The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) is a German political foundation working worldwide to promote democracy, the rule of law, human rights and a socially equitable market economy. Named after Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the foundation is closely associated with current Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party and has been operating in Cambodia since 1994. A key backer of the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – which offered the nation’s first four-year Bachelor of Arts course in journalism – the KAS has, amongst many projects, been instrumental in promoting a free and vibrant press in Cambodia. The Post’s Julius Thiemann recently spoke with KAS Cambodia chief Denis Schrey about the foundation’s work in the Kingdom, its accomplishments and its vision for the future.
How exactly does KAS go about promoting democracy in Cambodia?
The key is working together in a real partnership at eye level, identifying the change agents of Cambodian society in the different sectors and working towards the development of democratic structures and processes. A specific focus is put on actively promoting political youth participation and an engaged media. Democracy needs active youth participation in political parties and it needs free, professional and diverse media to report political and societal issues from different angles.
German democracy was built over centuries and experienced a severe backlash when the Weimar Republic was undermined and brought down by the Nazi regime. The German constitution that defines today’s free democratic basic order – and that came into effect in 1949 – builds upon the lessons of the Nazi terror as well as the norms and values of German society.
Bearing all that in mind, how does the promotion and understanding of democracy in Germany differ from that in Cambodia?
It’s difficult to make a direct comparison between German and Cambodian history. Although Germany and Cambodia both had to cope with terroristic regimes, the consequences for Cambodia – which lost nearly all its intellectuals – were much more debilitating and can still be felt today.
But in both countries, coming to terms with the past is an important element of promoting democracy. Remembrance and reconciliation are crucial elements for a society to overcome its joint trauma.
Nevertheless, one needs to keep in mind that in Cambodia, there is a historic lack of experiences with building democratic institutions and structures.
Therefore, learning and adapting experiences from other countries is one important, but not fully sufficient component of developing the urgently needed legal and institutional mechanisms and frameworks that ensure representative democracy can function effectively.
Without real democrats, who are ready to take political responsibility through active political engagement in political parties – the best structures might not be filled with life.
Therefore, democratic life and behaviour need to be experienced in schools and universities offering political and civic education from an early stage. Real civic education and encouraging young citizens to take responsibility might provide the basis for applying democratic practice in everyday life. This is more difficult in a social-cultural context where critical thinking is still not much developed and promoted and where family status rather than individual merits are respected and rewarded.
Can Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia in particular, develop democracies after European models? Is this at all desirable?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for democracy promotion. The concept and practice of democracy differ from one country to another. As an external actor, long-term commitment is needed. It takes time to build new institutions, democratic structures, and trust between partners is the main prerequisite.
Models can serve as an orientation and should be carefully studied, but their replication should be embedded in the social cultural conditions and habits.
Experiences from European countries may be relevant, as many countries and Europe as a whole underwent setbacks and did learn from their failures. Europe can serve as a model for mutual understanding and peace. Lessons can be learned from the harmonisation of economies (economic integration), and the political will of countries to cooperate and to contribute according to their status of economic development. European countries can also learn from ASEAN states – it’s a two-way process.
What achievements can KAS look back upon during its time in Cambodia? What contributions did the foundation make specifically?
After 20 years, it is difficult to highlight specific activities as every activity in itself has contributed in one way or another to democratic development, but I can try to highlight a few of our achievements.
The successful piloting political and administrative district structures in Battambang and Siem Reap in the framework of the EU-Asia Urbs projects 1-3, including the piloting of the One Window Services offices in the two places [an attempt to streamline bureaucracy and cut down on corruption] successfully illustrated the close cooperation between KAS, the Ministry of Interior and the relevant Cambodian local authorities. The replication of the concepts to all provinces and in Phnom Penh illustrated the replicability of the concepts.
The successful setting up and smooth running of the Department of Media and Education over the past 12 years has contributed to train more than 300 young motivated media professionals with critical thinking skills who will immensely contribute to the development of ethical and objective journalism in Cambodia in the long term.
The efforts to promote political parties have increased the understanding of the younger generation on the importance of developing membership-based, programmatic and democratic parties with professional party structures at all levels.
These and other initiatives will continue into the future. KAS will continue to support the development of the foundations of a democratic system through political education, the development of effective legal and organisational structures – especially of the parliament and political parties – further media education and increasing local autonomy.