With the recent arrest of Kem Sokha and the self-exile of Sam Rainsy – Cambodia’s main opposition leaders – as well as the shutdown of various media outlets including The Cambodia Daily, many have declared that democracy in Cambodia is dead. The fact is, however, democracy has yet to exist.
On September 3, Kem Sokha was arrested at his home and accused of treason. He had become the sole leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, when Sam Rainsy resigned on February 11. Sam Rainsy had been Cambodia’s main opposition leader for more than 20 years. He is now living in self-exile in France after being pursued by the Cambodian government for criminal defamation. He was convicted after being tried in absentia. On September 4, The Cambodia Daily shut down its operation in Cambodia after 24 years because of a $6.4 million tax dispute with the Cambodian government. Other media outlets have also been forced to close.
These recent events have caused many to declare the death of Cambodia’s democracy. In reality, Cambodia was never democratic. The Cambodian model of governance traditionally has always been centralized upon individuals or personalities – the “strongmen.” Since ancient times, the prosperity of the Khmer nation has constantly relied on the leadership of the strongman. This was the case with King Jayavarman VII, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and now Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has remained in power for more than 30 years. Cambodia’s history, culture, traditions, and mentality continue to strongly shape its political trajectory.
Democracy was only introduced when the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) intervened in 1993, and held Cambodia’s first free and fair election.
During the 1980s, Cambodia was engulfed in civil war. On October 23, 1991, the international community met in Paris to establish a plan to intervene and establish peace in Cambodia, which produced the Paris Peace Agreement. The Paris Peace Agreement established UNTAC’s mandate to oversee free and fair elections, promote the respect for human rights, resettle refugees, disarm and demobilize the factions involved in the civil war, establish the rule of law, and reconstruct infrastructure. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who headed the UN during UNTAC’s intervention into Cambodia, defined peace-building as an “action to identify and support structures meant to strengthen and solidify peace and avoid a relapse into conflict.” As Jeni Whalan wrote on How Peace Operations Work, UNTAC was the largest, most ambitious, and most expensive peace-building operation at its time.
While UNTAC was able to remarkably establish a widely-recognized free and fair election and resettle refugees, it failed to disarm and demobilize the factions, reconstruct infrastructure, and establish the rule of law. UNTAC’s mandate was both Utopian and ambitious. It had hoped to end the civil war, while also establishing a just human rights regime with a new constitution that would be respected by everyone. Yet, it only spent a total of 19 months in Cambodia.
Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, Commander of UNTAC’s military force, commented that the Paris Peace Agreement had a “glaring omission” – it provided no guidance with respect to post-electoral functions that UNTAC should perform before the conclusion of its mandate. Simply put, how can UNTAC expect to “identify and support structures meant to strengthen and solidify peace and avoid a relapse into conflict,” and change a nation’s culture of “strongman” governance into a culture of respect for social institutions within only 19 months?
UNTAC arrived in Cambodia with good intentions but the wrong mindset. As Roderic Alley noted in The United Nations in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, UNTAC prioritized sovereignty over social infrastructure, believing that a sovereign state would be able to reconstruct itself. This was a mistake. Ideals are romantic and attractive until they are met with reality. The reality is that Cambodia’s power dynamics exist among personalities. The people respect or fear these personalities or strongmen over social institutions.
Thus, with the lack of strong institutions, Cambodia began reverting to its own model of governance right after the election. Prime Minister Hun Sen with powerful armed forces, which UNTAC could not demobilize and disarm, was able to, despite having lost the 1993 election, coerce his way into becoming co-Prime Minister along with Prince Norodom Ranariddh who won the election. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was king at the time and often viewed as a pragmatist, even endorsed Prime Minister Hun Sen over Prince Norodom Ranariddh, his own son, recognizing the power dynamics that existed in Cambodia.
This reversion became even more apparent when Hun Sen ousted Norodom Ranariddh and the royalist elites in 1997, allowing him and his party to win the 1998 elections.
While many are surprised about the arrest of Kem Sokha, the shutting down of The Cambodia Daily, and the exile of Sam Rainsy, these events and this continuous reversion to the “strongman” model are to be expected because of the lack of culture and respect for social institutions. Even within the politics of Cambodia’s main opposition party, power centers on personalities and not the ideals of the party.
But, the “strongman” model is not a sustainable system. There may be a solid leader during one generation and perhaps even the next, but what happens when a devastating one arrives? There is no system of checks and balances.
Cambodia’s culture and history continues to haunt its present. This means that a change in Cambodia’s “strongman” model of governance requires a change in culture, traditions, and mentality. Such a change can only be done by the Cambodian people themselves.
To the contrary, many have called for foreign intervention, especially from the West, in the form of condemnation and political interference. Yet, Cambodian history also shows us that foreign powers are never the answer for true reforms and positive change – foreign powers often come and go without much investment into Cambodia’s future.
Currently, the U.S. has been gradually retreating from Cambodia, allowing China to fill that vacuum. Cambodia’s overseas development aid database shows that China accounts for nearly 36 percent of $732 billion of bilateral aid for 2016, which is four times more than the United States. Moreover, according to a draft proposal, U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed aid cuts signify a possible 70 percent reduction in U.S. assistance to Cambodia from 2018.
Cambodia does not have the luxury of being at a strategic geopolitical location that would serve as a useful ally for foreign powers to develop and inject massive amounts of capital. Cambodians should not expect foreign powers to be their answer for perpetual peace and stability. Foreign powers will always come and go, but Cambodians are the ones who will always be here. It is ultimately up to Cambodians to be the agents for their own reform and their own perpetual peace and stability.
As Prince Norodom Sihanouk reminded the nation before he passed away, “Khmers must help Khmers.”
Sothie Keo is a recent dual degree Juris Doctor and Master of Law in International Human Rights graduate from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.