This is in response to the article written by Kimkong Heng and Veasna Var entitled “Reversing Cambodia’s democratic drift” which appeared in East Asia Forum. The article raised three major points namely the alleged sham election, the decrease of legitimacy and the growing state autocracy.
I wish to reflect upon the nuances of the development of democracy in Cambodia through historical comparison and debate on the nature of autocracy.
Cambodia’s democracy should be viewed as still in the elementary school level if compared to other advanced and established democracies as discussed by Soun Nimeth , which appeared in Myanmar Times. He argued that viewing it from the nation-building perspective, Cambodia is among the top scorers. Its political development comprises three elements in tandem namely peace, strong economic growth and a certain level of democratisation, which is currently a rare case in the region.
Calling the 2018 election a “sham election” is rather a misplaced argument. Out of the 8.3 million registered voters, 83 percent went to vote, which is relatively high if compared to other countries with a non-compulsory electoral system. For instance, the Philippines had 60.6 percent in 2013, India 58.19 percent in 2009, the US 41.59 percent in 2010 and 55.7 percent in 2016, and Japan 53.68 percent in 2017.
Nearly 1.5 million people voted in favour of another party than the Cambodian Peoples’ Party (CPP). If we consider the exceptionally high number of invalid votes of over 500,000, we can consider that more than two million voters (out of some 7 million) expressed a preference different from that of the CPP. The number of invalid votes is also a good indication of freewill and secrecy of ballot.
Compared with previous elections, there are two major historical developments that should deserve attention.
Firstly, it is the first election that was held with zero incidence of violence. There was less tension as contending political parties did not instigate class division, racial hatred, xenophobia and ultra-nationalism.
Secondly, there was absence of post-electoral confusion. Previously, after every general election, Cambodia’s government would be stalled by prolonged electoral deadlock, if not violence. Allegations on vote irregularities such as voters’ list, name duplication, voter registration and management, etc. were common. Such confusion had been neutralised thanks to the digitalisation of voters’ list, which was technically supported by Japan and the EU.
Arguing that the government’s legitimacy is under threat and is drifting towards autocracy does not reflect reality on the ground.
The authors got mixed up between the concept of “approval rating” and “legitimacy.” It is normal that the approval rating of President Trump, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel are decreasing but that does not mean that their legitimacy is under threat. Besides, legitimacy is not for outsiders to decide but for the Cambodian people.
Touching on arguments of autocracy, the high level of freedom of expression and freedom of association should be cited.
Media criticism is becoming a part of life for every Cambodian. Far from being autocratic, the government has been very sensitive towards public opinion.
The case in point is the violent incident involving land issues in Preah Sihanouk province. Four military police officers were disciplined after the probe and Preah Sihanouk provincial governor was publicly criticised by the Minister of Interior for the violent clashes with people. Recently, two deputy provincial governors were officially removed following the Supreme Consultative Council’s meeting last week.
Another incident involved the sacking of Ratanakkiri Provincial Military Police Chief Kim Raksmey after criticism on his handing out of $500,000 to his children at a birthday party.
Online media freedom is reaching the level of frenzy. Social media users in Cambodia are free to say practically almost anything you want against the government’s underperformance. Any foreigner who can read Khmer on Facebook would immediately understand that the language used in social media is clearly not an expression that can be used by people under suppression.
The two foreign affiliated radios, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) in Khmer, can be heard uninterrupted daily throughout the country along with their online webcast. The RFA and VOA are free to broadcast their daily tirades against the government, in the likes of animosity between President Trump and CNN. Their popular radio programme can be accessed anytime over the Net and also on Facebook. It is estimated that of the country’s 29.2 million mobile phone connections, 52 per cent have 3G or 4G broadband coverage.
Cambodia continues to be an “NGO paradise” with more than 5,000 operating freely and their voices are impactful. If they are under pressure, they should have voiced support for the EU as it launched procedural action to withdraw Cambodia’s trade preferences under the Everything But Arms scheme – an action the EU claims as necessary to save the opposition and civil society groups. The reality is that none of the civil society organisations operating in Cambodia have voiced their support for the EU’s latest action. So is the EU barking up the wrong tree?
Labeling Cambodia as autocracy stems from the misperception of Cambodia’s political development and the gross over-expectation of a performance beyond that of an elementary-level democracy. On top of that, geopolitical interests are also at play. These factors, indeed, exert pressure on the political, economic and strategic choices of Cambodia. However, it should be fair to say that such discussion should be separated from the context of the state’s legitimacy.
Sim Vireak is strategic advisor to Asian Vision Institute (AVI) based in Phnom Penh.