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A detail from John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence (1817). Wikimedia Commons
A detail from John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence (1817). Wikimedia Commons

What does US history tell us about Cambodian democracy?

In the midst of prolonged democratic dysfunction, perhaps the most popular question of the day is: "why is Cambodian democracy problematic?" In mainstream social activism all the way up to high profile political debates, there has been a lot said about what a functional democracy looks like. It is not uncommon to come across political commentators and politicians arguing that "political leaders' commitment" is what’s required in Cambodia’s democracy or in any democracy in general.
However, there is much more to debate about democracy. Benjamin Franklin, one of the American democracy’s founding fathers, once said the best form of government is a republic, for it grants people liberty. But chose a republic only "if you can keep it," he continued. What he may mean by this is that in a democracy, the duty of citizens doesn’t end with the creation of government. There is thereafter work required to maintain it.

Though democracy was eventually chosen as a system of government, the process involved in the decision making didn’t come out too quickly and easily. Instead of over-embracing democracy’s promises, America’s founding fathers went hard looking for its flaws.

While some fathers praised democracy for what it is worth of liberty; the others feared its dangerous effect. James Madison referred to this effect as "mischief of factions", worrying that interest groups, sustained and supported by the majority who manages to control the government, would seek to further their own ends at the expense of others.

In response, Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s mentor, in his later stage of life observed that democracy’s biggest problem isn’t really factions but the lack of enlightened citizenry.

The safest "depositary of the ultimate powers of the society" is with the people themselves, Jefferson wrote. Therefore, he suggested that if people are not enlightened enough to exercise their control of powers, educate them to do so.

One could go on and on about the next development of American politics. But the point of emphasis is that the culture of debate and political activism was essential to the build-up to their independence, and subsequently to their democracy.

There were debates and exchanges of opinions on democracy as a political system since the start. That’s what has formed and shaped their political system as it is today.

From the American experience that we’ve just discussed, establishing a democracy requires a certain spirit and understanding of the political system we live in. It requires a lot more than just creating a government with an imposed democratic system.

One should note that it takes more than just elections to create and sustain a democracy, for the quality of election depends greatly on the quality of voters, and, by extension, of the people who live in a democracy. Citizens with poor understanding of the political system they desire and how to get it are probably not ready for democracy.

For a quick comparative perspective, what’s missing in Cambodia’s democracy is a big portion of democratic build-up. We lack the kind of participation and debate on democracy as a political system since the start, and by extension a missing democratic spirit that we saw influence and inform the successful democratic development in America. It isn’t a debate for theory of democracy per se, but how this theory fits in our history and culture.

This opinion piece has no intention to glorify one country’s democracy over others’. It is, rather, aimed to share with the readers a perspective through which to assess Cambodia’s place in the narrative of democracy. If we agree that there is something lacking in our democracy, we ought to try hard to understand its root cause.

It is useful to understand why democracy is desired and at the same time feared; what the citizen is required of in a democracy; and how to prevent the abuse of power. These are some of the fundamental questions on democracy that mainstream discussions should take into account.

To engage in debate on democracy, it is critically important to ask the right questions, the kind of questions that led to Madison’s “mischief of factions” concern, Franklin’s “if you can keep it” remark or Jefferson’s “enlightened citizenry” imperative.

Hok Kimhean and Sok Som are researchers based in Phnom Penh.

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