Violence in Cambodia has escalated in recent months with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempts to quash competition ahead of the upcoming elections on July 29, 2018. Security and surveillance measures have been strengthened, media outlets have been closed down, protests have been met with violence and mass arrests, and human rights and environmental activists have been victim to violent persecution and at times, murder. In response, former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy on February 29 launched the Cambodia National Rescue Movement, aimed at generating international solidarity around opposing Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party and encouraging members to defect from his three-decade long dictatorship.
In the Human Rights Watch 2018 Country Report on Cambodia, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams emphasized the need for the international community to take action in order to restore “the democratic promise of 1991,” noting the failure of that year’s Paris Agreement to succeed in its mission to internalize democracy and human rights into Cambodian political, social, and economic practice.
Cambodia has witnessed a horrific amount of violence and injustice throughout history — Cambodian space has been polarized, marginalized, and militarized by exogenous forces beginning with the French colonial occupation and lasting through the period of extreme nationalization that followed the country’s independence in 1953, including the estimated half a million tons of U.S. bombs that were dropped on the country during the Vietnam War. In 1970, another coup took place aimed at abolishing the monarchy, and for the next five years, the Khmer Rouge terrorized the population, resulting in hundreds of thousands of direct executions and a nearly two million subsequent deaths related to poverty, disease, forced labor, and torture. After the Khmer Rouge was defeated by the Vietnamese in 1978, the next decade was characterized by civil war.
The Cambodian government implemented economic reforms in 1989, including changes in land tenure, tax, and marketing policies, a new law to promote foreign capital investment, deregulation of markets, a reduction of subsidies, and the privatization of state-owned businesses, land, and natural resources. This coincided with the development of a new interest in Cambodia in the West, manifesting in the form of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.
The Paris Agreement of 1991 was facilitated by UNTAC and aimed to move the country from civil war to civil peace through a mandate that laid down a legal framework for a transition to liberal democracy. A constitution was adopted in 1993 that emphasized periodic and genuine elections to provide participatory opportunities and recognition of human rights. Policy evaluations were overseen by international aid donors, aligning with the notion that democracy, development, and peace were inextricably linked. This “triple transition” was wrapped in generalized rhetoric about the intersection of the three pillars, with the idea that liberal democracy could be universally implemented and mechanically transmitted to any context. International organizations and NGOs flooded into Cambodia to provide development assistance. The ruling CPP adopted a strategy that would assure its ascendance in postconflict Cambodia despite a new pluralist regime, employing slush funds to fund highly politicized and publicized school, road, and hospital building programs that were all named after Hun Sen. In this way, the CPP portrayed itself as an “economic party” dedicated to helping the rural poor.
Today, indicators for human security are positive, as they are based on economic growth indicators. Cambodia’s nominal economic growth over recent years – in 2016 it graduated from Least Developed Country status — has further helped to legitimize the CPP’s power in the eyes of international donors, evidenced by large amounts of foreign assistance. Yet the CPP rampantly misuses the justice system to persecute political opponents and violently suppress peaceful protests. Institutions are weak and unaccountable, governance is elitist and highly corrupt, the media is not free, the rule of law is abused, and human rights violations are commonplace. The achievement of progress toward peace and development has been further complicated by a huge deficiency in human capital that has resulted from decades of war and genocide.
Ironically, the ruling CPP derives its power base from the rural population, who see the least benefits from its rule. Poverty is extremely widespread in rural areas — the benefits of growth have not been evenly distributed, disparity between rich and poor has grown, and malnutrition is widespread in rural and urban areas. Basic needs such as clean water, decent housing, healthcare, and education are undercut by the liberalization of the economy aimed at increasing GDP and deregulating social services.
Widespread privatization is embodied in violent and forceful asset-stripping of rural land and public resources, with nearly half of the country’s total land owned by foreign investors. Forests and common lands are disappearing at the highest rate in the world according to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, propelled by the government’s long-running practice of forced land dispossession for agroindustrial business interests — selling off the land which local communities rely on to foreign investors linked with political elites. Most cases are pre-emptive seizures by the state, which only subsequently seeks investors to sell or lease to. Illegal logging activities and strip mining are resulting in habitat loss and declining biodiversity, as well as soil erosion, limiting access to potable water, and illegal fishing is leading to rapidly declining fish stocks and food security. A poorly managed pursuit of economic development has deteriorated Cambodia’s natural resource sovereignty. Those affected by the entrenchment of these structures are in a continuous struggle to have their voices heard.
If we imagine democracy as a tool for social justice, the traditional “rule of the people, by the people, for the people” ideal, the Cambodian experience of democratization has not been successful. The current state of Cambodia can be described as a hollow peace, where the deep political, social, and economic issues present in the postconflict society have not been addressed and benefits have been mostly reaped by domestic elites and international investors.
Around 3,000 NGOs currently operate in Cambodia, with approximately half of the country’s national budget coming from humanitarian aid. These international actors are important players in the trajectory of Cambodian governance and policy, with the ability to exert significant leverage, as the domestic attainment of liberal governance benchmarks are rewarded with increased donor aid. This has allowed for the legitimate coexistence of democracy and corrupt autocracy, and the maintenance of unaccountable economic and political paradigms that do little for the ordinary Cambodian. Unchecked economic development and monopolized political power have come at the cost of rapid environmental degradation, limited civil liberties, and growing inequality of wealth distribution.
The UN peacebuilding framework for Cambodia, built on the premise that democratic institutions and free markets are necessary to enable a stable environment for peace to prosper, has come at the expense of genuine democratic institutions, equal distribution of power and wealth, the integrity of the country’s natural resource sovereignty, and meaningful progress toward peace with justice. It is worth considering whether, rather than restoring the original promise of 1991, a new approach to peacebuilding is required that elevates local struggles for self-determination and provides support for those fighting for real change in Cambodia.
Pascale Hunt is a freelance writer and multimedia content producer with a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Sydney.