​Whither Cambodian democracy? | Phnom Penh Post

Whither Cambodian democracy?


Publication date
30 May 1997 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Michael Vickery

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CNRP protesters try to bring down barricades on Phnom Penh's riverside. HENG CHIVOAN

As the date for the next election, 1998, approaches, there is growing concern about

the viability of democracy in Cambodia. But what kind of 'democracy' is meant - the

political practices in northern and western Europe, with multiple parties representing

clear ideological and policy differences, a press which reports those matters accurately,

and a public well enough educated to understand and vote intelligently? Or is a mere

facade of electionism sufficient, or perhaps 'demonstration elections', such as those

promoted by the U.S. in wartime southern Vietnam, and in Central America (see Edward

S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections, US-Staged Elections in the

Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador, South End Press 1984).

Democracy of the western European type will not be seen in Cambodia soon, if ever.

Moreover, it was never intended that UNTAC would bring Scandinavia to Cambodia. As

Stephen Heder, Deputy-Director of UNTAC's Information and Education Component, and

thus a very important UNTAC official, has written (Phnom Penh Post 4/4, 24 Feb-9

March 1995, p. 19), "in fact, the Paris Agreements did not place a high priority

on the consolidation of liberal democracy in Cambodia... all they insisted on was

the achievement of a new political arrangement via a free and fair electoral process..."

That is, a facade of electionism or a demonstration election. In the words of another

UNTAC Cambodia expert, David Ashley, "the elections were intended not so much

to introduce democracy as to create a legitimate and thus diplomatically recognizable

government" (Phnom Penh Post 4/11, 2-15 June 1995, p. 6). The existing government

was declared illegitimate because it had been brought into existence with Vietnamese

aid, and had remained close to Vietnam, a situation intolerable to the U.S.

The prospects for some kind of election, probably a facade or demonstration like

that of 1993, look fairly good. There are at least two parties, and neither has denounced

the election, although party organization has not enjoyed sufficient freedom to rate

as 'democracy'. In spite of incidents of violence, the press, whose activity serves

to define the level of democracy, has been extremely free, even irresponsibly so,

and there are more newspapers published (around 40) than ever before, but few of

those newspapers fulfill the task of informing the public. The prospects for going

beyond a mere facade or demonstration are not good.

But why be so concerned about Cambodia? Democracy is not doing so well anywhere in

Southeast Asia, the neighbors from which Cambodian politicians take their cues, seeing

that some of those neighbors enjoy great respect and support from the major Western

powers. In most of those countries which hold regular elections, one-party rule and

authoritarianism have been gradually gaining ground over the past few years. Although

Thailand seems different, political parties there are hardly more than collections

of personalities on the make, changing from one year to the next, and elections are

won through almost open marketing of votes, which in its own way insures a type of

authoritarian-ism. Cambodia does not, even less than Thailand, or Malaysia, or the

rest of Southeast Asia, show the preconditions for democracy as that system developed

in the West. In summary (I follow Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship

and Democracy), in those countries where democracy prevails, it came about through

centuries of, often violent, changes, as newly influential classes competed for power

with old dominant ones. In the last classical stage a capitalist bourgeoisie wrested

political power from feudal, or post-feudal, aristocrats and/or absolute monarchs,

while at the same time uneducated peasants were becoming more educated urban workers.

Capitalist victory, however, was not sufficient for democracy. They would have been

happy with a restricted vote enabling them to take over the state from kings and

aristocrats, but leave the mass of the population excluded. Real democracy came about

through the efforts of non-capitalist and anti-capitalist groups, classes, and parties,

who achieved, often with some violence, voting rights for all, in societies where

there was sufficient education for the exercise of some intelligence in voting.

In Cambodia around 80 percent of the population are poorly-educated peasants with

little previous experience of voting, or of any kind of political participation.

Such parties as have existed, have been coteries of personal supporters of one or

another prominent personality, or bureaucratic parties, and the very idea of taking

power from a monarch, or his aristocracy, or from any entrenched government, a crime.

During 1979-91, at least, there were 12 years of developing and expanding participation

in public affairs, the "modernization and democratization of many social...

relations", which Heder in the article cited called a prerequisite for "the

task of building democracy". UNTAC put an end to this, first of all by ensuring

then-Prince Sihanouk a dominant place as Chief of State, President, or King. The

Cambodian people were not asked to vote on this most important matter. It was decided

in advance. Thus was restored a system of "patrimonialist politicians"

(Heder), in which old attitudes and practices have become dominant. One necessary

step toward democracy now would be to make Cambodia a republic.

Then Cambodia needs new political parties based on distinct economic and social interests.

I do not expect, however, to see an opposition capitalist party. In any case, the

rise of a new capitalist bourgeoisie, unlike what happened in Europe, will not promote

democracy, because as in most of Southeast Asia, they will not try to seize power

through elections, parties, and parliaments, but by inserting themselves within the

old structures, somewhat modified. This has been called 'Ersatz (phony) Capitalism'

by some writers studying countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, and it could just

as well be called 'Ersatz Democracy'.

Nevertheless, the recent, and surprising, victory of striking Phnom Penh factory

workers, reported in detail by 'Karen Fleming' (pseudonym) in Phnom Penh Post 7-20

February, 1997, suggests that there might be a chance for an effective new party

based on industrial workers, which might expand its interest towards the peasantry.

Interestingly, the Phnom Penh workers were young women, which brings up another matter

given much attention by international critics of Cambodia. As the line goes, there

is no democracy, and the government deserves to be flayed because of the oppression

of women and children. The examples cited are always taken completely outside the

political, social, and historical context, as though Cambodia had not been, any more

than Sweden, the victim of war, revolution, and economic collapse. One such statistic,

allegedly proving that women are marginalized, is the number of women Members of

Parliament, only 7 out of 120, under 6 percent. This may not look good compared to

Scandinavia, but it is not out of line with Thailand (24/393, or 6.1 percent women)

or Malaysia (15/190 for 7.8 percent). What the Cambodia critics should be looking

at is the comparison with pre-UNTAC Cambodia where 21 of 117 Members of Parliament,

17.9 percent, were women, and where all aspects of health and education, in particular

affecting women and children, were far superior to what has resulted from the facade

of democracy introduced at the price of $2 billion by UNTAC.

But as pointed out by Fleming, efforts to win power by workers or women gets no support

from the Great Power activists who claim to be concerned about democracy. In this

case the US, and its official union representatives, were more interested in facades

than substance, and it might be expected that an emerging worker-peasant party in

Cambodia would suffer the same fate as similar movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador,

or Guatemala.

Which reminds me, one person wounded in the attack on Sam Rainsy in March was an

American from the International Republican Institute, a semi-official activist group.

They came to Cambodia in 1993 to teach democracy, and as a teaching tool they imported

a vice-president of the US-backed ARENA party of El Salvador, a party confirmed just

then by a UN Truth Commission as mainly responsible for the death squads and massacres

during the civil war in El Salvador.

- Michael Vickery, a long-time historian of Cambodia, is associate professor

of history at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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