Cambodia: From pet project to problem child

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Representatives of the 19 participating countries sign the Paris Peace Accords on October 23, 1991, which also included the creation of Untac. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

As international condemnation began to pour in earlier this month lambasting the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the country’s largest opposition party, ruling party elites were quick to ask: Why us?

In an op-ed published by the Khmer Times, ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Suos Yara said the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the CPP’s only legitimate competition in next year’s national elections – was just “a slight correction on democracy for the common public good”.

“Democracy and human rights in the neighbourhood are . . . incomparable with Cambodia,” Yara said, accusing the international community of not putting the same pressure on other countries.

Just days after the Supreme Court decision, outspoken CPP member Heng Ratana boasted, “No country in the Greater Mekong Subregion has a better democratic regime than Cambodia.”

Indeed, with a military junta in charge in neighbouring Thailand to the west, and repressive communist regimes in power in Vietnam and Laos to the east and north – not to mention a troubled, corrupt regime in Malaysia, a sultanate in Brunei and a so-called benevolent dictatorship in Singapore – Cambodia’s comparatively liberal democratic Constitution sticks out like a sore thumb.

But, analysts say the assault on democracy in Cambodia is being felt particularly keenly in the international community, specifically because of how much was invested in its creation and because of how few democratic nations exist in the area.

Now, roughly 25 years after the United Nations took over the administration of Cambodia – organising the country’s first democratic elections in 1993 – the ruling party has finally succeeded in what many analysts and international observers have called the complete dismantling of the country’s democracy.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) was undertaken during a time of giddy optimism, when the international community believed democratisation would sweep the globe. Untac was created under the Paris Peace Accords, which were signed in 1991 after years of civil war, Vietnamese occupation and the mass murder by the Khmer Rouge. The mission promised to restore the nation and kick off a new era of democracy and stability.

Now, historians and analysts say the attempt to shoehorn democracy into Cambodia was always naïve. Even at the UN, some of that optimism appears to have soured, with senior UN officials noting “great concern” over the dissolution of the CNRP.

David Chandler, a pre-eminent historian of Cambodia who was on the ground during the Untac mission, said the legacy of the operation has been cast into doubt.

“I was an enthusiastic supporter of Untac but I wasn’t surprised to see that democracy was slow to emerge in Cambodia . . . I think it was a stretch to think that democracy could be imposed on a place that had thousands of years of authoritarianism,” he said via email on Thursday.

Chandler said the project still had some benefits in that it introduced the concept of free and fair elections and the “flowering” of NGOs.“All of these are being called into question now,” Chandler admitted.

Indeed the CNRP’s dissolution has effectively disenfranchised nearly 3 million voters, or 44 percent of people who cast ballots in 2013. NGOs, meanwhile, have faced increasing scrutiny and restrictions on their work, with Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday calling for the closure of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, one of the nation’s most prominent rights groups.

Billy Chia-Lung Tai, a human rights legal consultant with extensive experience in Cambodia, said Untac’s mission was “overly optimistic” and “unrealistic” from the beginning.

Tai said the international community “thought they could simply superimpose and parachute a very western model of democracy into Cambodia and all will be fixed”.

Tai also criticised the culture of aid that Untac’s mission created, saying it led to “a strange mix of Cambodians furiously agreeing to what the Westerner wants so they could secure whatever funding was coming their way and then doing whatever it is they want anyway”.

“Democracy in Cambodia has not worked for a long time, but . . . Western donors have continued to [prop] it up and continued with funding a very corrupt and repressive regime while kidding [themselves] in believing that they are making a difference,” he said, adding that it is possible Prime Minister Hun Sen has been “playing” the international community from the beginning.

Former opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua agreed yesterday that donors let the ruling party get away with too much for too long.

While she applauded the creation of “vibrant civil society, independent media, and a credible opposition”, she said in a message that “the international community has used the carrot more than the stick when the [government] has failed again and again to deliver on protecting human rights”.

“More [development] aid kept coming and the threshold for protection of human freedoms and liberties kept going lower,” she added.

Ear Sophal, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, agreed that the collapse of Cambodian democracy was particularly catastrophic because of the international investment.

“Cambodia was the first multibillion dollar peacekeeping effort, full stop,” said Sophal via email on Tuesday.

“Cambodia was at first a darling case; it then became a question mark, and it’s now a cautionary tale,” he continued.

Sophal added Cambodia’s current situation shows that “this idea of inserting Western norms into a given country isn’t like giving someone an injection. It’s not a vaccine. It’s not a cure.”

Part of the issue, Sophal noted, was China’s unrestrained influence in the area.“China is once again playing the proxy war for illiberal ideas,” he said.Tai said Cambodia’s current trajectory puts it “at risk of becoming some kind of ‘tributary state’ to China”.

“Cambodia’s natural resources and commerce will be dictated by Chinese interests rather than Cambodian interests,” he added.

Regional analyst Carl Thayer said it might indeed be fair to say Cambodia is one of the more democratic countries in Asean, but added that “you could also argue that Cambodia is the democratic state that has undergone the most recession back towards authoritarian rule”.

“What we’re seeing in Cambodia is not a low quality democracy, we’re seeing lawfare used to completely subjugate democracy,” Thayer added, referring to the use of the legal system against ruling party foes.

Thayer agreed that the political deterioration in Cambodia is particularly dismaying, but said democracy in the region as a whole is “battered”.

“There’s no shining beacon of democracy in there,” he added.

Despite being surrounded by illiberal neighbours, the Cambodian government’s rhetoric – pointing the finger at authoritarian regimes as a way to make itself look better – is an indication that it still is concerned about its international image, said Kem Monovithya, former public affairs officer for the CNRP and daughter of imprisoned party leader Kem Sokha.

“This reaction confirms that the Cambodian government does very much care about international pressures and needs international legitimacy,” she said.