Dr Lao Mong Hay, Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy,
explores the country's political progress amidst institutional backwardness
Since independence in 1953, Cambodia has been ruled by a diverse array of governments
which have successively claimed to be monarchist, republican, revolutionary, socialist
and, most recently, democratic in nature. The political orientations of these governments
have varied widely, as has the impact of their policies on the fortunes of Cambodians.
Despite these seeming shifts, a more consistent aspect of Cambodia's political life
has been the retention of power in the hands of elites. The provisions made, in the
better of Cambodia's first five constitutions, to safeguard citizens' rights have
never given rise to effective legal checks on the use of power.
In theory, Cambodia's 1993 Constitution, based on liberal democratic principles,
goes further than preceding ones in preventing the abuse of power. But the system
of 'checks and balances' it provides for is sharply at odds with Cambodia's deeply
conservative political culture and its authoritarian underpinnings. While politics
in Cambodia today are in some ways more open, pluralist and accountable than ever
before, at the same time they have never been so violent or corrupt. Public awareness
regarding the functioning of democracy has surged in recent years, yet Cambodians
still face an uphill struggle to have their Constitution respected as the supreme
law of the land.
Rapid social change
At the time of the 1991 Paris agreements, Cambodia had been closed to the outside
world for a period of almost two decades. With the arrival of the United Nations
Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), charged with implementing the agreements,
Cambodia was opened up to a world experiencing rapid economic growth, a dramatic
revolution in information technology, and the seeming triumph of democracy over communism.
The Paris agreements envisaged that integrating Cambodians into this radically different,
'free' world would alert them to their fundamental rights and freedoms and help consolidate
the country's fledgling peace.
Under the watchful and protective eye of UNTAC, Cambodians created or joined political
parties, and many more attended political rallies. In the May 1993 elections Cambodians
voted en masse, the majority of them calling for a new government and an end to their
long war. While Cambodians were still perhaps unclear about the exact mechanism by
which their votes would translate into political change, they were more hopeful than
at any time in recent memory that the changes which lay ahead would be positive.
In the years following UNTAC's departure, many Cambodians came to enjoy the benefits
of the information revolution. The local media played an important role in informing
and mobilizing public opinion, as did local NGOs which provided thought-provoking
criticisms of government policies and offered alternatives for the public to consider.
As a consequence, Cambodians not only became more aware of events and developments
in their country and the wider world, but also began to have opinions on them. During
this period, many Cambodians actively followed parliamentary debates and listened
to political speeches. The people began to notice that their leaders, while seeking
to cultivate their support, were also increasingly dependent on it to stay in power.
While UNTAC had enabled this initial political awakening to take place, Cambodians
were subsequently emboldened to seek to influence government policy. After 1993,
growing numbers of Cambodians demonstrated for better conditions in the factories
where they worked, submitted complaints to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission
and protested in front of the National Assembly to demand political reforms. Cambodian
society became more dynamic and was moving ahead rapidly, though too fast for some.
The March 1997 grenade attack in front of the National Assembly which killed 16 demonstrators
was a dramatic indication that the freedoms conceded to Cambodia's people during
the UNTAC era were gradually being curtailed. It became clear that the lack of any
meaningful mechanism to activate the grand provisions enshrined in the Constitution
could not protect even the most basic of human rights.
Checks and balances
Cambodia's 1993 Constitution today remains little more than a proclamation of
intentions. Article 51 stipulates that 'all powers belong to the people' and that
they will 'exercise these powers through the National Assembly, the Royal Government
and the Judiciary'. The establishment of these three branches of government corresponds
closely with the liberal democratic spirit of the Paris agreements though in practice
there is not yet a separation of powers. This can be seen most clearly with regard
to the National Assembly which was directly elected by the people.
During its first term, the National Assembly was unable to exercise its legislative
powers effectively or to control the government as foreseen by the Constitution.
Not a single private bill was considered by Assembly members, let alone adopted;
all legislation passed was drafted by the government. Rarely did the Assembly question
either Prime Minister, or indeed any minister at all. In most of the debates which
took place, the same few members of parliament took the floor and most deputies toed
the lines imposed by party leaders. The National Assembly, in short, quickly became
a 'rubber stamp' of the government.
While the effectiveness of the National Assembly was undermined by a packed legislative
schedule and the lack of technical expertise needed to draft laws, the real problem
was the absence of conditions conducive to open debate and the blatant disregard
by both the CPP and Funcinpec for constitutional procedure. Party leaders regularly
suppressed debate on sensitive issues or delayed the passage of legislation which
threatened the stability of the fragile governing coalition or personal interests.
The generally tense political climate did not favor the creation of other bodies
intended to serve as checks and balances on the use of power. The National Congress
during the 1950s and early 1960s, was an annual open-air meeting at which the population
received government reports and raised issues of concern with their government. In
the 1990s it could have served as an outlet for popular grievances, and as a way
for the people to interact directly with their representatives, but it has never
The role of the Constitutional Council was to interpret the Constitution and ensure
the legality of all laws made by the government. It was not established until May
1998 when international pressure mounted on the government to ensure that there would
be a legal mechanism to adjudicate disputes arising from the July 1998 elections.
Even then the independence and legitimacy of the council was quickly called into
question because it had not been formed in accordance with the procedures outlined
in the Constitution.
The Supreme Council of the Magistracy, for its part, was intended to assist the King
in ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It has only met once and, as a consequence,
the promised reform of the judiciary has never come about. Most current judges were
appointed before 1991, more on the basis of their political loyalty to the CPP than
on merit. Few have adequate legal training or are considered impartial. Moreover,
in blatant contravention of constitutional provisions regarding the separation of
powers, the Minister of Justice - a government official - controls the judiciary.
Underlying this problem has been the inability of the King to effectively guarantee
the independence of the judiciary as called for by the Constitution. In the face
of a tendency by certain officials to interpret his every action as 'political interference',
the King has consistently refrained from exercising his legitimate powers to the
extent that is possible. Instead, he has been content to make general proclamations
calling for human rights to be respected or expressing his disapproval of unfolding
political events. The King's ability to check abuses of power has thus been greatly
undermined and the monarchy's future role in Cambodia's political life is being called
into question .
In the absence of functioning checks and balances, state power has fallen increasingly
into the hands of individuals. This was especially true following the ousting of
Prince Ranariddh by co-premier Hun Sen in July 1997. Since that date, no one has
been able to challenge Hun Sen who has consolidated control over the government,
the National Assembly and the judiciary. He is also the sole commander-in-chief of
the armed forces, meaning that political power in Cambodia is effectively controlled
by a single individual [Editor's note: this article was originally published before
Prime Minister Hun Sen resigned his position of head of the armed forces].
A key consequence of the centralization of power has been the institutionalization
of a culture of impunity in Cambodia. Both the powerful who can secure protection
and the rich who can afford bribes remain above the law. They are able to secure
out-of-court settlements or win law suits even when the case against them is well
founded. In short, there are different rules for those with access to political power
and those without. Even on issues of interest to the international community, such
as drug trafficking and flagrant human rights abuse, Cambodia's powerful remain immune
to outside pressure.
Another consequence is that the public service is far from politically neutral as
called for by the Constitution. The 'dual' CPP/FUNCINPEC administration which emerged
after 1993 was sharply divided along political lines. Even with renewed CPP domination
of the bureaucracy, public interest still comes second to party or personal interests.
Low salaries have forced public servants to hold second jobs and to extort bribes
in order to make a living. With the complicity of corrupt superiors, public positions
have in effect often been turned into private enterprises, leaving public servants
trapped in a system of patron-client relations with little will or capacity to act
in the public interest.
The post-1993 period illustrates that the political notions and practices of an earlier
era do not simply come to an end with the promulgation of a new Constitution. Despite
their rhetoric of democracy and human rights, the deeds of Cambodia's leaders have
not matched their words. They pledged not to use violence to settle disputes, but
have done so. They promised free and fair elections, but have not respected the will
of the people. And to appease and divert attention from the real issues at stake,
they have launched populist campaigns to liberalize laws on gambling, drinking and
'Social' check on power?
The mixed messages Cambodians are getting from their leaders have left many in
a quandary. Cambodians are all too aware that, in the past, backward attitudes have
carried their country to the brink of ruin. At present, this is stifling both social
progress and economic development, the benefits of which many Cambodians have become
accustomed to in recent years. Yet as they seek to push for political change, they
are constrained by apathy, a lack of knowledge about how to act and social norms
which do not encourage questioning of the status quo.
Following UNTAC's departure in 1993, a great burden was placed on Cambodia's young
civil society to safeguard the fledgling democracy. Cambodia has little tradition
of civil associations, however, and despite the recent proliferation of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) involved in human rights monitoring and democracy education,
the ability of civil society to 'discipline' the government remains limited. Though
many civil associations embody and practice democratic values through their activities
at a grass-roots level, civil society initiatives fall far short of the unity or
the influence needed to ensure that the state upholds these values.
To conduct advocacy and represent people's interests with any real influence requires
a certain autonomy which, as the case of the press shows, is still very limited.
Many NGOs still rely heavily on international groups, or the government itself, for
both funding and technical expertise. Though the government has been relatively tolerant
of NGO activities in recent years, restrictive legislation under consideration during
1998 would reduce NGO freedom dramatically if adopted.
Moreover, even though political activism is increasing, many Cambodians are still
content to accept the status quo or lack options to challenge it in the context of
the extreme political and economic uncertainty gripping the country. Cambodians have
become increasingly conscious of being poor or powerless, either inside or outside
the ranks of the powerful and privileged. As a consequence, they are torn between
acquiescence and action, between the urge to move up in the ranks of the privileged
and protect personal or family interests and the moral obligation to challenge perceived
Risk: democratic tyranny
There is growing popular awareness in Cambodia today, as demonstrated by the
public demonstrations following the 1998 elections, that direct action can lead to
political change. Yet it is also clear that for political change to be meaningful
and sustainable, a simple change in government is not enough. The conservative values
underlying Cambodian politics must also give way to a more constructive emphasis
on dialogue, compromise and mutual gain. In the absence of progress, democracy in
Cambodia risks being simply a cover for a continuation of personalized rule and the
abuse of power.
Cambodia's leaders can no longer hide behind the language of democracy and must realize
that their people are more politically aware than ever before in their history. They
realize that genuine democracy is not simply about how a government is elected, but
about its goals. These must include a more competent and independent judiciary, greater
equality before the law for all citizens, and the protection of constitutional freedoms
and liberties. These goals are the yardstick by which Cambodia's people will henceforth
measure their political leaders. Pursuing these goals is also the only way to consolidate
Cambodia's fragile peace.