Cambodia and Thailand: A Story of Swapping Transitions, or Something Else?

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cambodia and Thailand: A Story of Swapping Transitions, or Something Else?

A closer look at the evolution of regime dynamics in the two countries in recent years.

In 2017, Cambodia dissolved its opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, ending 24 years of nominal democracy and transitioning into a regime that’s been called an “outright dictatorship” and a “de facto one-party state.”

Soon after, in 2019, its western neighbor Thailand held its first election since a 2014 coup reverted the country to a military dictatorship. While citizens were allowed to vote for the first time in five years, the electoral system was heavily skewed in the military’s favor, allowing it to maintain control despite relatively poor election results.

In a sense, the countries reversed their roles: Cambodia went from a flawed democracy with an uneven playing field to a one-party state, while Thailand went from military rule to a flawed democracy with an uneven playing field.

Lee Morgenbesser, political scientist who focuses on authoritarian regimes, agreed that the transitions were similar, but added the “swap is not exact.”

“Thailand has transitioned from closed authoritarianism (no national elections) to competitive authoritarianism (flawed, but multi-party, elections). Cambodia has transitioned from competitive authoritarianism to hegemonic authoritarianism (single-party elections),” he said via email.

The key distinction seems to be that Cambodia still held cosmetic elections where the ruling party ran virtually unopposed, while the previous Thai junta had no elections at all. Despite this minor difference, the comparison can still shed light on the situation in both countries and where they are heading.

James Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong, said Thailand’s “transition to democracy isn’t genuine.”

Rather, he argues it was a way for the junta to “legitimize and perpetuate their grip on power.” From this perspective, it could be argued that the transition to illusory democracy actually benefits the regime and undermines the democracy movement by solidifying the military’s grip on power.

Buchanan agreed that the shift has put the democracy movement in a “difficult position.” Some moderates may believe the current system is good enough, and as Buchanan puts it, “may wonder why some Thais are still pushing for democracy despite holding elections only last year.”

He added that the democracy movement failed by not protesting the election results immediately. In another parallel to Cambodia, the CNRP pointedly refused to call for protests after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha, and again was mum on the issue after the party’s dissolution.

Mu Sochua, vice-president of the CNRP, admits now that it was a mistake not to protest when Sokha was arrested. “Yes we should have,” she said in a recent phone call. Now, however, it seems too late for that type of action. CNRP leadership have all fled the country, the moment has passed, and the government has gotten to work legitimizing the new normal.

There are benefits to even a flawed democracy, however. 

In Thailand, the transition has left the government more “vulnerable” according to Buchanan.

“For example, its policies and actions are now able to be scrutinized by opposition parties… and political gatherings are now legal again, allowing for demonstrations,” he said.

On the flip side, Cambodia’s political crackdown also muzzled the free press, restricted civil society, and plunged the general population into an atmosphere of fear. 

“The damage is done. By banning opposition parties, stifling independent media and suppressing civil society, Hun Sen’s crackdown heralded lasting changes to the political system,” Morgenbesser said.

While the previous system of competitive authoritarianism was unfair and rigged against the CNRP, its leaders would be thrilled to have even that flawed democracy back today.

“Yes, the onset of competitive authoritarianism is far more preferable than closed authoritarianism. On average, in fact, the former regimes are far more likely to undergo democratization,” said Morgenbesser.

Thailand’s pro-democracy Future Forward Party is now facing similar challenges to the CNRP. It must compete against the military under a system that the military created and can control. The party’s leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has already been removed from parliament, just as the CNRP’s leader Sam Rainsy was removed in 2015.

FWP faces the imminent threat of dissolution, just as the CNRP was dissolved. Sochua said she has been following the FWP and sees similarities to the CNRP.

“They have the same values of democracy, human rights, grassroots activism, and people power,” she said.

If there’s any advice Sochua has for the FWP, it’s not to play the government’s rigged game. “I regret spending so much time fighting legally, fighting in parliament,” she said, acknowledging that there was never any winning against the government there. She said FWP should focus on galvanizing its supporters, rather than participating in sham legal disputes.

While the FWP may be dissolved as early as later this month, it has already impacted the democracy movement in Thailand.

“Future Forward Party have rejuvenated the democracy movement to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a significant push for democracy without them at this stage,” Buchanan said. “Most importantly, the fact that politics is now ‘on’ again in Thailand has led people to believe in democracy again,” he added.