John C. Brown attaches a few thoughts to Cambodian societal strings.
Cambodia's government and society are shaped by relationships of patronage. Loyalty and power flow upward, protection and benefits flow downward. How will this change? Should it?
"Everywhere, Cambodia is a society of patronage and theft," William Shawcross says in his recent report: Cambodia's New Deal.
Patronage as a social structure functions to redistribute wealth. But since that distribution is not regulated by law, it is often called theft, and more commonly, corruption.
But when power becomes law, rather than being constrained by it, words like theft and corruption become as fuzzy as legal and illegal. Perhaps we use them because we move too quickly from our offended moral sensibilities (which may be ratified in other societies as law) to the conclusion that the offensive action should be illegal.
Though patterns of patronage are found in every society, in Cambodia they seem particularly pervasive. Aside from the Buddhist Sangha, there are few social structures between the Cambodian family and the Cambodian government. What structures there are, are organized along the lines of patronage. Cambodians call patronage ksae, a string. More formally, they call it pakpuk-niyum (patronage). The model for the patron client relationship is the family. The "atom" of Cambodian society is the nuclear family, the largest family is that of King Sihanouk and "his children." But there are many other "families" in Cambodia.
Wives who were placed on the payroll at AKP (little pay and no work, but a job nonetheless), military personnel who were assigned to the National routes (to work in Cambodia's "toll plazas") or to the Navy ("regulating" coastal traffic), those who can buy or be levered into positions with the Cambodian customs, even those bands of robbers who claim alignment to the Khmer Rouge but who also have relationships with local military and government officials, have a string. They have backers, supporters, patrons.
Their livelihood depends on patronage. They have been given access to benefits unavailable otherwise, and if they lose their patronage, there is no safety net, and so far, few other choices in Cambodia's nascent economy. Even today, having ksae means access to benefits, a livelihood, not having a patron means vulnerability to Cambodia's patrons and their clients.
The National Assembly was filled by the acts of patronage allowed by indirect elections. But the attempt to seat Chakrapong and Sin Song showed that the patron, the political party, was not completely free to distribute the particular benefit that membership in the National Assembly constitutes. But the deadlock paralyzed the National Assembly for months, and was only resolved, by the two candidate MPs themselves with their ill-fated coup.
Funcinpec governors who have found themselves isolated in a provincial government where the provincial political structure remains loyal and indebted to the former CPP governor, understand clearly the cost of not being able to establish their own patronage system or to head a Province where a nonpartisan civil service is loyal to the government, not the man, and who serve the people, not the governor.
Patronage explains why cutting Cambodia's bloated bureaucracy is almost impossible without paying-off those let go. The fact of patronage also means that getting rid of generals in the Royal Cambodian Army will not be as easy as one might hope. It certainly won't be as easy as selling the positions were in the first place.
Patronage may explain the differences that exist between what the government wants the press to be and what western observers would prefer to see. If independence is not a feature of Cambodian media, if most of the newspapers have hidden or not so hidden strings, who can blame the government in its quest to create a media environment that protects it from members of the media who are not its clients, if independence does not result in a press that pursues the "truth" as such, but offers the latitude to engage in dis-information and partisan attacks, government predisposition for control are more understandable.
What about outsiders? Potential investors, NGO's and the international community. Should they play along or try to change Cambodia?
The investor who finds one or a few officials lining up for payoffs, has encountered a system of patronage. If payoff(s) are made, the system has been reinforced, the philosophy of "go-along and get-along" has made profitable a system, which if unchanged may offer the investor no protections under a predictable legal regime.
The international NGO which faces the dilemma of placing a well on the village chief's land, and thereby reinforcing the existing power structure, may agree to do so reasoning that controlled access for the villagers is better than no access at all.
When the UN Human Rights Field Office spends months gathering evidence on secret prisons, and quietly asks the government to act, they also are reinforcing the current system. Even if the government closes the prison, the action is not taken in light of the dictates of law. It is a pure assertion of power, and is in a real sense as arbitrary as the actions of the wardens of the Battambang prison.
But what choice do investors, NGO's, the international community, as represented by the UN Human Field Office have? There are only two choices: work with the system as it is, or decline involvement.
Changing the system is not in the cards. UNTAC was as intrusive of Cambodian sovereignty as one could imagine, short of military conquest. A year after the UN elections, the underlying social and government structures have remained largely unchanged.
The consequence of working with the system is reinforcing and strengthening it. The risk the Royal Government faces is that investors, NGO's and finally the international community will go their own way if Cambodia does not adapt to the increasingly international governing standards of accountability, transparency, and rule of law.
But who has the right to demand these kinds of changes? Neither investors, NGO's nor the international community. They can "vote with their feet," as has already been suggested, but if Cambodia is to change, it should be because the Cambodian people demand it. The fact that they have not so far demanded change works to the advantage of the government and is probably stabilizing in the short run. In the long run, the best society is the one that the Cambodians choose for themselves. As harsh as it may sound, a society pervaded by patronage and "theft" is the society that Cambodians have chosen to date. But by staying engaged with the Cambodian society, NGO's, investors and others may provide the models and information that will influence the choices that the Cambodian people have the right to make for themselves.