Despite overcoming thirty years of fratricidal war and the external pressures of
Cold War politics, the deployment of the UN-brokered peacekeeping operation and the
subsequent national elections in 1993 and 1998 and communal elections in 2002, Cambodia
continues to bear witness to events that would alarm political scientists about the
backsliding nature of its democracy.
It would be facile to write off the problems in light of the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979).
This period however continues to challenge the faith of the country as it has depleted
Cambodia of its major institutions and of its natural, human, intellectual, financial
and educational resources. To this end, the tumultuous affairs of Cambodia's stylized
politics remain a force to be reckoned with as social and economic developments hinge
on the development of the former. Needless to say, realizing liberal democracy would
The hypothesis is that Cambodia's post-communist transitional democracy is a mask
for the evils that lurk: the perpetuation of corruption and anti-good governance,
nepotism, social injustice, impunity. Existing caveats largely sparked by political
disgruntlement, from within and without party lines, suggest the nearing of the third
reverse wave of democratic breakdown in Cambodia. But why consider a possible third
reverse wave particular to Cambodia or democracy at all?
Larry Diamond, a known quantity to the study of democracy, eloquently states "democratization
is a good thing and that democracy is the best form of government".
The theory that democracy could experience a reversion to authoritarian rule, whether
in Cambodia or elsewhere, is familiar lingo to global politics. However, democratic
declination in Cambodia could indeed create a ripple effect that would hinder regional
and perhaps international efforts to consolidate democracy in countries already in
From the rising ethnic and religious conflicts in Indonesia to the blatant disregard
of the arbitrary role of the judicial system in Croatia and Serbia to the ongoing
corruption and civil unrest in Sierra Leone and Angola to the Cubanization of Venezuela,
an unstable Cambodia could very well shake loose the foundation of peace, thus the
hopes and prospects for consolidating liberal democracies. Worse, it could marginalize
countries currently rendered some of the most repressive [e.g., China, Iraq, Iran,
Cuba, Vietnam] to replace one-party regimes with more participatory and representative
ones. Worst, it would deny Cambodians and citizens the world over of their hard-fought
and well-deserved civil and political rights.
Space constraint would limit my examination to the relationship between the rule
of law and consolidating liberal democracy. I argue that without the rule of law,
which upholds individual rights, consolidating democracy would be difficult; albeit,
these rights are at the heart of democracy. I wish to acknowledge that democracy
is only one pillar of nation-building. The age-old phenomenon nonetheless merits
recognition because it creates an environment that redirects sovereignty back into
the hands of the people.
Cambodia contributes to the 60 percent of the world's countries to have adopted democracy.
Mario Soares, former president and prime minister of Portugal, led the third wave
of democracy nearly three decades ago after successfully overthrowing the dictatorial
regime in 1974. Ironically, Cambodia bore witness to the short but inspirational
second wave of democratization [which began just after the Second World War] with
the emergence of nationalism under the leadership of Prince Sisowath Youtevong and
the introduction of liberal democracy from 1946 to 1955. Regrettably, this wave would
suffer a severe blow by Sihanouk's one-party system of 'guided democracy' eventually
evolving into authoritarianism.
Contemporary minimalist conceptions of democracy, as amply noted by Larry Diamond,
refer to the unique conditions and circumstances of each given state. Such conceptualization
helps determine the requirements of certain levels of civil freedom so as to embrace
the general imperatives of a democracy [e.g., competition, participation, freedom
(of press, speech, expression), rule of law, separation of powers, etc.] David Collier
and Steven Levitsky have also identified more than 550 'subtypes' of democracy-either
identifying specific institutional features, or defining a full democracy. To define
democracy in Cambodia therefore requires conceptual clarity.
Perhaps Cambodia's new-fangled experience would suggest using Terry Karl's 'fallacy
of electoralism,' for example. This theory applies more weight to elections rather
than the overall dimensions of democracy. He postulates that by doing so, one denies
the "significant sections of the population the opportunity to contest for power
or advance and defend their interests, or may leave significant arenas of decision-making
power beyond the reach or control of elected officials."
Ghia Nodia offers light into the debate by referring to post-communist transitional
democracies as imitations of Western models; the transit, indeed, makes them part
of Western mainstream politico-ideology [i.e., imperialism]. In this regard, the
spread of democracy "depends much more on conformity and envy than on creativity
and conviction". He suggests that "certain prerequisites regarding culture,
the economy and modernization" are gradually becoming less significant because
of this 'inorganic' growth process where there is no "gradual societal transformation
followed by a change of political regime". He also notes the important relationship
between the economics and the politics of a country, whereby a country with a stronger
economy is more likely to have a sustainable democracy. Cambodia is conceivably an
exception to the abovementioned assertion with its slowly developing economy and
ill-fated politics, but fits into the characterization given the ideological nature
of its transformation.
Insofar as rebuffing basic rights and freedoms, the question to ask is: Are post-communist
regimes, such as Cambodia's, hastily leaping into democracy so as to reap the benefits
of the elite-driven character of the West? Given the hollowed out effect, as Diamond
notes, of newly democratized countries and their unique interpretations of the political
model, post-communist democratic transitions are more likely to bifurcate into two
strands of democracy: illiberal or hybrid authoritarianism. This, indeed, is best
described by the political pundit Fareed Zakaria in his theory boldly labeling the
fourth wave of democracy illiberal. He argues "democratically elected regimes
...are routinely ignoring their constitutional limits on their power and depriving
their citizens of basic rights and freedoms". Does Cambodia's democratization
befit this assumption?
Cambodia's democratization at present is best described as an electoral democracy
that suits the stereotype of a hybrid authoritarian democracy. But, should Cambodia's
political elites continue to endorse a climate of ill-fated politics and power centralization,
Cambodia would soon meet face to face with illiberalism. This is rightfully assumed
given the presence of elections and international aid, which slightly produces party
alternation in power, and the acknowledgement [but not full implementation] of basic
civil and political freedoms. However, there is the possibility of reverting to a
full-on authoritarian-like formation creating an illiberal democracy where political
elites allow for a substantial level of restriction on the rights of citizens. The
implied definition of hybrid authoritarianism and not illiberal suggests leniency
only because of continued international aid and maybe even pressure. Perhaps the
disenfranchised nature of the FUNCINPEC party, the tenuous financial situation of
the SRP and the clever, yet repressive nature of the CPP has much to do with the
continuity of parochial politics? Nevertheless, the reverberation of political oppression
poses tremendous implications on the prospects for consolidation. The current rate
of 'politics without boundaries' would therefore suggest a rather long, windy road
The rational-legal model enforces the rule of law, without which the existence of
democracy remains a façade. Because power abhors a vacuum, Cambodia's nominal
leaders have religiously ignored the rule of law. Impunity, of course, remains a
force to be dealt with.
Irrespective of the glorious praises of Cambodia's developments, the thorn of impunity
remains at its side. The causal factor has been the dismissal of a sharp separation
of powers in which the executive and judicial branches are not independent and remains
attached to factional politics. Cambodia's Constitution, inspired by the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, was promulgated in 1993. It states that the judiciary
shall remain an independent power "which shall uphold impartiality and protect
the rights and freedoms of the people." [Article 130 of the Constitution underpins
this divide.] Currently, the Minister of Justice is a member of the Council which
further emphasizes the deliberate violation of Constitutional provisions.
Lao Mong Hay, former Director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, posits "Cambodia's
1993 Constitution today remains little more than a proclamation of intentions"
so as to underline the practical nonexistence of a separation of powers among the
National Assembly, the Royal Government of Cambodia and the Judiciary. According
to Lao, the National Assembly has the obligation and the duty to represent the voices
of its constituents. In practice however Members of Parliament elastically curve
to the contours of the executive power.
The longstanding tradition of having the executive authority override the independence
of the judiciary remains at the helm. Historical representations of Cambodia's judicial
system are also contending factors for onward impunity. That is, the French judicial
system and the Vietnamese-inspired system were incorporated into Cambodia's practices
prior to the implementation of the "Provisions relating to the Judiciary and
Criminal Law and Procedure Applicable in Cambodia during the Transitional Period"-more
commonly known as the UNTAC Penal Code. The hitherto, ubiquitous extrajudicial processes
are driven by the Vietnamese judicial model in which "people are often convicted
on the basis of confessions obtained under duress, without corroborating evidence".
The dearth of intellectual and financial resources further exacerbates the problem.
In addition, the 2000 Amnesty International report indicates "Cambodia's judicial
system is weak [in which] both the civil and military courts are subject to political
pressure and allegations of corruption in criminal cases are commonplace". It
denotes the "[Cambodian] judicial system is subject to arbitrary and unconstitutional
direct interference by the executive branch of the government, undermining human
rights protection and preventing the independent administration of justice".
The arbitrariness of the judicial branch serves as the bulwark of basic civil and
political freedoms and socio-economic equality.
Sandra Coliver indicates that "an effective judiciary plays a key institutional
role in the balance of powers necessary for a genuine democracy...and...the absence
of an effective legal system fosters violence, crime and corruption". Civil
disobedience and corruption, among others, are unsurprisingly widespread in Cambodia.
Cambodian politicians have come to acknowledge the application of the rule of law,
but have not necessarily become subordinate to it. Similar to other Asian countries,
Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, the rule of law has been steadily replaced by the rule
The most challenging task is to decentralize power from the few and to have the rule
of law become the sine qua non of every action and reaction. From civil-society to
the executive branch, the rule of law should be met with openness and malleability
so that rule of law reforms can be made. By spearheading these principles, all central
institutions of justice, police, prosecutors and judges, must be at the beck and
call of impartiality. Most importantly, a sharp divide between the executive, judicial,
and even legislative branch must be in place.
But given the negligence of the rule of law where politicians flex their muscles
and rule by the law, Cambodia's democratization will witness the rise of an illiberal
democracy where basic liberties and the rule of law are constantly challenged by
impunity and corruption. I have argued that democracy is currently in the hybrid
authoritarian state where power is centered.
Nevertheless, these great features of democracy [i.e., good governance and anti-corruption,
respect for human rights, political pluralism] are brought back into mainstream society
when international observers are physically and financially engulfed. Power-wielding
mechanisms of authori-tarianism however simmer as a lethal weapon to all forms of
development. Disguising such behaviors under democracy to please financiers more
accurately assumes that the country is headed in the right direction.
More befuddling is the complacency and apathy witnessed in the attitudes of the international
community. By my own accounts, I've noticed that most expatriates realize the perpetuation
of illegitimacy and anti-good governance but choose the easier, perhaps less destructive
route of turning a blind eye. But why? Is it because policy-makers anxiously leap
into situations where the perfect social, political, economic and cultural [and even
financial] conditions are present but neglect to realize the truth? Or, is it because
when democracy is challenged by the uncanny methods resembling authoritarian rule,
the international community either explicitly or implicitly ignores the aforementioned
as they fear for the return of instability? Or, is it a simple case of apathy-and
to an extent, selfishness?
Of course, "where there is potential for significant change, assistance should
be ventured even where the likelihood of that change is low," or perhaps the
so-called 'democratic alchemy' would replace political models and systems once repressive
of basic liberties. But Diamond champions the aforesaid assertions by indicating
that the worst thing and most dangerous [intellectual] temptation is teleology: to
think that the world is necessarily moving toward some democratic end state. He goes
on to say that "too many policy makers have taken [electoral] democracy as an
end state in itself [and that] many citizens blithely take the current state as their
own established democracies as an end point of political evolution [which is] the
best democracy can do...even though it leaves them cynical and detached...and...some
observers seem to assume that democratic consolidation is bound to follow transition
in much of the world." All of which are presumptuous and counterproductive and
could very well do more harm than good for Cambodia and elsewhere.
Because of her fledgling nature, one of three, or all, things could arise: 1) Cambodia's
democratization would fall into the third reverse wave of democratic breakdown where
illiberalism would diffuse; 2) Cambodians would become more cynical and detached;
or 3) the government uses the weak state of democracy to their advantage. All three
trends seem to either be within earshot or in progress. Nonetheless, the other 99.9
percent of the population would ultimately lose unless rule of law reforms are made.
This, I argue, would guarantee justice, peace and of course democracy. Change however
is only good if those who hold the power to change welcome it. Though a confessed
idiosyncratic harbinger, I hope my pessimism serves as a foundation for caution.
ó Peter Keo is former Assistant Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation
and Peace, Phnom Penh.