From "Mission civilisatrice" to "Mission démocratisatrice"1? By Henri
Cambodians are voting this Sunday, February 3, 2002 in commune elections
and most agree that the country will be taking a decisive step along the path to
democracy. But people are mistaken in believing that it is the first time ever
in Cambodia that the citizenry-men and women, perhaps-will be allowed to choose
freely their councillors and, in turn, their mékhums and their deputies. For
there has been quite a long history of grassroots democracy in Cambodia.
A short history of the Cambodian commune & the ballot system
In the old days, before the arrival of the French, and the signing of the
Treaty of Protectorate in 1863, the smallest administrative division was then
called srok and varied considerably in size, according to the population
density2. Notables gathered and chose from among themselves the village chief
and his deputies, serving as an informal body of councillors3. However, by the
19th century, those notables no longer played much of an official role and local
leaders were nominated by the authorities up above. Their main duties were to
collect taxes and maintain law and order.
With the French Protectorate,
a number of initial reforms were attempted in the days of King Norodom I
(1859-1904), but it was under the reign of his younger brother, King Sisowath
(1904-1927), that the modern khum was really created by the Ordonnance Royale
(O.R.) of June 5, 1908. Elections of mékhum and their chumtup (councillors) in
the srok were first instituted from signing of the O.R. of August 21, 19014.
Notables were to be elected by those who paid the personal tax (that is
virtually everyone-men and women), provided the election was afterwards legally
sanctioned by the District Chief or Chauvaysrok, himself appointed by the
provincial Cambodian Governor or Chauvaykhet.
elections", as they were called, indeed took place from 1901 to World War II,
but those have never been general in the sense the February 3, 2002 polls are
nationwide. From 1901 tentatively, and more formally from June 5, 1908 in the
fourteen provinces, elections have occurred at different dates for each province
and later at different dates in each srok or even khum when the time or
necessity arose to organise new elections.
But one must admit that a
long investigation into surviving archives in both Cambodia and France would be
required to determine if those elections really benefited the ordinary Khmer
farmer. Did these polls really sow the first seeds of local democracy or were
they only a means for the coloniser to grasp hold of the entire territory, down
to every individual rice-grower and therefore tax payer? If we turn to
historians from both the French and the English speaking worlds they would tend
to answer negatively, while other authors simply ignore the importance of local
democracy and totally overlook the khum in their narratives. A brief
historiography of the Cambodian commune, since the abolition of "apanages5,"
granted to Palace dignitaries, is revealing.
On the French side, for
instance, in the classic French complete study of Institutions
constitutionnelles & Politiques du Cambodge by Claude-Gilles Gour, published
in 1965, in the heyday of the Sangkum period, one can read:
institution of bodies representative of the entire population was attempted
without much success at all levels of the Cambodian administration [...] - at
the village level first, as early as 1877, then by 1884 and 1908 texts, and
finally by the Royal Ordinance of 15 November 1925. Those are the main landmarks
in the institution of a local autonomy, modelled on the West at the communal
level. Unfortunately the author adds: ... a study of that institution would go
beyond our present preoccupations6.
Similarly, in Penny Edwards' recent
perceptive and informative study of Cambodia's Cultivation of a nation,
1860-1945, we fail to find any information about the birth of the modern
Nation-State at the local level. We read with great interest about early French
efforts to do away with patron-client networks in order to establish State-based
loyalties7, about the absence of the notion of a State operating outside of
personal relationships, about the regional character of traditional form of
government Mandarins8, about Western concepts of governance with its new
nation-centric orientations that inevitably modified this, but the Cambodian
commune itself is also absent.
This approach is in line with her academic
mentor, David Chandler, who, overlooked all details about the creation and the
organisation of the khum. He merely sweeps the question away by stating
[In 1921], the French experimented with a "communal"
reorganisation of Cambodia along Vietnamese lines, only to drop it after a year
Alain Forest, who restricts his study to the early years of
France's attempts at establishing a modern form of administration in the Kingdom
of Cambodia, that is the years from 1897 to 1920, comes up with a rather
pessimistic view of the French endeavour at creating democratically elected
communes. Paradoxically, he does so in spite of the subtitle of his PhD study of
the period: Le Cambodge & la colonisation française, Histoire d'une
colonisation sans heurts. By and large, he asserts that traditional village
chiefs, freely selected by local notables in the past, were replaced by a
universal suffrage that was alien to Khmer traditions. Since the main duties of
the khum authorities were to maintain law and order and collect taxes from all
and sundry, they tended to become policemen and tax collectors in the eyes of
their electors. So their position became almost untenable: were they the
mouthpieces of the people or representatives of the French colonial power?
What made things worse was that, geographically speaking, the new
Cambodian khum was not modelled on the French commune (as everyone claims), the
parish of the pre-revolutionary Ancien régime days in France. It embraced-and
still embraces today-a much wider administrative division that included several
villages around their pagodas, and therefore centuries-old communities. The
hyper-centralising Khmer Rouge liked that, for they soon replaced the smaller
village sahakor (their rural forced camps or collectives) by larger units based
on the colonial communes.
The nadir of negative assessment of French
attempts at establishing an administration that would extend to the heart of
Khmer society was reached in John Tully's Cambodia Under the Tricolour: King
Sisowath and the "Mission Civilisatrice", 1904-1927:
"As his sub-title
indicates10, Forest regards the Protectorate as basically beneficial for
Cambodia. This is a one-sided interpretation. Sisowath's Cambodia, in common
with Indochina as a whole at the time, can be described as a colonial police
state, ruled with an iron hand by a strict hierarchy of power with its apex in
Fortunately, not fearing to contradict himself, John Tully
writes extensively in sharp opposition to this ideological stance (not to say
one that is out of place, after the totalitarian regime of "Democratic"
Kampuchea). He clearly details the sweeping modernising reforms brought by the
colonial administration and approved by the enlightened monarch. Tully noted
perceptively that if "the accession of Sisowath to the throne marked the
beginning of [the] golden age [of French presence]11 that was to last for four
decades, Cambodia had lost what sovereignty she had; the fiction of the
protectorate was a flimsy legal veil for the reality of the de facto colonial
rule. It is about the qualification of the very nature of this colonial rule
that one can be allowed to disagree. If Tully fairly lists the full amount of
the achievements of those forty years, he concludes that "the French [did not]
seriously challenge the traditions of absolutist rule12". Nothing could be
further from the truth. Even during the 23 years of Sisowath's reign, great
strides towards a constitutional monarchy had been made. The King had accepted
as a matter of principle (in the name of not only unavoidable, but even
desirable modernization) to give his approval to suggestions of the colonial
administration. His son, King Monivong (1927-1941) had a similar attitude. Under
young King Norodom Sihanouk, the country's first democratic constitution was
established in 1947, before the French were forced to hand back power on
November 9, 1953. By then, "Absolute Rule" had been terminated - officially,
To prove his point, Tully rightly points to the great weakness
of the educational field in colonial days (a weakness that was to be addressed
in Sangkum days), but totally failed to mention that it was under Sisowath's
reign that the commune, along with universally elected local councils, came
legally into existence. He did not mention these for a very simple material
reason, one can presume (apart from his ideological looking-glasses). He looked
carefully at the Archives d'Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence and failed (or could
not) look at those preserved in Phnom Penh's National Archives. I suppose, when
Cambodia became independent in 1953 and when the Indochinese Federation was
dissolved in the wake of the July 20, 1954 Geneva agreement, the French took
away with them the colonial archives concerning the French administrations, but
left behind all those concerning the parallel Cambodian administration itself.
And these speak volumes.
Today, the students at the Law Faculty in Phnom
Penh, re-founded in 1992 with renewed French aid, are taught the Histoire des
Institutions khmères from the description contained in the book bearing this
very title by Jean Imbert, published by the Faculty in 1961. The then Doyen de
la Faculté de Droit & des Sciences Économiques de Phnom Penh wrote what is
still regarded as a reliable classic from the Sangkum era. The future lawyers
are lectured about the formal creation of the modern khum in 1908 and instructed
that from then, every inhabitant, whatever his nationality provided he paid the
personal tax (something like Margaret Thatcher's 'poll tax'), could elect
councillors (then called kromchumnum) every four years, all electors being
eligible. The councillors would elect the mékhum from among themselves who, in
turn, selected his deputies. Originally, these were very numerous, but, as they
constituted unmanageable assemblies, they were reduced in number over the years.
The organisation of the khum was the object of numerous reforms in 1919, 1925,
1931, 1935, 1941-an indication things were not running as smoothly as hoped.
French administrators were continuously trying to simplify the intricacies and
meanderings of the bureaucracy of the metropolis they were attempting to
transplant into the Protectorate.
Jean Imbert gives students a lengthy
list of the duties of the mayors, but fails to put on centre stage clearly the
fundamentally contradictory position of the mékhum. Although they were chosen by
universal suffrage, their main obligations were those of chief policeman and
tax-collectors-by essence the responsibilities of a modern State13. Imbert does
not clearly state either that the authoritarian collaborateur Vichy régime would
have nothing to do with popular elections and simply abolished them in December
194114. Instead, khum authorities came again to be designated by the authorities
up above, and Cambodians have had to wait sixty-one more years-or two
generations-for these universal elections to be restored. This explains why
hardly anyone in this country remembers anything about the tortuous history of
Cambodian local democracy.
Khmer Chronicles, the unpublished memoirs of
Chakrey Samdech Nhiek Tioulong, a seasoned administrator who worked for four
decades in the Cambodian civil service, tells us the accurate story of the
Cambodian commune in modern times. His descriptions can be clearly documented by
the vast archival material held in the National Library.
days, by the time the French managed to de facto transform a protectorate into a
colony, there were two parallel administrative structures in the Kingdom of
Cambodia-the French one, using French language, and the Cambodian one using
Khmer. Legal documents were translated into the coloniser's idiom for him to be
in a position to supervise everything. The fourteen provinces, reorganised in
the early 1920s, or khets, corresponded to the fourteen French Residences. In
theory, those came under the Palace and the Ministers, while in practice they
were under the close supervision of the local Résident. Since provincial
Résidents reported exclusively to the Résident Supérieur in Phnom Penh, the
entire Cambodian local administration was under the administration of the
Protectorate, and the Palace together with the Council of Ministers were
Tioulong underlines first that, contrary to the situation in
France or other Asian countries, like Vietnam, the commune, or khum has never
really existed in Cambodia as a living human community. Solidarity among
citizens and mutual help have always existed, though, but at the village and
pagoda levels. Natural leaders were the méphums and the pagoda achas, chosen by
a consensus of the people. For security reasons, and after centuries of
incessant wars, villages were widely scattered.
In the early decades of
the 20th Century, Troisième République France, under the influence of
Radical-Socialisme and the ideology of Liberté-Égalité-Fraternité, attempted to
fix the organisation of the Cambodian commune, supposedly modelled on the
metropolis. If the mode of election (universal suffrage) has been indeed
identical since 1908, neither the
sizes nor the two main obligations of the
mékhums (security and tax collection) have their counterpart in the French
At the time, the young King Sihanouk's long and bloodless fight
for independence from the return of the French in 1945 to the formal transfer of
sovereignty on November 9, 1953, formally recognised by the international
community at Geneva in 1954, kept Norodom Sihanouk too busy in those insecure
years to think of local elections. Under the reign of the Sangkum (1955-1970),
and the democratic thrust of its doctrine, attempts at restoring local democracy
were made. The idea of simply re-instating local universal suffrage, was
repeatedly waved, local communities were verbally encouraged to elect their
representatives, but the successive governments had other priorities at the
time, like education, health and industrialisation, not to forget catapulting
the newly sovereign country onto the international scene. While all that was
needed to de done, Tioulong points out, was to simply revive the November 15,
1925 Ordonnance Royale abolished by Vichy. Unfortunately, it must be admitted
that no fundamental reform came to life, as "people failed to understand the
paramount importance of the basic personality of the commune in a democracy" he
wrote wistfully. Although people were advised to elect their local
representatives, this was never sanctioned by law. This has led to a lot of
confusion both in practices at the time and in older people's memories
Lessons to be drawn from the archives
1 - The Ordonnances royales: Ordonnance Royale N. 42 of June 5,
Title I, Article 1: the Khum is the territorial and administrative
division of the Khet which is directed by a Mekhum assisted by a Khum
Title III, Article 8: All inhabitants listed on the personal tax
registers, of whatever nationality, are voters in the Khum and can take part in
the nomination of the Khum Council.
The general elections will take place on a date fixed by the Council of
Ministers. When a vacancy arises, the Mekhum will inform the Provincial
Governor, who will organize an election to select a replacement within one
Article 10: The Mekhum, the deputies and the Krom-Chumnum comprise the
Khum Council. They will meet as often as necessary in the Khum Office or,
alternatively, at the house of the Mekhum. These meetings will take place at
least once every three months.
Article 11: The Khum civil servants will have the following
The Mekhum: Ponhea Reacsaphibal.
First Deputy: Chumtup Reacha.
Second Deputy: Chumtup
Third Deputy and those of the Chumtup Pheackdey.
village chief: Chumtup Sneha.
The Chumtup, simple councillor:
The Group chief: Kechaphibal.
The Mekhums will have a stamp with the name of the village and province in
both Cambodian and French characters.
Among the numerous tasks of the
mayors, along with his deputies and councillors, let us just note the two that
were specific to the Cambodian context and were the cause of innumerable
Art. 12: Powers of the Mekhum: The Mekhum is empowered, with the aid
of the councillors and group chiefs, for the direction and the implementation of
all Khum services.
He guarantees the collection of all taxes, of which he is responsible for by
Responsible for law and order, he requires the
Khum-Chumnum and the inhabitants to take in turn the day and night guards which
are necessary for the security of the Khum;
To provide evidence to the judiciary, to first prosecutors, of the arrest of
individuals accused of crimes and misdemeanors;
Seen in our Palace, in Phnom Penh, on June 5, 1908.
Le Resident superieur
Due to many
difficulties met by the French administration in the implementation of the 1908
O.R., a number of amendments and simplifications were introduced over the years,
and in particular by the September 24, 1919 O.R. The most complete and
definitive description of the Cambodian commune, as defined by François
Baudouin, the "khmerophile" Résident supérieur, is to be found in the Ordonnance
Royale N° 59bis du 15 Novembre 1925. The Titre III "indicates in a more precise
manner how one should proceed with the elections of kromchumnum (the new name of
councillors) and mékhums". It simplifies the hierarchy and reduces the number of
deputies and councillors. The main objective of Baudouin was "to take into
account the evolution of the inhabitants, the transformation of the country and
the development of communal activities.
To guarantee the applicability of
the new regulations, correct errors and fill the missing gaps, the present
provisions have been the object of numerous consultations at all levels of the
Title III, Article 11: The Kromchumnum who constitute the Khum Council
are elected by an electoral college composed of all recognized inhabitants and
French subjects older that 21 years of age, listed on the personal tax register
of the Khum or regularly exempted as retirees or invalids.
Article 14: All civil servants and administrative agents involved with
the various Indochinese budgets or Khum budgets are inelegible.
Article 17: General elections for the Khum Councils will take place
every four years. The date of the elections is to be determined in each Khet by
a decision of the Resident on the recommendation of the Chauvaykhet. These must
be announced and publicised by poster aux chefs-lieux of the Khet, the Srok and
the Khand, in the Khum Halls and in pagodas, at least two months in advance.
Article 18: All voters who want to stand as candidates for the
elections must make a written declaration and prove that they are in compliance
with tax regulations.
The following articles detail the electoral system
used. The number of councillors is proportional to the number of electors. They
have been considerably reduced since 1908 for practical reasons. There is only
one polling station in each khum, presided over by one elector and two deputies.
Polling begins at 6 am and closes at 12. Voters-men and women since 1908, it
seems-must present their personal tax card whose number is inscribed on the
electoral list. They sign it after voting. There are no official ballot papers,
but electors simply inscribe the names of their selected candidates on a piece
of white paper. (Some have been preserved and can be seen in the National
Archives). Candidates elected are those who have obtained more than 50% of the
votes. If the number of successful candidates fails to reach the required number
of councillors, one should go ahead with a second ballot from 1pm to 4pm. Only a
relative majority is then required.
The other difference with the 1908
O.R. is that it is now up to the mékum to designate his deputies or chumtup (no
more than four in the smaller communes)
As previously, the two major
duties of the mékhum, apart from what all local authorities do throughout the
world, is to be first and foremost in charge of security and the rural police,
and the collection of all locally-raised taxes. He supplies each taxpayer with
his personal tax card, which along with the identity card and état-civil
established since 1911, is the hallmark of the modern citizenry at the
The Kram of December 5, 1941 decreed by the collaborating Vichy
government, which had just reneged on its written commitments to protect
Cambodian territory and handed Battambang and most of Northern part of Siem Reap
and Kampong Thom provinces to Thailand, abolished all democratic characteristics
of commune organisation.
First Article: The list of notables are made by the Chauvaysrok each
year by April 13. Those lists must be approved by the Chauvaykhet and the
Article 28: This supercedes and abrogates all previous texts with
regard to the present Kram, notably Articles 11 to 34, 44, 57, 81 or the
Ordonnance Royale N 59bis of November 15, 1925.
To go back one full
century, one question remains to be asked: why were colonial authorities so keen
to transplant the new grassroots democratic traditions which had gradually
developed in the metropolis in the last decades of the 19th Century into a
country where the standards of literacy and education were so low? Was this not
pure utopia? There are several answers. Some given by the French administrators
themselves, some by historians later.
ï The administrators seem to have been genuinely imbued with Troisième
république democratic as-
pirations, best summarised by
motto of "Liberté-Égalité-Fraternité", and said they wished "to develop communal
activities" (François Baudouin), as we have seen. The 1908 report from the
Conseil Supérieur de l'Indochine in Hanoi notes, speaking of newly elected
councillors, that they are witnesses to
"the decentralising measure
implemented" in Cambodia15.
Historians and present day analysts claim that
these innovations expressed a desire "to achieve central control of the khum
level of administration" (David Ayres). The two views might express both sides
of a complex and ambiguous situation.
ï Proving that the centralising theory is right is that the colonising
authorities were most keen to spread peace and fight against all manner of
bandits and smugglers. They thought (exactly like today) popular mékhums would
be in the best position to promote legalised self-defence.
ï Now that Battambang and Siem Reap had been returned to the fold16, what was
of paramount importance for the authorities, was to raise as much tax as
possible from all and sundry. And as my compatriots were seized with a kind of
investing frenzy in order to cover the newly expanded Cambodian territory with a
network of roads, plantations and strikingly planned towns, not to mention a
Royal Palace-as the country had not seen since Angkorian days. And investment
was not to come from the metropolis, but had to be raised from the land.
Did elections actually take place and who voted
Archival material, which has been saved in Phnom Penh from
the Democratic Kampuchea years and decades of neglect, enable us to assert that
universal elections, along the lines set by the official documents did take
place from 1909 onwards till the onset of World War II.
They were never
universal in the sense that they never took place on the same day in the 14
provinces and the capital. Besides, the non-Indianised ethnic minorities of the
Northeast, or Montagnards, as the French called them, in the remote sections of
what was Stung Treng or Kratie provinces, modern local elections were
unthinkable. Therefore those were a far cry for the national character of this
weekend's local elections which are assuming a much wider political
significance. The choice of the authorities at the time was simply a practical
one: they were not in a position to control poll safety and organise the
paperwork of all these popular elections in all the khet and khum at the same
time. After the June 5, 1908 kram (or Ordonnance royale), they were first
organised at different dates in all fourteen provinces. Later, they came to be
simply held at district (srok) or khum levels, as the need was felt. And
elections were held every year till the end of the 1930s.
letters (or Circulaires) from the Résident Supérieur to the provincial French
Résidents tell us that the sophisticated June 5, 1908 poll was quite
inapplicable in the long run. It was absolutely impractical to renew so often so
many councillors and notables, although there was, as in France, no limit in
time to the number of mandates those could fulfil. For instance, François
Baudouin, in a letter dated October 4, 1915, suggests the deputies could be
reduced to 1 for the khum of less than 500 inhabitants, 2 for those with less
than 1,000 and 3 for those with more than 1,000. As to the number of group
councillors, the second category (or kromchumnum), they could just be one for
each phum and one for 200 inhabitants (instead of down to 10, previously), and
no more than 3 for each phum. "Such a limitation of the number of communal
authorities would facilitate more judicious choices, make Council meetings more
easy and give a greater moral authority to elected
For instance, the reply of the Résident of Kampong
Chhnang is revealing, first by his approval of Baudouin's suggestions, secondly
of the contradictory desire of all democratic bureaucrats (if there is such a
thing) to both centralise the administration and promote greater people's
"...your suggestions seem to me to deserve to be followed
without modifications.[...] The figures indicated in your "circulaire" seem to
meet the two wishes of the central administration, strengthen its authority on
the one hand, and facilitate the relations between the mass of the population
and its leaders, on the other18.
One can find written evidence, in the
National Archives, that local elections did take place, district by district, or
commune by commune, till World War II. For instance, Sum Hieng, the Chanvaykhet
of Kampong Chhnang decided on June 9, 1938, that "the electoral college of khum
Andong-Snai, srok Roléa-Peir will be summoned on Friday 12 August 1938 to renew
the councillors (then called kromchumnum) in order for them to select the next
in replacement of Mékhum Sim who
uncontroversial evidence that those local elections did take place, and that
they did not simply exist in the kram and reports of the French and Cambodian
administrators, is that we have a large number of procès-verbaux (official
reports) of these elections. They are of two kinds: the pre-1920 ones which are
very lengthy and difficult to interpret; while the latter ones are plain and
Among one of the earliest pieces of correspondence between the
Cambodian and French administrators on the subject, we can quote from the letter
of a certain Tat, Chauvaykhet of Prey Veng Province. It concerns the villages of
I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your letter No. 6 by which you
have inquired about the
meetings of the new Mekhums and Kromchumnums.
I have the honor to inform you that the Mekhums and kromchumnums which are
referred to in the proces-verbaux have good reputations and that they know how
to read and write easily in Cambodian.
January 19, 1910
We have, for
instance, the procès-verbal of the  local elections in Preah Sraè commune,
Baphnom, district, Prey Veng province. The document is very lengthy for it bears
no less than a total of 534 names. Those represent in fact the full commune
electoral college. At the beginning of the list, you have the name of the
Mékhum, with his full titles, his first deputy, his second deputy, his third
deputy and the five fourth class deputies. A leading team of nine notables, all
flanked with their honorary titles!
The list is followed by the entire
electoral college, with the name of the husband in the first column, the wife in
the second, the number of children (boys and girls). In a last column simply
entitled "Observations", one is told if they are elected "Conseillers" (= first
class councillors), Kéchaphibal (that is village representative or group
leaders, that is second class members of the municipal council), or a blank,
that is simple electors.
At the bottom of each page, you have a total-but
of the children only! At the end of the report, they amount to no less than
1,533 (or an average of 5 and 6 children per family). No other addition is made.
If one adds up these lists, one comes up with 255 men and 279 women. Why the
difference? Because there are 32 widows in all. If they are on this list, does
this mean they were given the right the vote, if not to be elected? In France,
women did not vote until after World War II, in 1945. Or do I misinterpret the
If you add up the number of Conseillers and Kéchaphibal,
you come up respectively with 25 (or one for some 20 electors) and 54 (or one
for 10 electors)! One can easily understand why the Résident Supérieur concluded
that such an institution was too unmanageable and needed to be trimmed in the
From the September 24, 1919 Ordonnance Royale formally
reorganising the Cambodian commune, the election procès-verbaux were more as one
might expect them to be. They no longer were electoral lists but merely spell
out the results of the vote in a particular khum.
For instance, we can look
at the December 20, 1920 elections.
Election for new Mekhum in Lovea
Sar, Srok Lovea Em
- Number of Phums: 2
Number of voters registered: 228
Number off Councilors to elect: 8
Results and Councilors
Chea, husband of Van, age 53, 30 votes
Khieu, husband of Man, age
37, 19 votes
Oum, husband of Khieu, age 39, 2 votes
Chhim, husband of
Oung, age 57, 5 votes
Nop, bachelor, age 31, 5 votes
Kim, husband of Kun,
age 35, 22 votes
Chea, husband of Chimm, age 33, 15 votes
Kith, husband of
Ep, age 31, 16 votes
No other candidate was voted for. These eight concilors have chosen among
them a chief who is the Mekhum, whose name is Chea, husband off Van, and the new
Mekhum of this Khum.
The new Mekhum has chosen nominees:
- Kim, as Chumtup No. 1
Khieu as Chumtup No. 2
Kith as Chumtup No.
Chea as Chumtup No. 4
The new notables are honest and intelligent. They can fulfill their
functions. They are quite well off.
We note that the deputies are quite
democratically selected by the Mékhum, as he nominates them exactly according to
the number of votes they each obtained. In doing so, was he obeying orders?
One cannot fail to notice that only exactly 50% of the electorate voted,
and some councillors were elected with a tiny fraction of the electorate. One
cannot draw too many conclusions for this single example, chosen at random and
simply because the paper was in quite good condition and easily readable. Local
democracy was still in its infancy-we must not forget.
The November 15,
1925 Ordonnance takes into account all the practical suggestions by the
Résidents to make these communal elections more operational, and, in the end,
one could claim, more democratic. No wonder it has remained a model in the minds
of older civil servants in Cambodia till today, like Samdech Nhiek Tioulong, in
his unpublished memoirs, or "government officials during a UNDP mission
regarding decentralisation in 1998", states Michael Ayres. To which, showing how
he ignored Cambodian administrative history, he added the comment: "-another
case of looking backwards to go forwards!"21 In reality, it could be closer to
reality to claim that the year 1925, with its Ordonnance Royale firmly
establishing (they were to last till World War II) universal local elections
represented the zenith of France's self-attributed mission civilisatrice, under
the enlightened leadership of François Baudouin.
For the leaders of
ethnic minorities-Vietnamese and Chinese in particular-the French also organised
democratic elections for them. For instance, we have the procès-verbal of the
election of the Chef des Annamites of Kampong Siem, organized by Thuom, the
Chauvayket of Kampong Cham. The vote took place in the Salakhet on May 28 1930,
from 9 am to 4pm. The ballot box was placed on a table, in the presence of the
Chauvaykhet who explained proceedings to the voters. They dropped their own
ballot papers which have been preserved to this day in the National Archives.
Out of 516 Annamite electors, 267 voted. Nguyen Van Lanh obtained 259 votes and
was therefore elected; Tran Van Buong reveived only 8 votes.
Kampong Cham Résident then wired a June 13, 1930 note to Phnom Penh for the
election to be sanctioned by the Council of Ministers so that ...le candidat
proposé remplissant conditions honorabilité et solvabilité d'après
renseignements fournis par autorités indigènes, vous serais obligé vouloir
envisager dès que possible sa nomination afin de permettre de faire commencer
aussitôt le recouvrement de l'impôt personnel des Annamites dans la province de
How did the democratically elected khum authorities fulfil
their duties? Were they overwhelmed by their innumerable tasks, or did they cope
and help the slow growth of communal power?
A first glance at
the National Archives not unexpectedly tell us that once the new Mékhum had been
democratically elected, the authorities kept a close eye on them. They kept
short reports on them, as a schoolmaster does for his pupils. They also
gradually instituted an elaborate system of punishments and rewards through
which the French and Cambodian administrators up above attempted to make the
Mékhum work very hard for mainly symbolic or honorary rewards-as indeed in the
metropolis-devoting much of their time to the public good. That must have proved
an immensely difficult task, but not impossible, it seems, in the Cambodian
context of the time. The best proof that the rewards were mainly symbolic, and
not really financial, was that, after the first universal commune elections of
1908-9, the French authorities found it impossible to repeat the elections at
only four years' interval. In France, on the other hand, mayors are elected
every 5 years, and their mandate can also be renewed indefinitely. They seem to
have proceeded instead very pragmatically, replacing them only when there were
resignations or any kind of difficulties. But elections did take place in some
portion of the territory every year before the onset of World War II.
Sanctions of course were proportional to the seriousness of the offence.
For instance, in December 1933, Saun Saing, the Mékhum of Kampong Chamlang,
Romdoul district, Svay Rieng, had run away to Phnom Penh with public funds. The
Sûreté was of course after him in the capital like any ordinary thief. Yet,
after taking up his post on June 14, 1929, he was noted as "conscientious, very
helpful and punctual". Later, on June 3, 1932, he was deprived of his mon-thly
allowance for "negligence in
A June 16, 1931 note
from the Kampong Chhnang Résident tells us a lot about what the colonisers
I call attention to the state of Mekhums from the Srok of
kampong Tralach a certain number of particularly unfavorable appraisals of
Mekhum of Lovi: Rather intelligent but poor conduct. A
gambler who doesn't attend to his duties.
Mekhum of Sethey: Bad conduct.
Incapable. Not liked by the inhabitants. Cannot maintain his
Mekhum of Khnar Chhmor: Rather intelligent but does not have good
conduct. Works slowly. Doesn't acknowledge the presence in his Khum of
malefactors which he seems to be hiding.
Mekhum of Thlok Vien: Mekhum is
aged, with good conduct and is not strong in identifying malefactors who often
conduct raids in his Khum. He never gives information on the
These appreciations, which seem to have been carried out in
a very conscientious manner by the Chauvaysrok of Kg Tralach and about which you
have given advice conform, it seems to me must necessarily to undertake some
administrative measures, or judicial, of which after further study on the
question I make known to you to take without delay.
This note reveals that there were limits to the sovereignty of
universal suffrage, and the tone of supervising authorities tends to be
patronising, if not condescending. Still, sanctions were not to be forthwith,
without further investigation.
A Mékhum, like Khuon from Khum Chom Chau,
Kandal, although he has an impeccable record so far, can be taken to court for
having simply supplied someone with three different actes de notoriété bearing
three different birth dates, and this without any justification25.
shall end this list of sanctions with the more abrupt April 19, 1915 Arrêté
Ministériel signed by Prince Sathavong, Minister of the Interior and Cult,
dismissing Mékhum Lât from Namtaov (Phnom Srok, Sisophon). He was "sentenced to
one year and six months' prison for complicity in an offence against public
decency (atttentat aux múurs) by the Sal Khet of Sisophon". The arrest is
ratified by Résident Supérieur François Baudouin26,
Conversely, when the
Mékhums perform their innumerable and tricky tasks judiciously, they receive
showers of eulogy and medals. Those can take the simple form of a brief Arrêté
ministériel expressing the gratitude of the colonial government for "the
excellent results obtained in their levying of taxation"27.
provincial Résident can write to the Résident Supérieur in order to suggest a
particular medal should be bestowed to a Mékhum in reward for his financial
expertise. This was the case of Mékhum Préap Ouch, from Soai Khléang, district
of Krauchmar, Kampong Cham. The Résident has personally taken note of the
perfect way he kept his civil register and his (ledger) books, together with his
ability to raise the 1932 taxes in their entirety. Besides, "by the time of the
inspection, he had already levied 80% of the 1933 taxes. Already a holder of
médaille du Roi, granted to him more than eight years before, the Résident
proposes he should now be awarded the "médaille Monisaraphon"28
balance, it appears the negative assessment of historians about the birth of
official local democracy has tended to be either plainly inaccurate in the claim
that the attempt was a failure and soon dropped (Chandler and Tully), or perhaps
too pessimistic in so far as it was suggested that it tended to destroy
traditional solidarities (Forest).
Is the information contained in the above descriptions
relevant to this coming Sunday's commune elections?
- It is essential for the Khmer electors and the international community to be
aware that there has been a long tradition of grassroots democracy in Cambodia.
Our international prophets of democracy are mistaken in believing they preach to
a totally ignorant congregation.
- Tax-paying women-that is the vast majority of the female population-have
perhaps voted to elect their local councillors since 1908-1909, some 37 years
before their counterparts in France, who first voted for commune elections on
April 29, 1945. Or perhaps, Cambodian archives have been misinterpreted, and
this important point needs to be checked further, incredible as this may
- The French authorities created a grassroots administrative division that
overlooked local communities around the pagodas. But, with the dramatic progress
of transport in the past century, this issue can be addressed more easily, it is
hoped. Still, one must be aware that the past two successive Communist regimes
liked this somewhat artificial commune.
- The French decided the Mékhum would be the main policeman and the main
tax-collector in his commune, two essential functions of a centralised modern
State. This was not only in contradiction to French (and European) traditions,
but it made the Mékhum's position untenable He was torn between his being both
the mouthpiece of the interests of local communities-his electors-and the local
representative of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance-not to
speak of the problems today raised by the centrally approved commune
- Since the Mékhum in colonial days was much of a tax-collector, his financial
duties were of paramount importance. The authorities were faced with two major
difficulties: first, a question of work ethics, which they seem to have been
able, if not to manage entirely, at least to contain and probably considerably
improve; secondly, a question of professional competence-or lack of it,
rather-which quite overwhelmed these almost entirely voluntary administrators.
As far as the first issue is concerned, that is the question of honesty or
corruption, it was dealt with, if not always with tact and understanding, at
least with a good measure of efficiency. The sense of public service must have
greatly increased, as the re-wards of local representatives of the people were,
to a large extent, merely honorary.
As to the second obstacle the French met-the technical difficulty of
establishing and maintaining a commune budget-the French were less successful.
There, the colonial authorities had to back down and to come up with a
compromise. After vain attempts, only larger communes, and in particular all
town khands (or quarters, districts) were in a position to keep their books, and
many of the smaller khums either never succeeded in setting up their budgets at
all or gradually gave up the attempt altogether. Finances remained in the hands
of the local chauvaysroks.
One needs to be aware that past mistakes must
not be repeated, while it has often been noted
that Cambodian history tends
to repeat itself29.
Today's international experts are no less privileged
than French administrators of the past. Are the former as convinced of their
"Democratizing Mission" as the latter were of their "Civilizing
A leader of a democratic party told me that he was not quite
certain he liked Anwar Ibrahim's notion of a "mission démocratisatrice" and
preferred to talk of a "judicial and humanitarian mission" on the part of the
international community. But is not the search for the Rule of Law and the
promotion of human rights together with a more humane approach to politics what
the word "democracy" entails? Anwar Ibrahim's use of the word 'democratisatrice'
is more all-embracing and sums up all our aspirations-foreigners' and
Cambodians'. In deeds, not in words!
I would like to thank all staff from the National
Archives in Phnom Penh for their competent and untiring help, and in particular:
Mesdames Chem Neang, Hov Rin, Y Dari, and Mr Peter Arfanis.
formerly taught at the University Lumiere-Lyon 2 of Lyon in France. He is the
author of Le "Petit Livre Rouge" de Pol Pot ou les paroles de l'Angkar.
(1) See Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian
Renaissance, pp 37-38, Times Books International:
True, the age of the
"mission civilisatrice" is over and no one talks about it any longer without a
touch of remorse or embarrassment. However, in our day, the tone is as
condescending, although it has metamorphosed into la "mission démocratisatrice".
That enterprise has acquired the status of a dogma in foreign relations, being
espoused with great sophistication, ready to be enforced with the mightiest
power known in human history.
(2) Hence the meaning also of territory or country in Khmer language
(3) See Jean Imbert, Histoire des Institutions khmères, Phnom Penh, Annales
de la faculté de Droit de Phnom Penh, 1961. I am grateful to Dr. Pidor and his
competent advice in this field.
(4) See p.118 in Alain Forest, Le Cambodge & la Colonisation française :
Histoire d'une colonisation sans heurts, (1897 1920), L'Harmatrtan, Paris, 1980.
(5) Privileges granted by the monarch to administer a certain proportion of
the kingdom for
the benefit or privilege of local mandarins.
(6) Paris, Dalloz, 1965, pp. 31-32.
(7) Monash University, Melbourne, 1999, p. 97.
(8) Ibid. pp 99-100.
(9) See p.68 in A History of Cambodia, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado,
1983, p. I56 in the first hardback edition, and p. 155 in the 1993, Thai 2nd
(10) Tully's note : « ie, 'Colonisation sans heurtes' [sic] . This cannot be
adequately translated into English, but has the sense of colonisation without
clashes, shocks, bumps or bruises.
(11) Ibid. p 32.
(12) See his conclusion, p. 309.
(13) Imbert, pp. 160-161.
(14) Ibid., pp. 148-9.
(15) See the report in dossier 13 899.
(16) In 1907.
(17) See dossier N° 12 795.
(18) Ibid. Not foliated.
(19) See dossier 25 398.
(20) See dossier 16 432.
(21) The exclamation marks are David Ayres'.
(22) See dossier 9 701.
(23) See dossier 20 697.
(24) See dossier 28 895.
(25) See dossier 25 398.
(26) See dossier 14 864.
(27) See dossier 30 371, or 30 388.
(28) See dossier 25 398.
(29) Read Ros Chantrabot, Cambodge, la Répétition de l'histoire, (1991-1998),
éditions You-Feng, Paris 2000.