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Drawing the lines of "acceptable" democracy

Drawing the lines of "acceptable" democracy

T he world's work in Cambodia is far from over, argues Frederick Z. Brown,

Southeast Asian studies professor at Johns Hopkins University. The following is edited

testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Sept 21, 1995.

I served as an polling station officer during the May 1993 national elections organized

and directed by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Since

then I have visited Cambodia three times, and met often with Cambodian officials

visiting Washington. I visited Phnom Penh in June of this year.

My observations address primarily the political aspects of the situation in Cambodia.

I place them in the context of the 1991 Paris Agreements on a Comprehensive Political

Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, and the Royal Kingdom's 1993 Constitution. The

Paris Agreements stipulated that "Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy,

on the basis of pluralism..." The Constitution itself stipulated "a multi-party

liberal democratic regime guaranteeing human rights..."

Problems of Democratization

It is misleading to talk of "democracy" or the "process of democratization"

in Cambodia in the way we Americans think of these concepts. Cambodians, particularly

those in rural areas who comprise 80 percent of the electorate, are still more used

to a recessive (if not subservient) posture in politics. They may still be more comfortable

with a monarchic system and feudal political relationships, as demonstrated by the

outpouring of support for Prince (now King) Sihanouk and FUNCINPEC, his son's party,

during the UNTAC election. Cambodia has a cultural tradition of authoritarian rule

dating from the days of the Khmer Empire. But even admitting that the social base

for democratic practices is in its infancy in Cambodia, it is undeniable that the

UNTAC protectorate of two years and the elections (89% participation) had an impact

upon the Cambodian people's sense of "political empowerment". The elections

changed the way many Cambodians, particularly students, younger adults, intellectuals,

city-dwellers, and a small but growing middle class have traditionally viewed their

role in the political process. It is difficult to judge how deep and how durable

these changes are - but the changes are certainly there.

Since the formation of a coalition government by First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh

(FUNCINPEC) and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (CPP) in September 1993, there has

been a steady compression of the political space for Cambodians seeking to participate

in the democratic process. This compression may represent a regression into traditionalCambodian

authoritarianism - but it also contravenes the pluralist, liberal intent of the UN-brokered

peace arrangement, of the international community and of the Cambodian Constitution

itself. FUNCINPEC (ostensibly the election winner) has been all but subsumed by the

CPP at the policy level; the key positions in the armed forces and security services

are controlled by the CPP; the 21 provincial and special zone administrations are

dominated by CPP cadres. Ranariddh and Hun Sen appear to share identical political

and economic-commercial interests. The Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, which was

the National Assembly's third largest delegation (winning 10 seats out of 120 in

the 1993 elections), has disintegrated in a fight between its founder, Son Sann,

and Ieng Mouly, Minister of Information, who has cast his lot with the CPP. Former

Minister of Finance Sam Rainsy, the most outspoken dissenter from his own party's

policies, was expelled from FUNCINPEC and removed from the National Assembly. Those

Assembly members who have offered legislation, or simply voiced ideas not in step

with the coalition parties, or openly criticized corruption, are now very reluctant

to speak out for fear of losing their seats (or their lives). The chairman of the

Assembly's Commission on Human Rights, Kem Sokha, and five other BLDP Assemblymen

have been threatened with expulsion from the Assembly. Other members of the Assembly

have been intimidated. In short, the legislative branch of the Royal Government for

which, in 1993, there was great hope as the keystone of Cambodian democracy, is approaching

the status of a rubber stamp. And one party, the CPP, appears to direct the significant

policies and activities of what is said to be a coalition government.

It is possible that personal rivalries and now-subdued discontent in both the CPP

and FUNCINPEC will produce a factional realignment during 1996. In the context of

the 1997 local and 1998 national elections, a realignment of individuals and factions

that resulted in a viable single-party cabinet would probably enhance prospects for

more effective governance - or it could simply lead to "more efficient corruption"

and further erosion of democratic principles. 1998 is still distant, and the present

government has many dangerous economic and political shoals to navigate. What will

be crucial is the manner in which politicians move from the present regime to the

next, and the extent to which the changes occur within the law and the Constitution

and with respect for human rights. One signal will come from Sam Rainsy's experience

if and when he attempts to form a new party, perhaps enlisting politicians who can

no longer stomach FUNCINPEC, the BLDP, or the CPP (which is far from united). What

happens in 1998 also depends on whether the concept of a loyal opposition party -

in contrast to a revolutionary opposition party - can be accepted by the Cambodian

political elites. (In the words of one senior Cambodian official during my recent

visit to Phnom Penh, "Cambodia has two laws, the law of money and the law of

the gun. If the leadership cannot buy you, they will shoot you."

Freedom of the Press

Under UNTAC, Cambodia had enjoyed a liberal environment for public expression.

While responsible journalism was practiced by many newspapers, some others engaged

in tabloid journalism of an extreme western variety. The Royal Government has grown

increasingly displeased by a sensationalist press that, in its view, has endangered

national security through "false reporting" and "slander" against

officials. There have been critical accounts of military reverses in northern and

western Cambodia in Spring 1994; reports of military abuses and corruption; speculative

reporting on the abortive July 1994 coup; and reports of alleged political instability

at the time of the March 1995 meeting of the International Conference on the Reconstruction

of Cambodia (ICORC) in Paris.

Open threats by both FUNCINPEC and CPP officials have led to an atmosphere of fear

in the print media. Several newspaper offices have been attacked with grenades; a

number of newspapers have already closed down; three editors of newspapers critical

of the government have perished in "traffic accident" or by gunshot; four

editors have been sentenced to jail and are awaiting appeal. The Government's displeasure

has been made manifest in the press law adopted in July 1995 after more than a year

of debate in the National Assembly, among the foreign donor community and in the

Cambodian media itself. (The fact that the draft law was actually debated, if gingerly,

perhaps provides one ray of hope for freedom of expression.) The press law imposes

heavy fines for publishing material affecting "national security and political

stability". It stipulates that defamation is a criminal rather than civil offense.

As yet, there is no clear definition of these terms or of the ground rules for enforcement.

It remains to be seen whether the law will be used to stamp out any media criticism

whatsoever of Government policies or of the leaders of the two parties. The most

prominent case in play at this time concerns the American owned Phnom Penh Post,

which is widely read by the foreign community in Cambodia and by Cambodia watchers

outside. The Government has filed indictment papers against the Post. The Cambodian

language press has been pretty much cowed into submission.


It is to the Royal Government's credit that it has succeeded in bringing about

significant macro-economic improvements since coming to power. Inflation has been

brought under control, and the value of the Cambodian riel has held steady for almost

two years. What impact this improvement has had on the countryside is debatable.

It has been the ruling political elite - an extremely small group associated with

the leadership in FUNCINPEC and the CPP - who have been the main beneficiaries of

the macro-economic gains, from privatization, and from foreign investment entering

Cambodia. There is little evidence that the "trickle down" has benefited

the 90 percent of Cambodians who still live in abject poverty.

Militarily, in some areas of the country the Khmer Rouge retains the ability to disrupt

Cambodia's rehabilitation. The Khmer Rouge as an organization, however, is losing

ground and is close to becoming merely a collection of brigand groups scattered about

the countryside. Containment and eventual elimination of the Khmer Rouge depends

not only on military security but also on economic stability and on increasing the

size of the economic pie available to most of the population. It is axiomatic that

the greatest potential strength of the Khmer Rouge, or of some other revolutionary

social movement, lies in the inequities of Cambodian society and the inefficiencies

of the Royal Government. Rural impoverishment tops the list, but there are others:

weak administrative capability, rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and corrosive

entourage-based zero-sum political competition. The government has made progress

on the economy, but it is just out of the starting gate in addressing the tough social

issues which are both economic and political, and which touch the daily lives of

most Cambodian citizens.

Some foreign observers, stressing all the negatives, see Cambodia entering a downward

spiral, or "vicious circle" of events. They see a leadership - both the

CPP and FUNCINPEC - that has learned little from the Lon Nol period, and that is

allowing the country to fall into a repeat of the internal collapse of 1969-75. They

stress the poverty of the great bulk of the population and the opportunities this

creates for an angry popular movement along the lines of the Khmer Rouge. More positive

observers, in contrast, believe that the Royal Government for all its foibles is

evolving reasonably well given the historical context, the brief time since the Paris

Agreements superimposed a radically new and incomplete set of institutions and norms,

and the nature of the incentives facing the society and its political elites.

One important key to peace and prosperity in Cambodia will be the determination on

the part of the outside powers to use their substantial near-term leverage to help

promote broader political participation and sound economic growth. The ability of

the international aid donors to sustain such a role will depend in part on the Cambodian

leadership's adherence to the standards it agreed to adopt under the Paris Agreements,

and to the broad policy framework already defined in the relationship with international

financial and development institutions. There is much to be said for the outside

powers backing off from a tutorial or interventionist posture after the extraordinary

intrusion of the UNTAC period, and instead to encourage self-reliance and Cambodian

"ownership". On the other hand, an even stronger argument can be made that

Cambodia's own interests have been well served by key embassies and international

agencies when they have made clear, as some have on several occasions, where the

"line" is drawn respecting political and human rights behavior - including

reasonable freedom of the press and a genuinely active National Assembly - that separates

the internationally acceptable from the unacceptable. In Cambodia, there is a role

for rigorous conditionality in the delivery of international assistance.


  1. The job in Cambodia is far from finished. Important initial steps have been taken

    through the electoral process, the writing of a fresh Constitution, and the formation

    of a coalition government. The United Nations should be proud of its accomplishment

    in Cambodia, and so should the Cambodian people. The U.S., under the Reagan, Bush,

    and Clinton administrations, has performed an intelligent leadership role. But the

    international effort must be sustained for months and years if Cambodia is to have

    a real chance of peace and stability.

  2. The FUNCINPEC-CPP coalition has been in power two years. It has had some successes

    in building an administration virtually from the ground up and in getting the economy

    going. But it has also failed the Cambodian people in important respects; some of

    its policies threaten to damage, even destroy, the progress that has been already

    made. The fundamental causes of political instability are still present in Cambodia.

  3. The U.S., and the international community which invested so much in the UNTAC

    effort, must make a strong effort to expand the Cambodian people's sense of empowerment

    and to support the principles of the Cambodian Constitution. One way to do this is

    through continued firm enunciation of support for the principles and practices that

    were the fundament of the comprehensive peace settlement hammered out in the early

    1990s. Words alone will not suffice. The U.S.and the international community must

    take clear positions on specific issues: human rights abuses by civil and military

    authorities, intimidation of National Assembly members, high level corruption, environmentally-unsound

    commercial deals, to name but a few.

  4. Support can also come through NGOs working in community development, economic

    development, human rights, and as advisors to the Government and the National Assembly.

    The laws governing the local elections to be held in 1997 and the parliamentary elections

    in 1998 are just now getting under way. Outside participation in this process is

    imperative to prevent FUNCINPEC-CPP from stacking the deck.

  5. I would draw the Committee's attention to the important work that the Asia Foundation,

    National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, National Endowment

    for Democracy, PACT, Veterans International, among many other U.S groups, are doing

    to help Cambodia.

  6. The programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are also

    extremely important. I urge the U.S. Congress to fully fund the USAID programs for

    Cambodia. Bringing a durable peace in Cambodia through sound economic development

    and by building a pluralist, participatory political system is important to the stability

    of Southeast Asia and, therefore, to American strategic interests in the region.


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