Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - COMMENTThe agonising quest of Cambodia

COMMENTThe agonising quest of Cambodia

COMMENTThe agonising quest of Cambodia

Dr Lao Mong Hay, Director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy,

explores the country's political progress amidst institutional backwardness

Since independence in 1953, Cambodia has been ruled by a diverse array of governments

which have successively claimed to be monarchist, republican, revolutionary, socialist

and, most recently, democratic in nature. The political orientations of these governments

have varied widely, as has the impact of their policies on the fortunes of Cambodians.

Despite these seeming shifts, a more consistent aspect of Cambodia's political life

has been the retention of power in the hands of elites. The provisions made, in the

better of Cambodia's first five constitutions, to safeguard citizens' rights have

never given rise to effective legal checks on the use of power.

In theory, Cambodia's 1993 Constitution, based on liberal democratic principles,

goes further than preceding ones in preventing the abuse of power. But the system

of 'checks and balances' it provides for is sharply at odds with Cambodia's deeply

conservative political culture and its authoritarian underpinnings. While politics

in Cambodia today are in some ways more open, pluralist and accountable than ever

before, at the same time they have never been so violent or corrupt. Public awareness

regarding the functioning of democracy has surged in recent years, yet Cambodians

still face an uphill struggle to have their Constitution respected as the supreme

law of the land.

Rapid social change
At the time of the 1991 Paris agreements, Cambodia had been closed to the outside

world for a period of almost two decades. With the arrival of the United Nations

Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), charged with implementing the agreements,

Cambodia was opened up to a world experiencing rapid economic growth, a dramatic

revolution in information technology, and the seeming triumph of democracy over communism.

The Paris agreements envisaged that integrating Cambodians into this radically different,

'free' world would alert them to their fundamental rights and freedoms and help consolidate

the country's fledgling peace.

Under the watchful and protective eye of UNTAC, Cambodians created or joined political

parties, and many more attended political rallies. In the May 1993 elections Cambodians

voted en masse, the majority of them calling for a new government and an end to their

long war. While Cambodians were still perhaps unclear about the exact mechanism by

which their votes would translate into political change, they were more hopeful than

at any time in recent memory that the changes which lay ahead would be positive.

In the years following UNTAC's departure, many Cambodians came to enjoy the benefits

of the information revolution. The local media played an important role in informing

and mobilizing public opinion, as did local NGOs which provided thought-provoking

criticisms of government policies and offered alternatives for the public to consider.

As a consequence, Cambodians not only became more aware of events and developments

in their country and the wider world, but also began to have opinions on them. During

this period, many Cambodians actively followed parliamentary debates and listened

to political speeches. The people began to notice that their leaders, while seeking

to cultivate their support, were also increasingly dependent on it to stay in power.

While UNTAC had enabled this initial political awakening to take place, Cambodians

were subsequently emboldened to seek to influence government policy. After 1993,

growing numbers of Cambodians demonstrated for better conditions in the factories

where they worked, submitted complaints to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission

and protested in front of the National Assembly to demand political reforms. Cambodian

society became more dynamic and was moving ahead rapidly, though too fast for some.

The March 1997 grenade attack in front of the National Assembly which killed 16 demonstrators

was a dramatic indication that the freedoms conceded to Cambodia's people during

the UNTAC era were gradually being curtailed. It became clear that the lack of any

meaningful mechanism to activate the grand provisions enshrined in the Constitution

could not protect even the most basic of human rights.

Checks and balances
Cambodia's 1993 Constitution today remains little more than a proclamation of

intentions. Article 51 stipulates that 'all powers belong to the people' and that

they will 'exercise these powers through the National Assembly, the Royal Government

and the Judiciary'. The establishment of these three branches of government corresponds

closely with the liberal democratic spirit of the Paris agreements though in practice

there is not yet a separation of powers. This can be seen most clearly with regard

to the National Assembly which was directly elected by the people.

During its first term, the National Assembly was unable to exercise its legislative

powers effectively or to control the government as foreseen by the Constitution.

Not a single private bill was considered by Assembly members, let alone adopted;

all legislation passed was drafted by the government. Rarely did the Assembly question

either Prime Minister, or indeed any minister at all. In most of the debates which

took place, the same few members of parliament took the floor and most deputies toed

the lines imposed by party leaders. The National Assembly, in short, quickly became

a 'rubber stamp' of the government.

While the effectiveness of the National Assembly was undermined by a packed legislative

schedule and the lack of technical expertise needed to draft laws, the real problem

was the absence of conditions conducive to open debate and the blatant disregard

by both the CPP and Funcinpec for constitutional procedure. Party leaders regularly

suppressed debate on sensitive issues or delayed the passage of legislation which

threatened the stability of the fragile governing coalition or personal interests.

The generally tense political climate did not favor the creation of other bodies

intended to serve as checks and balances on the use of power. The National Congress

during the 1950s and early 1960s, was an annual open-air meeting at which the population

received government reports and raised issues of concern with their government. In

the 1990s it could have served as an outlet for popular grievances, and as a way

for the people to interact directly with their representatives, but it has never

been convened.

The role of the Constitutional Council was to interpret the Constitution and ensure

the legality of all laws made by the government. It was not established until May

1998 when international pressure mounted on the government to ensure that there would

be a legal mechanism to adjudicate disputes arising from the July 1998 elections.

Even then the independence and legitimacy of the council was quickly called into

question because it had not been formed in accordance with the procedures outlined

in the Constitution.

The Supreme Council of the Magistracy, for its part, was intended to assist the King

in ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It has only met once and, as a consequence,

the promised reform of the judiciary has never come about. Most current judges were

appointed before 1991, more on the basis of their political loyalty to the CPP than

on merit. Few have adequate legal training or are considered impartial. Moreover,

in blatant contravention of constitutional provisions regarding the separation of

powers, the Minister of Justice - a government official - controls the judiciary.

Underlying this problem has been the inability of the King to effectively guarantee

the independence of the judiciary as called for by the Constitution. In the face

of a tendency by certain officials to interpret his every action as 'political interference',

the King has consistently refrained from exercising his legitimate powers to the

extent that is possible. Instead, he has been content to make general proclamations

calling for human rights to be respected or expressing his disapproval of unfolding

political events. The King's ability to check abuses of power has thus been greatly

undermined and the monarchy's future role in Cambodia's political life is being called

into question .

Power centralization
In the absence of functioning checks and balances, state power has fallen increasingly

into the hands of individuals. This was especially true following the ousting of

Prince Ranariddh by co-premier Hun Sen in July 1997. Since that date, no one has

been able to challenge Hun Sen who has consolidated control over the government,

the National Assembly and the judiciary. He is also the sole commander-in-chief of

the armed forces, meaning that political power in Cambodia is effectively controlled

by a single individual [Editor's note: this article was originally published before

Prime Minister Hun Sen resigned his position of head of the armed forces].

A key consequence of the centralization of power has been the institutionalization

of a culture of impunity in Cambodia. Both the powerful who can secure protection

and the rich who can afford bribes remain above the law. They are able to secure

out-of-court settlements or win law suits even when the case against them is well

founded. In short, there are different rules for those with access to political power

and those without. Even on issues of interest to the international community, such

as drug trafficking and flagrant human rights abuse, Cambodia's powerful remain immune

to outside pressure.

Another consequence is that the public service is far from politically neutral as

called for by the Constitution. The 'dual' CPP/FUNCINPEC administration which emerged

after 1993 was sharply divided along political lines. Even with renewed CPP domination

of the bureaucracy, public interest still comes second to party or personal interests.

Low salaries have forced public servants to hold second jobs and to extort bribes

in order to make a living. With the complicity of corrupt superiors, public positions

have in effect often been turned into private enterprises, leaving public servants

trapped in a system of patron-client relations with little will or capacity to act

in the public interest.

The post-1993 period illustrates that the political notions and practices of an earlier

era do not simply come to an end with the promulgation of a new Constitution. Despite

their rhetoric of democracy and human rights, the deeds of Cambodia's leaders have

not matched their words. They pledged not to use violence to settle disputes, but

have done so. They promised free and fair elections, but have not respected the will

of the people. And to appease and divert attention from the real issues at stake,

they have launched populist campaigns to liberalize laws on gambling, drinking and


'Social' check on power?
The mixed messages Cambodians are getting from their leaders have left many in

a quandary. Cambodians are all too aware that, in the past, backward attitudes have

carried their country to the brink of ruin. At present, this is stifling both social

progress and economic development, the benefits of which many Cambodians have become

accustomed to in recent years. Yet as they seek to push for political change, they

are constrained by apathy, a lack of knowledge about how to act and social norms

which do not encourage questioning of the status quo.

Following UNTAC's departure in 1993, a great burden was placed on Cambodia's young

civil society to safeguard the fledgling democracy. Cambodia has little tradition

of civil associations, however, and despite the recent proliferation of non-governmental

organizations (NGOs) involved in human rights monitoring and democracy education,

the ability of civil society to 'discipline' the government remains limited. Though

many civil associations embody and practice democratic values through their activities

at a grass-roots level, civil society initiatives fall far short of the unity or

the influence needed to ensure that the state upholds these values.

To conduct advocacy and represent people's interests with any real influence requires

a certain autonomy which, as the case of the press shows, is still very limited.

Many NGOs still rely heavily on international groups, or the government itself, for

both funding and technical expertise. Though the government has been relatively tolerant

of NGO activities in recent years, restrictive legislation under consideration during

1998 would reduce NGO freedom dramatically if adopted.

Moreover, even though political activism is increasing, many Cambodians are still

content to accept the status quo or lack options to challenge it in the context of

the extreme political and economic uncertainty gripping the country. Cambodians have

become increasingly conscious of being poor or powerless, either inside or outside

the ranks of the powerful and privileged. As a consequence, they are torn between

acquiescence and action, between the urge to move up in the ranks of the privileged

and protect personal or family interests and the moral obligation to challenge perceived


Risk: democratic tyranny
There is growing popular awareness in Cambodia today, as demonstrated by the

public demonstrations following the 1998 elections, that direct action can lead to

political change. Yet it is also clear that for political change to be meaningful

and sustainable, a simple change in government is not enough. The conservative values

underlying Cambodian politics must also give way to a more constructive emphasis

on dialogue, compromise and mutual gain. In the absence of progress, democracy in

Cambodia risks being simply a cover for a continuation of personalized rule and the

abuse of power.

Cambodia's leaders can no longer hide behind the language of democracy and must realize

that their people are more politically aware than ever before in their history. They

realize that genuine democracy is not simply about how a government is elected, but

about its goals. These must include a more competent and independent judiciary, greater

equality before the law for all citizens, and the protection of constitutional freedoms

and liberties. These goals are the yardstick by which Cambodia's people will henceforth

measure their political leaders. Pursuing these goals is also the only way to consolidate

Cambodia's fragile peace.


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