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‘Big Man rule’ taken to task by UN envoy

UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly Maina Kiai, who visited Cambodia two weeks ago, has called on the Kingdom to embrace regular changes in leadership and to take lessons from Africa’s strongman-riddled history, in a column published in Kenya’s Daily Union newspaper on Friday.

Arguing that so-called “Big Man rule” offers a false dichotomy between broader freedoms and faster economic growth, Kiai notes in the column that it is “tempting to wish for a benevolent Big Man who can order development fast”.

“But Africa’s history – and Cambodia’s, too – shows the massive negative impacts of Big Man rule,” Kiai writes. “It is better, in principle, to have a good leader for a short time – and with challenges and dissent allowed – than take the risk of a bad leader forever.”

Elaborating in an email yesterday, Kiai said that while development under a strongman may come quickly, it is often directly linked to his personality, and rarely survives him. What’s more, the system of patronage that keeps the Big Man in power “creates the opportune climate for corruption and human rights violations”.

“After independence, most of Africa came under the thumb of Big Men, promising quick development at the expense of freedoms,” Kiai said, noting that the result was actually no development and no freedom.

“Indeed, changes of rulers by itself establishes a climate where politicians know that because they could be in and out of power, they need to follow the rule of law to survive and serve the interests of the people rather than themselves,” he added.

According to political analyst Chea Vannath, Cambodia’s experience with Big Man rule started with King Norodom Sihanouk, long before Prime Minister Hun Sen. Despite being a Big Man, Sihanouk embodied the benevolent strongman during his reign in the 1960s, Vannath said, when “the country was more peaceful in terms of the way of life, the living conditions, the well-being of the people”.

“If in the current Cambodian context, I agree with [Kiai], that it is better to change the figures regularly rather than count on [one] person. But we have to look deeper,” she continued, asking why Big Man rule persists. “Because democratic principles are not embedded in Cambodian society, nor in the people, nor in institutions.”

Cambodia National Rescue Par­ty spokesman Yim Sovann also sided with Kiai, noting that the opposition party supported a two-term limit for the office of prime minister.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached for comment.

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