Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Back to the past: the hoax of democracy goes on

Back to the past: the hoax of democracy goes on

Back to the past: the hoax of democracy goes on

As political exiles return to Phnom Penh, and Cambodians are set to go back to the

ballot box, Jamie Factor sees the same actors taking up the same script in a show

which doesn't include peace and reconciliation.

Cambodia is a nation at war with itself. The characteristics of the conflict today

are familiar enough. The actors have paraded across this stage before. Even the opposition,

urgent and courageous though its efforts may be, looks to the past for solutions

to Cambodia's self-defeating cycle of violence, opportunism, patronage and corruption.

In other parliamentary systems, even those that face difficult and complex post-war

challenges, the collapse of a governing coalition results more often than not in

an early election. If Cambodia also lacks the capacity to plan and conduct constitutionally

mandated elections next year, it is due in large part to the minimal standards of

governance to which this country has been held by its international benefactors from

the moment the Royal Government was established. The prospect of elections was so

feared by some foreign governments that it took a coup d'état against an increasingly

unpopular but democratically elected leader for them to recognize that reconciliation,

like stability, is a state of mind, not a tactic. It will now take a great deal more

than a neutral election commission and international observers for the Paris Agreements

to be rescued from the scrap heap of history.

It is assumed that elections, conducted on a timely and regular basis, are of paramount

importance in the life of any functioning and sustainable democratic society. It

is also true that technical and logistical competence is at least as crucial to a

sound and certifiable outcome as is the absence of unfair election practices. Such

competence cannot be bought and paid for by foreign donors, East or West. Unfortunately,

the Royal Government did nothing to reinforce the skills of the tens of thousands

of Cambodians who worked the polls alongside their United Nations volunteer mentors

in 1993. For this reason alone, even if Prince Ranariddh and other political exiles

return to campaign without risk to life and limb, Cambodia has little choice but

to request the mass deployment of foreign election experts throughout the country.

Without this practical assistance, there is little reason to believe that Cambodia

can organize an election any time soon - even one that is fraught with intimidation,

violence and fraud. And this, as the saying goes, places donor nations squarely between

a rock and hard place - a quandary for which they have themselves, as much as Hun

Sen, to blame.

Knowing that it is not only Hun Sen who stands in the way of his restoration to power,

Prince Ranariddh, in an effort to redeem his countless errors in judgment during

the past four years, has now staked his own future and that of the fatally fractured

Funcinpec Party on the Union of Cambodian Democrats (UCD). With this in mind, it

is worth examining the political baggage that this back-to-the-future alliance carries

with it, but must discard, if it is to offer a credible alternative to the Cambodian

People's Party (CPP) or to the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC).

Throughout the 1980s, Fun-cinpec, the Khmer Rouge and Son Sann's KPNLF held Cambodia's

seat at the UN as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). The CGDK

was a source of great pride and consolation for Cambodia's then deposed head of state,

King Sihanouk. It was also a deeply flawed alliance of competing ideologies and objectives.

Whether this recognized government-in-exile was a just and able enterprise remains

the subject of debate among even the most ardent supporters of the UCD today. The

former State of Cambodia (SoC) believed that the coalition was created, financed

and armed at the expense of Cambodia's sovereignty as a nation.

If nothing else, the CGDK was a foreign invention - a fact well understood by all

parties to the conflict at the time. The irony of this could not have been lost on

the SoC, compelled as it was to defend its very existence because of its reliance

on Vietnam. It was also believed that this policy of containment, embodied in the

CGDK, would enable patron states to better control and manipulate resistance leaders,

not least among them Sihanouk himself. Yet notwithstanding this controversial deal

for arms and recognition, each of the resistance factions believed they could retain

some degree of independence - not only from their superpower patrons, but especially

from each other. They did so by maintaining separate armies, camps and administrative

structures. That trust among them was sorely lacking made these rival hierarchies

inevitable. It also made them less effective.

For its part, the CGDK assumed, as many in the international community also did,

that the SoC was well and truly a house of cards, and not the immovable force it

since has proven to be. Thus, as Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989,

the CGDK pressed for a peace plan in which they would share power with the Phnom

Penh regime. What resistance leaders sought at the time was a power-sharing arrangement

much like the one Funcinpec was forced to settle for by the time the post-UN interim

government first met in July of 1993.

The idea that Cambodia's battlefield enemies could jointly govern was initially rejected

by the permanent members of the UN Security Council in favor of a peacekeeping plan

proposed earlier by Australia. Also evident in the Paris agreements is that international

negotiators viewed all of the Cambodian factions as unreliable recalcitrants who

would continue to sacrifice what was left of their country for as long as they could.

This view, widely shared among foreign signatories, led them to conclude that a transitional

authority was the only way to stop the war. Although this was not an insignificant

objective, it was UNTAC (the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia) that brought

about the power-sharing agreement that everyone knew from years of stop-and-go diplomacy

could only fail - as indeed it has.

UNTAC, with vast financial, material and human resources at its disposal, organized

the 1993 elections in less than one year. The outcome was not honored by the losers

but the effort was so successful that Cambodians hardly noticed. Instead, they began

to believe in the possibility of democracy.

In Bosnia, where war criminals also roam free, and where the promise of economic

and political recovery is envisaged in another costly peace accord, the failure to

hold the architects of war accountable for the havoc they wrought, and the agreements

they signed, created an electoral environment even more volatile than is now evident

in Cambodia. This did not stop the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

(OSCE) from conducting general and local elections in 1996 and 1997, with little

more than six months of organizational lead time for each round. It also took several

hundred technically skilled foreign civilians working day and night under the high

profile protection of NATO ground troops to pull it off. What Cambodia and Bosnia

share in common is that each is the beneficiary of a high maintenance experiment

in post-settlement peace-building that has led to greater political conflict, not


As described by some analysts of partition politics, "divide and quit"

was the strategy most preferred by the old colonial powers who sought to extricate

themselves from any responsibility for the intractable civil conflicts their intervention

often fueled and invariably left behind. If so, then the converse is equally true

today when powerful outsiders negotiate a marriage of convenience between warring

factions who have not resolved their fundamental differences, and then run for it.

This sort of merge-and-quit approach to peacekeeping is very useful for getting around

domestic opposition in foreign capitals to distant interventions that would otherwise

never end. But it does little to strengthen, and much to undermine, the process of

democratic transition. Moreover, when combined with a massive infusion of foreign

aid for which there is marginal accountability, old patterns are reinvigorated, not

weakened. This then leads to the argument that constructive engagement in a post-war

context is the surest way to avoid further bloodshed and, by some unproven test of

logic, will eventually bring about a more just and open society. In Cambodia, engagement

has not led to the consolidation of democracy or respect for human rights. To the

contrary, it re-ignited civil conflict under the arbitrary command of a greatly empowered

and unrestrained Hun Sen. To this sad end, when implementing the instructions of

their respective governments during the past four years, Phnom Penh's foreign diplomats

no doubt reported the following:

In comparison with what Cambodians endured under the Khmer Rouge regime, and during

the SoC years of authoritarian isolation, the RGC was the only feasible alternative

to more of the same - even if those opposed to this losing proposition sacrifice

their lives in pursuit of something else. There is a duly elected parliament - even

if it only meets to expel or exile opposition members, or to rubber stamp legislation

from on high. Thousands of aid officials, non-governmental organization workers,

investors and foreign diplomats have offered their expertise, recognition, goodwill

and cash - even if they are resented or exploited and sometimes robbed for their

efforts. Cambodia held a unified seat in the General Assembly and would take its

rightful place as an ASEAN member - if not for the July 5 coup. But if this is not

enough to convince the skeptics, remember that the war had stopped, more or less

- even as Royal Cambodian Armed Forces generals swore new oaths upon old allegiances

and then directed their unpaid soldiers to lock and load for the next battle. Small

wonder Cambodia has come full circle.

It should not be forgotten that the seeds of the Khmer Nation Party (KNP) were sown

as early as January of 1994, two months after the Royal Government was established,

when Sam Rainsy went to the Olympic markets in support of vendors who faced expulsion

from their long-standing place of business. The subject of his ire was one of Cambodia's

most powerful and wealthy personalities. It didn't take long for the Second Prime

Minister to demand, first from his partner, and then from the King, Rainsy's dismissal

from his ministerial post. This led Prince Sirivudh to warn their party president

to tread carefully when acquiescing to the wishes of Hun Sen - lest he find himself

abandoned and alone for his betrayal of everything Funcinpec supporters fought and

died for in the years leading up to the UNTAC elections. Although some time passed

before Hun Sen's objectives were fully realized, his reaction to Rainsy's appearance

at the Olympic markets was an obvious but unheeded sign of much worse things to come.

There should be little hope by now that the CPP will ever jettison Hun Sen for the

sake of legitimacy and recognition. Why should it? Why, when faced with the loss

of Soviet military and economic assistance in 1989, did Hun Sen and his party cohorts

believe so fervently in their own invincibility? And why would they now volunteer

to give up all they were able to keep and acquire, not in spite of the UN's presence

in Cambodia, but because of it? The CPP's outright rejection of the 1993 election

results is just one of many indications that its leaders have no intention of keeping

the promises they made at Paris. For this, they now face condemnation abroad and

growing discontent at home. But these sentiments are not universal enough, and Hun

Sen and his colleagues are counting on someone else to blink first. In the meantime,

they will continue to benefit from the deaths of innocent people whose only crime

is to insist on their right to make a different choice. If this leaves the Cambodian

people with little more than their dreams of a better life, to whom should they turn

for help?

History has proved, in quite a few authoritarian states, that ordinary people fare

better in the long run when they follow opposition leaders who are dedicated to the

principles of non-violence and who do not assume the characteristics of those they

seek to replace. This depends largely on their refusal to legitimize state violence

and on their rejection of those who would use the same tactics. Since the opposition

in Cambodia cannot achieve its goals alone, it must search for partners among the

worthy. It is far easier to suggest who to avoid.

Military allies who cynically promise peace while invoking the war-mongering rhetoric

and propaganda of the past can only lead to more death and destruction. Those who

have been corrupted by their free-wheeling involvement in Cambodia's chaotic transition

to a market economy can only be counted on to sell out their partners when the next

highest bidder comes along. And there is nothing that unrepentant agents of genocide

can possibly offer to a nation that seeks to advance the cause of justice and rule

of law.

Opposition leaders cannot expect anyone to follow them on the mere promise of change.

Cambodians have heard this before and were vastly disappointed. To defeat the near

certain prospect of single-party rule for years to come, they must offer a concrete

vision of governance in which Cambodia's destructive and recurring patterns of political

and military conflict are unequivocally rejected and dismantled. To gain and keep

the support of the international community, the UCD must also recognize, collectively

and individually, that there is no turning back to the days of civil war and isolation.

When demonstrating how they would lead their country down a new and different path,

the democratic alliance must in fact challenge and reconstruct the entire political

and social order that now defines Cambodia as a nation. If this suggests an unacceptable

and presumptuous intervention into culture and custom, consider the fact that few

nations have suffered so bitter a betrayal, time and again, by its own leaders. Cambodia

can hardly survive even five more years of the same.

Given the opportunity to do so freely, who, and what system of government, would

Cambodians choose today? In 1993, the average person sought peace. By choosing peace,

they also opted for change from the status quo. What they got was an internecine

replay of an old and worn out movie - an internationally financed hoax and little

more. This is because the absence of war has never yielded a single democratic government

anywhere in the world, let alone an enduring state of peace and stability. Put another

way, where there is no will for reconciliation and peace, it cannot be forced. If

there is any lesson to be learned from this simple human truth, it can be found in

Cambodia today.

- Jamie Factor, a former National Democratic Institute representative

in Cambodia, served as an election official in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


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