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Comment: Development of Democracy in Cambodia

Comment: Development of Democracy in Cambodia

Dr Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, shares

his thoughts about Cambodia's troubled past, and the challenges ahead as the new

century begins.

WHEN WE TALK about development we imply a process, evolution or change over time

covering the past, the present and the future. Again when we talk about the past,

we tend to refer to culture and the cultural heritage or legacies handed down to

the present and future generations. Culture conditions a political order and this

political order in turn influences or even determines culture.

Previous political legacies have an important bearing on the development of democracy

in Cambodia, and we need to look at these legacies first in order to understand that

development. We need to look next at the cultural legacies beneath those political

legacies. After that we will examine recent developments pertaining to democracy,

and venture to evaluate the future prospects for this democracy.


Until the end of World War II, Cambodian rulers were using the Chakrawatti system

to rule their country. This system was a very centralized system under which all

powers were concentrated in the hands of the rulers. All Cambodians were their subjects.

In the country there was only one absolute ruler who tolerated no opinions different

from his own. There could not be two suns in the sky. All viceroys and other officials

had to submit unquestionably to his rule and serve him as his servants or instruments.

These viceroys and officials were in turn potentates in their respective domains.

They enjoyed all the privileges while the people were simply their serfs.

Cambodia had fallen under Vietnamese rule in the East and under Thai rule in the

Northwest when the French came to colonize it in 1863. Vietnamese, Thai and French

colonial rules controlled but did not remove Cambodian royal absolutism. French colonial

rulers were no less oriental despots, regardless of their own epoch-making revolution

of 1789 to remove royal absolutism in the metropolis. The French system was a highly

centralized system and French colonial rule was no less so. In fact it became more

centralized when it was extended to cover the economic sector.

World War II and the Japanese momentary victory in East Asia shook loose French colonial

rule. Cambodian nationalism emerged. Some French-trained Cambodian intellectuals

under the leadership of Prince Sisowath Youtevong who had appreciated democracy introduced

it to Cambodian society immediately after that War. Some democratic rights were "granted"

to the Cambodian people in 1946. Political parties were formed and the election of

a national assembly was held that year. Youtevong's Democratic Party won. This assembly

turned into a constituent assembly. In 1947 a constitution was promulgated which

enshrined liberal democracy as the system of government. Human rights were also guaranteed

and the absolute monarchy transformed into a constitutional monarchy. By this transformation,

the Democratic Party pulled the rug of absolute powers of King Norodom Sihanouk out

from under his feet after he had been crowned some six years earlier.

A few years later Sihanouk entered the political arena with his crusade for independence

from France. His victory in 1953 gave him a clear-cut advantage over the Democratic

Party. In 1955 he abdicated and occupied the helm of Cambodian politics. Liberal

democracy soon suffered a casualty when it was curtailed and replaced by a one-party

system of government under the cloak of "guided democracy". This guided

democracy soon turned into authoritarianism.

In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown. Liberal democracy was revived but this democracy

was soon nipped in the bud by military dictatorship and its final defeat in 1975.

Another layer of dictatorial rule, the well-known Khmer Rouge rule, fell with all

its might and savagery onto Cambodian society, thoroughly destroying it. Another

brand of communist rule that followed, though less harsh, was dictatorial all the


These three layers of dictatorship seem to have embedded themselves in the consciousness

of many Cambodians and have manifested themselves in the rigid, uncompromising and

dictatorial attitude of many of the current ruling elites. These people may have

compassion (the sense of pity for a person in less fortunate circumstances), but

they do not have much tolerance, in the sense of letting others differ from them.

When there is no tolerance, national reconciliation for such ruling elites has a

quite different connotation. It means submission to their rule. And this is an obstacle,

if not the obstacle itself, to the smooth development of democracy in Cambodia.

This obstacle should not lead to pessimism or despair. Cambodia has tried all forms

of dictatorship which have only led to disaster upon disaster for the country. In

the past, when it was first introduced to Cambodia, democracy had not led the country

to disaster. It was instead instrumental in getting people to participate in public

affairs and in mobilizing Cambodians in their struggle to recover their independence

from France. Furthermore, Cambodian cultural values are not so alien to democracy.


Cambodian culture, including political culture, was very much influenced by Buddhism,

Hinduism, and French and Chinese culture. The past tense is used as it is not sure

whether Cambodia's past culture was not destroyed altogether soon after the extension

of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, by the Khmer Rouge's harsh communist revolution and

by the continued communist rule after the ousting of those Khmer Rouge. During that

period education was disrupted, and from 1975 communist indoctrination replaced that

education, and past cultural, moral and ethical values were destroyed to make room

for communist ideology.

However, it is still worthwhile to look at some relevant cultural aspects in the

past that are related to democracy, and to past development of democracy, in order

to have a cultural and historical perspective of the development of this democracy

in Cambodia over some length of time to the present day and beyond.

From time to time a question has been asked why Cambodians who have claimed to be

Buddhists are so cruel to one another, since Buddhism preaches compassion and tolerance.

The answers to this question can be: (1) that Buddhism has prevented Cambodians from

being more cruel that they might have been; (2) that cruelties have also existed

in countries practising other religions which preach love or brotherhood; (3) that

brutal Cambodian rulers and their officials are not Buddhists or are using Buddhism

as a cloak for their rule only; or (4) that, in the case of cruelty committed by

ordinary people, Cambodian rulers have not taught virtue to themselves and to their

people, or have not educated their people in moral and ethical values.

Buddha was born in a Hindu society with a caste system: (1) the Brahmins (priests);

(2) the Kshatryas (rulers); (3) the Vaishya (merchants); and (4) the Shudra (Untouchables).

But Buddha challenged the basis of this caste system. He upheld equality between

human beings and taught that worth and not birth is the measure of man. We have here

a Buddhist value of equality which is an important characteristic feature of democracy.

There is also a story concerning Buddha himself. Buddha was known as a very charitable

person and would give anything, including his children, to whomsoever wanted to have

them. One day as a prince, he gave an elephant to a people from another country.

It happened that after his charity, his own country was hit by drought and famine.

His people rose up and blamed him for their suffering. The elephant was the sacred

elephant that was a symbol of fortune for the country. Buddha's charity brought his

people misfortune and they wanted him to pay for it. First they wanted his death,

but after negotiations they settled for his exile. Buddha willingly complied with

his people's wishes and went into exile.

This story reflects several democratic values: people's power; people's right to

free speech and their right to be heard; and leaders' accountability for their acts.

Buddhism teaches, among many other things, compassion, tolerance and respect for

life, which are very much democratic values upholding human dignity.

Buddha's teachings have become Dharma, which is law in the sense of rule of conduct,

and Buddha obeyed his own law. This is a reflection of the rule of law when even

law makers cannot be above the laws they have made.

There were many Cambodian laws in the sense of rules of conduct. Judges must be impartial.

Parents must care for their children; husbands must care for their wives. Parents

must seek their daughters' consent before they marry them to any man.

All those laws and many of Buddha's stories form a big part of Cambodian literature.

Even in one of the Cambodian classic novels, Tum Teav, the writer was very critical

of the might of a local potentate and his abuse of power to inspire fear in the people

he ruled.

Rulers must comply and practice the ten commandments for kings. The most enlightened

Cambodian king, Jayavaraman VII (1181-1201), laid down the following political philosophy

for rulers,

"He suffered more from his subject's diseases than from his own, for it is the

people's pain that makes the pain of kings and not their own."

Jayavaraman VII brought his country to the apex of its prosperity and glory.


After the Angkor debacle in the 14th century, Cambodia was facing continued internal

troubles and these troubles invariably sucked in neighboring countries who came more

to occupy than to save it. French colonialism brought Cambodia into the French world

which was smaller than the Anglo-Saxon world. After French rule, Cambodia leaned

to the socialist camp, again a smaller world than the free world. The Khmer Rouge

confined Cambodia to the Chinese world including North Korea only. The subsequent

regime brought Cambodia into the Vietnamese and Soviet world, again very small compared

with the free world.

The Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 brought Cambodia in the world at large and broke

open its confinement to the Vietnamese and Soviet world. All of a sudden over 20,000

UN peacekeepers, who were foreigners from all over the world, came to every corner

of Cambodia. Almost all Cambodians even in remote corners met these foreigners who

came to see them at almost every doorstep. Perhaps it was the first time in human

history that almost all inhabitants of a country met with foreigners almost at the

same time.

Cambodians were then exposed to the outside world they could not go to see, and at

the same time to ideas and customs from all over the world. Then they were exposed

to news on events unfolding inside and outside their country. The media then started

to multiply itself. The number of newspapers, radios and TVs multiplied. People tuned

in to international radio stations, and some can now afford to receive satellite

television as well.

Cambodians have met with their relatives and friends who had sought refuge abroad

and now were living in other parts of the world, especially in advanced democracies.

Some of those who have stayed behind during troubled times have gone abroad to visit

their relatives and friends. Foreign visitors have come to Cambodia, and Cambodians

have gone abroad on study tours or on official missions, or to study.

To such exposure have been added debates between political parties, debates between

other groupings, seminars, workshops and lectures on a variety of issues and themes,

and training of various kinds, including mass civic education in human rights, democracy,

the rule of law, economics and social affairs.

Furthermore, the improvement of communications has facilitated people's mobility

and has enhanced international and domestic contacts.

As a result of these developments, Cambodian society and the Cambodian people have

changed dramatically. Cambodians have become more knowledgeable, more aware of rights,

more sophisticated, more daring, and more willing to make themselves heard and participate

in public affairs. An overwhelming majority of them took part in the electoral process

in 1993 and in 1998. Individually and more and more in groups, they have made representations

to the government to address their grievances. Many took to the streets to demonstrate

in order to claim their rights.

Such changes culminated in many public demonstrations: demonstrations by hundreds

of traders to claim justice in 1994; demonstrations by thousands of workers beginning

from the end of 1996 to claim better treatment, better wages, and better working

conditions; mass demonstrations and sit-ins in August and September 1998 to protest

against the election results and the governance of the country; demonstrations by

people in Sihanoukville in December 1998 to demand that the toxic waste dumped there

be shipped away; demonstrations by university students in December 1998 and in March

1999; and demonstrations by teachers in February 1999 to claim higher wages.

To the above must be added recent protests in front of the National Assembly by farmers

against land grabbing. In the old days, some of these protestors would have gone

to the jungle to take up arms to fight against such injustices. Thanks to their awareness

of democratic ways and human rights, instead of going to the jungle, they came to

town instead.

Nowadays, it seems that a few democratic values such as freedom of expression in

the form of demonstrations, regular elections, the workings of political parties,

have gradually become part of the political culture of the country.


The future of democracy in Cambodia is not certain. The following are some reasons

behind this uncertainty:

  1. Many democratic values are known and understood, but they have yet to be fully

    internalized as cultural values. There is a need to cement democratic values to Cambodia's

    traditional cultural and moral values of Buddhist origin.

  2. The democratic values that are known and understood have no anchor and protection

    which moral and ethical values and the rule of law provide. Nowadays, moral and ethical

    values are either so low or nonexistent, while the rule of law is being established.

    The events of 5-6 July 1997 in which there were many killings and a lot of looting

    should be a reminder of the fragility of democratic gains.

  3. Human rights and democracy NGOs which are more directly involved are not certain

    whether assistance and support for their work will continue.

  4. Donor countries could become more pragmatic and relax their monitoring of the

    human rights situation in Cambodia and forget their international obligations under

    the Paris Peace Agreements.

  5. Cambodia is now a member of ASEAN. Not many countries in ASEAN like democratic

    values. Many Cambodian rulers are not known to be friends of democratic values. In

    the past they used to let certain ASEAN countries influence their domestic policies.

  6. Cambodia's Eastern and Northern neighbors are still communist countries and are

    not keen to see a pluralistic, liberal, democratic order work well in Cambodia as

    this order could well spread to those countries.

  7. China and authoritarian countries still hold fast to so-called Asian values and

    the principle of national sovereignty and are using their influence to undermine

    democratic values in other countries, including Cambodia. The recent opposition,

    though in vain, by Asian countries to an international investigation into crimes

    in East Timor is a stark reminder that oriental despotism is still around the corner

    in East Asia.

  8. Cambodian human rights and democracy NGOs have yet to prove their ingenuity,

    creativity and skills to forestall and fend off negative influences on their country

    and on their work while not offending the Cambodian government.

  9. An important democratic institution, the national congress, has not been created

    yet. And all existing national institutions have not functioned and discharged their

    responsibilities well yet.


If six years ago Cambodian society was a child of seven years old, nowadays that

child is a teenager. On top of the problems inherent in this growing up process,

that child is having a very serious problem, that is, that child still has the same

clothes. The good news is that those clothes are being loosened up with all the promised


The bad news is that the reforms did not come from within. Donors are instrumental

in bringing about such promised reforms. Any relaxation on the part of donors could

well have adverse effects on democratic gains. Furthermore, democracy is still facing

a lot of challenges inside and outside the country.

However, democracy in Cambodia still has a legal basis and framework to sustain efforts

to uphold it. Such a basis and framework could further be strengthened if Cambodia's

relevant traditional cultural elements can be revived and practiced.

It is worth stressing that Cambodians introduced and adopted democracy after World

War II, and leaders of the four Cambodian parties to the conflict after the ousting

of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 acknowledged the failure of their respective regimes when

they signed the Paris Agreements of 1991 to end the war. Under those agreements Cambodia

undertakes to respect human rights and adopt pluralistic liberal democracy as its

system of government. And this undertaking is an international obligation.


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