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Democratic reforms need support

Democratic reforms need support

Chhang Song was Cambodia's Minister of Information in the Lon Nol era. He is now as advisor to Samdech Chea Sim, chairman of the National Assembly. He writes regularly on current issues for the Cambodian press.

LIKE the urban jams which create anarchy in the capital, political crisis after crisis can shake up Cambodia's political stability. Apparently, it has sapped the efforts for building the rule of law in this land which has gone through much lawlessness, brutalities and killings during the past two decades.

Last summer, finance minister and Member of Parliament Sam Rainsy was sacked, then expelled from his seat in Parliament.

Within the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP), there were suits and counter-suits to replace the leadership. Then, two grenades were thrown into the party's meeting, wounding some 30 members.

In November, Prince Sirivudh, half-brother of King Sihanouk, former foreign minister, secretary-general of the majority FUNCINPEC party, and also a Member of Parliament, was accused of plotting to kill co-Prime Minister Hun Sen. After his parliamentary immunity was lifted by his colleagues, the Prince was arrested and sent into exile in France on his promise to never enter into politics again.

Because of these difficulties, the trend to return the country back to a dictatorship is being regrettably perceived by certain milieu. As the government moves on democratic reforms and sets its goals in the country which has essentially retained its feudalistic traditions, political and intellectual zealots who have suddenly found themselves in the government feel increasingly uncomfortable handling power democratically. They wonder why power cannot be simply kept in the hands of, say, one person instead of having it separated into three, sometimes hostile, organizations, scorned by the press and diluted into public debates.

The current government was elected on a massive international wave of support precisely with the mandate of having democratic rule established in Cambodia.

This support has been sustained to this day to achieve the democratic end, though the ball is now in the Cambodian court.

However, as the current reforms continue to take time and require patience and courage, there have been attempted coups and suggestions to break away from international commitments which the Cambodian warring parties have acknowledged.

There have been even some exasperated voices at the top calling for constitutional amendments to centralize the affairs of State, to redefine democracy and introduce horrible plans such as the death penalty.

If such revelations took place, the Cambodians would certainly have to brace themselves against the likelihood of international aid being cut. The world then could care less about the vital questions pertaining to the Khmer Rouge, the territorial integrity and the famine in Cambodia - in fact, the major problems.

Some of these officials confusingly claim we must consider Cambodian efforts in making democratic reforms apart from that of the well-developed world.

Each nation has its character and uniqueness. Yes. But this is pushing the logic dangerously far. According to this mind-set, then, the application of Western liberal democracy models without some kinds of major modifications undermines Cambodian's national sovereignty. Touché.

However, the question of national sovereignty was once and for all settled by the early creation of the Supreme National Council (SNC), composed of all warring factions. It was the SNC which subsequently agreed in the Paris Peace Accords to the present democratic application and reforms.

Other officials, reluctant to change, have linked democracy with food. Fine. But these responsible government leaders make a grave mistake of judgment by asserting that: "For the Cambodians, food must come first before democracy." This can sound very nice to those with empty stomachs, but it is simply an erroneous statement. It would have validity only if people could produce enough food for everyone without the application of democratic rules. Pol Pot has tried. Rulers before and after Pol Pot have tried; other systems in the world have tried; they all have failed.

In terms of political and economic reforms, there is hardly any nation on earth which has to wait for political stability, for accumulation of wealth and foods to materialize before they would adopt the concept of democracy.

To set up such a priority as "food before democracy" is simply misleading and could lead Cambodia back to despotism by limiting citizens' capacity to plucking rice out of the dried fields.

But whatever stand as the major obstacles to the rule of democracy in Cambodia, let me underline once again - in a more practical manner and at the cost of appearing naive to some political scientists - that genuinely democratic nations enjoy peace, security, political stability and economic prosperity.

Their people enjoy a high level of education and are financially well-off. Idealistically, there is no need for war and unnecessary killings in democracies. Outside mutual interests which inter-act between nations, people in such a society do not beg the outside world for assistance and protection.

Besides democracy, there is no system in the present world that can guarantee adequate production and provision of food, and to ensure equal and fair distribution of wealth, power and knowledge among the people.

Without the application of democratic values, only the privileged classes benefit.

Obviously to some Cambodian sages, the above "evils of democracy" make the democratic form of government less "pure" and less "correct" than if one follows the Athanggigama, the "Eight Noble Paths" of Buddhist Utopia. Yet, there resides the very strength of democracy. This strength is based on the "virtue" of the majority of individual citizens of the State.

Furthermore, democracy derives its strength from the consent of the majority, with the duties of setting up rules and regulations for the promotion of the interests of the whole and the protection of the rights of the minority. As we stand now, Cambodia still needs to do more in order to set up basic legal systems. In the near future, the National Assembly will have to charter the Constitutional Council, the supreme legal authority in charge of judicial review and constitutional interpretation as well as to determine the constitutionality of laws adopted by the National Assembly.

In essence, the problems concerning Sam Rainsy, Prince Sirivudh and the BLDP shake up are nothing more than isolated cases. Although they may have caused some peoople to reposition themsleves vis-a-vis the leadership, they affect individuals and not the whole. There has been no need to review the status of national institutions as the result of these crises.

Some 40 years ago, Sam Rainsy's father, Sam Sary, a popular figure during the days of the national crusade for independence, was found dead. Today, 1996, democratic reforms stand tall. Although Sam Rainsy's activities have caused headaches to the government, Sam Rainsy is a free man, free to shuttle in and out of the country and provinces, free to launch campaigns to promote his agenda, free to make love and live.

Back in the 1940s, Prince Yuthevong and Ieu Koeus, successive heads of the young Democratic Party, were each killed at their party headquarters. In the 1950s, professor Keng Van Sak, secretary general of the same party; and Norn Suon, head of the Cambodian Revolutionary People's Party (precursor of the present CPP), were also victims of political oppression. When their parties were defeated by the Sangkum Reastr Niyum in a national election, Keng Van Sak and Norn Suon were thrown into the T-3 prison - the very same dilapidated T3 where Prince Sirivudh was first detained.

Both suffered very inhumane treatment. Although Keng Van Sak obtained a release rather quickly, he was tortured day and night while at T3. There were times when he was beaten so severely, then ordered to clean up the cement by licking his own feces from the floor. Norn Suon, for his part, was detained in a despicable condition until the Lon Nol government released him in 1970.

Certainly in a civil society, it is unforgivable to have grenades thrown into a political meeting such as that happening in the BLDP headquarters. Nonetheless, we can be thankful that, miraculously, BLDP chairman Son Sann and his immediate followers did not meet the same fate which Prince Yuthevong and Ieu Koeus met in the 1940s.

Unlike Keng Van Sak and Norn Suon, Prince Sirivudh was never tortured.

Immediately, he was transferred to a comfortable place and flown into exile with full protection for his Royal status and his rights.

These privileges were not previously enjoyed by Yuthevong, Ieu Koeus, Keng Van Sak, Norn Suon, or by any Cambodian intellectuals who, in the 1950's and 60's, were accused of spreading new ideas and executed.

Instead, to address the current crises, there has been an explosion of speeches, statements and memos released by senior leaders in and out of the Government.

At the opposite end, tons of virulent press articles attack the ways that the government handles the affairs of State. These speeches, memos, statements and articles sound painstaking.

However, they could not be as bad as bullets and gunfire.

Some suffering Cambodians can say "wonderful" and be thankful for the new democratic rules which are now in play.

In addition to the lessons we have learned, we have reasons to hope that we will soon have a better control of our adrenaline and tolerate personal attacks.

In turn, the press, for instance, will learn how to write responsibly, with full respect for human dignity and individual privacy.

With time, respect for others will be enhanced along with the Cambodian traditions. This is what democracy is all about. No less, no more, no logic, no ultimate truth, no utopia. Simply a few debatable and amenable rules by the majority to govern a civil human society by the people, a society which always has problems and crises.

A society with no crisis is not a human society but, according to some Cambodian beliefs, "a paradise above the earth" or "hell beneath it," outside of the world we are living in.

In both places, some of us believe that life is passive, perfectly good and perfectly bad. This passive life depends solely on our merits of the past, on donations, prayers and love from God, all beyond the realm of democracy and for which an individual is free to pursue on his own.

Crises in democratic societies can be resolved by the people, like you and me, sometimes according to the covenant - the law - binding citizens to one another in a State, or according to the respect we have for each other and for mankind. There will be no need for an "Organization-on-High" to intervene.

When Cambodia has caught up with developing countries through democratic political and economic reforms, those outdated laws should be abolished; new laws should be passed to meet the needs of the people.

Finally, although we are now working toward establishing a society based on the rule of law, we will definitely leave some space open, where no law will be enacted.

We will learn to trust that there are instances when our people can resolve problems more readily with no rule than with too many rules?

The above crises only confirm that democracy works in Cambodia and has in fact begun to give rise to a new pattern of leadership.

Let us continue to support this effort.


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