I am strongly motivated to share my perspectives on how impressive Cambodia’s political development in 2050 is.
Cambodia is now a politically developed liberal democratic country with a truly and well working liberal multi-party democratic system. It is worth noting that the political system in Cambodia has remarkably been transitioned from a patrimonial to a modern state in the last three decades. The Royal Government of Cambodia has no longer operated in a patron-client system. However, the government officials are responsible servants of broader public interest who no longer exploit their public offices for personal gains. More impressively, this Southeast Asian nation has become a very resilient, democratic, secure, prosperous and well-governed country with very low levels of corruption.
It is important to recognise that Cambodia’s political development in 2050 can be described by three vibrant institutions – a competent state, a strong rule of law, and democratic accountability.
First and foremost, the Kingdom has gradually been transformed into a more capable nation. In this sense, Cambodia can sufficiently generate its power to secure itself from both internal and external threats. It commonly enforces its strength and power with agreed-upon national and international laws. More remarkably, the nation conducts a smart and flexible foreign policy when dealing with the outside world. Even though Cambodia is a small state living in a fast-changing and unpredictable world, it has been managed to overcome dozens of challenges – not being trapped in proxy wars of great powers’ geopolitics strategic competition in the region – and navigate the geopolitical risks into opportunities for advancing national interests.
Second, a strong rule of law has been a fundamental strength of Cambodian society in 2050. Notably, the democratically-elected government exercises its power through the law that applies impersonally to everyone regardless of their social status, political difference, religion, and ethnicity, among others. Moreover, with the well-performing legislative body and truly independent judicial institution that acts autonomously from the executive power – in a so-called functioning “checks and balances” system – under a constitutional monarchy system, the government body is no longer in the position to allegedly change or create the law to suit themselves, but to focus on common interests of the whole society.
Lastly, Cambodian people today are very fortunate to live in a society with democratic accountability. Our government is very responsive to the needs of people and society. More importantly, the government of modern Cambodia can fairly fulfil the public interests of the whole community rather than the private interests of the powerful elites. The nation leaders can endeavor to treat its citizens on a more equal basis, applying laws, recruiting officials, and undertaking policies without favoritism –which I hardly saw during my adulthood almost 30 years ago.
Of course, that the fact that Cambodia has been transformed from a weak state in the 2020s to a strong nation in this half of the 21st century is not because of the magical myth, but the countless efforts from all relevant stakeholders. Nonetheless, from a political sense, there are many factors that have brought Cambodia into a developed nation as it is today.
One remarkable factor is that Cambodia has been very fortunate to have active and well-informed citizens who play a key role in the national building process. People are a core component in the development of a democratic society. It is worth remembering that Cambodia was a young nation in Southeast Asia in terms of the population during the 2020s. These young and dynamic people had been deeply aware that political affairs are no longer the only affair of the politician but also their rights and duties to participate in the political development process. Starting from that generation, Cambodian people have been knowledgeably, responsibly, and meaningfully engaging in the political, economic and socio-cultural development process of their country.
Another vibrant contributing factor to the political development success in 2050 is that Cambodia has managed to navigate the divided politics and fragile nation in the last three decades. It is important to recognise that Cambodia politically was very divided during the 2010s and 2020s. Remarkably, the court dissolved the country’s only main opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017 and leaders and core members of the party were banned from involving in political affairs and some were arrested on allegation of treason. However, the win-win policy was fortunately introduced to end the political conflict to build national unity among the competing parties prior to the 2023 general election. The ruling party and opposition party impressively managed to navigate their political differences in pursuing common national interests rather than the interests of their group. More importantly, they have been competing with one another in subsequent elections based on a constitutional and legal framework under democratic principles. Starting from that point, political and national unity has been a major force in advancing the political development in the Kingdom until nowadays.
Furthermore, strong political engagement and national unity have been a driving force to put Cambodia’s foreign policy in a better position. Yes, of course, during the nearly three last decades, many natural and man-made challenges, ranking from the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change to geopolitical challenges and strategic rivalry among great powers, have tested the Kingdom’s resilience and capacity to stay relevant in a fast-changing world. Nonetheless, the unbreakable unity at home has navigated Cambodia to well perform aboard. When dealing with external relationships, Cambodia pursues a flexible and smart foreign policy of hedging and balancing. More importantly, the Kingdom implements its foreign policy grounded in “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” principles mentioned in Article 53 of the 1993 constitution. These policies have driven Cambodia not to be the victim of the geopolitical and strategic game and fostered a good pathway to maximise its national interests in the last three decades.
Overall, the political success of Cambodia in 2050 today has irrefutably deep-rooted into the movement during the 2020s. This achievement could not have happened if Cambodia did not have active and well-informed citizens as a major driving force in pushing political development as well as economic and socio-cultural progress. And of course, national unity for nearly the last 30 years has been at the core of transforming Cambodia into a politically developed liberal democratic nation as it is today. Moreover, the better performance of foreign policy has been navigating the country from the outside challenges and could translate those risks into opportunities. Additionally, we should not forget the significant role of well-functioning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media in checking and ensuring the Kingdom’s successful political development process. All these factors have been playing a pivotal role in transforming Cambodia from a lower middle-income country into a developed nation over the last three decades.
Vann Bunna is a Master’s Student of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi and a Research Fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace.