Cambodia’s democratic development: Going forward or backward?

An article published in Khmer Times.

By Kimkong Heng and Veasna Var

An article entitled “Viewing Cambodia’s political development from the inside out” which appeared in Khmer Times on March 4, 2019 deserves a response. The article argued that Cambodia’s democracy is in the “elementary school level”. It cited another article which maintained that Cambodia has made significant political progress, if one considers the country’s “peace, strong economic growth and a certain level of democratisation”.

Sim Vireak, a strategic advisor and the author of the article, claimed that calling Cambodia’s 2018 general election a sham is “a misplaced argument”. His arguments rested on the premise that the election had a high voter turnout; it was the first election that was not plagued with violence and tension, and there was “absence of post-electoral confusion” or electoral deadlock.

The author also tried to argue that Cambodia has a “high level of freedom of expression and freedom of association”. He stated that the Cambodian government “has been very sensitive towards public opinion” and that online media freedom “is reaching the level of frenzy”. In the article, he also argued that Cambodia is an “NGO paradise” and that labelling Cambodia as an autocratic state is a “misperception” and an “over-expectation” of the country’s political development and young democracy.

The author’s arguments seem to be valid; however, going beyond the surface level analysis, they do not seem to reflect the political reality in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s latest general election was widely condemned as a “sham” by the international community as well as by more than three million Cambodians on the basis that the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), could not take part in the election as it was court-dissolved. All the CNRP politicians were banned from politics, although they are now allowed to return to politics as long as they request political rehabilitation.

That the election was free of violence and tension is true; however, one should understand that prior to the election the government authority had tried to promulgate that any Cambodian who boycotted the election by not going to vote may face imprisonment. Many CNRP supporters were believed to face a dilemma. On the one hand, they may not want to go to vote as their favourite party was already dissolved. On the other hand, they had to go to vote and may decide to secretly spoil the ballot to avoid possible imprisonment resulting from their election boycott. As a result, there was a high voter turnout and at the same time high invalid votes.

The fact that there was no prolonged electoral deadlock after the election, as argued by Sim Vireak, is also true. But the author failed to acknowledge that in the 2018 election the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was unchallenged, allowing it to win all 125 parliamentary seats. Mentioning the post-election political impasse or confusion is out of the question. How can there be a deadlock when only the CPP won the election?

The author argued that “approval rating” and “legitimacy” are different. We agree but we argue that approval rating of a prime minister or president affects their legitimacy. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen does not have any issue with his legitimacy domestically for the time being, his external legitimacy is apparently under threat, as evidenced by sanctions from the United States and the European Union as well as concerns raised by other countries such as Australia and Japan.

We partly agree that “legitimacy is not for outsiders to decide but for the Cambodian people”. However, Cambodia does not exist alone. The country is a signatory of a number of international treaties and conventions, a member of Asean and the United Nations as well as playing international roles to other important fora. Cambodia has to ensure that the legitimacy of its government needs to be in line with the democratic principles and values espoused by the international community as well as by the country’s Constitution. The Kingdom could ignore any call or concern from Western and non-authoritarian governments including the EU’s EBA demands, but, like it or not, Cambodia has to face sanctions and condemnation from them, too. It is like “what goes around comes around”.

What we see as somehow valid in Sim Vireak’s arguments is the relatively high level of freedom of expression and association in Cambodia. However, with a closer look, the arguments did not take into account widespread fear and concerns among Cambodians who speak about sensitive social issues in the Kingdom. Although social media users in Cambodia can say almost anything they want about the government, it is widely known that voicing your concerns about sensitive issues, more often than not, will likely result in arrest or imprisonment. The lack of support by civil society organizations for the EU’s latest action on Cambodia may in fact reflect a case of “oppression into silence”, not necessarily an indication of satisfaction with the government.

Our article, “Reversing Cambodia’s democratic drift”, which appeared in East Asia Forum did not label Cambodia as an autocratic state. We simply voiced our concerns about Cambodia’s perceived drift towards autocracy or a one-party state. This is not just our concerns alone. Many analysts and observers have expressed similar worries. We wanted to suggest ways in which things can be done to reverse our country’s democratic backsliding, although we are well aware that not everyone will agree with our thinking and analysis.

As Cambodian academic scholars, we care about our country. We do not write against the Cambodian government per se nor do we try to undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP elites. What we do is to write about what we see and believe as political developments that do not seem to be heading in the right direction. We want to bring to the fore an inclusive path that we believe makes the majority of Cambodians, if not everyone, happy. We want leaders in the government to know that what they believe is right may not be right in the eyes of scholars or intellectuals and some Cambodian people. We want to raise awareness and concerns, and we want to initiate healthy discussion. We, like all Cambodians, want peace, stability, economic growth, freedom, and democracy.

When Cambodia’s democracy is seen as going backwards, although the incumbent Cambodian government sees otherwise, we are obliged to share our opinions, worries, and hope. We cannot rest until our leaders are constantly reminded that their actions have implications and consequences and that the impacts of their actions may negatively affect Cambodian society.

Thus, through our writing, we are trying to effect changes in the ways our government leads and move Cambodia forward to integrate the country into the international community as clearly spelled out in the Cambodian government’s Rectangular Strategy. Prime Minister Hun Sen considers Asean as a cornerstone for Cambodia’s foreign policy, a crucial pathway to further the Kingdom’s regional integration to reap economic and strategic benefits for the development of the country.

We are of the opinion that intellectuals deserve to be called “true intellectuals” only when they use their intellect to contribute to the positive development of their country and, if possible, the healthy development of the rest of the world. As Cambodian intellectuals, we are concerned about the country’s democratic drift and we believe that each and every one of us, as Cambodians, is responsible for the future of Cambodia.Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. Veasna Var is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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