D emocracy in Cambodia is very fragile. When the voter turnout during the UN-organized May 1993 elections was high, the international community hailed the triumph of democracy. But it never admitted that the neutral environment never existed. On the contrary, it claimed that the Untac mission was a big success.
Unfortunately Untac failed to restore peace in Cambodia, a mandate it had to fulfill. The war still goes on between the elected government of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. The UN was very happy to get out of Cambodia proclaiming the election of a truly democratic National Assembly.
If it was such a big success, why did democracy almost collapse a year after the election?
The main problem revolves around the continued existence of the Khmer Rouge, who not only refused to participate in the elections, but also still continue to defy the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC).
The two recent events completely prove to the world that the road to democracy is chaotic and has a long way to go.
The Khmer Rouge were outlawed by the National Assembly on July 7, 1994. Although the debate on the bill was lively, intense, and compromising to include several human rights concerns, the vote was not secret. Therefore who would dare to vote against it fearing possible political backlash?
Even before the bill was introduced, those who publicly opposed it were labeled as Khmer Rouge.
As a result, the Khmer Rouge proclaimed its own salvation government challenging the RGC and the world. Before, there were the RGC and the rebels. Now, it the RGC versus the outlawed Khmer Rouge government. It's back to what it was before the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. How much will the unending war cost? Who will pay for it?
True to himself, as the Father of National Reconciliation, the King refused to sign the bill into law. His action resulted in the first amendment to the Constitution - of Article 28 - to enable the Acting Head of State to do so in a case by case basis.
This law publicly shows a conflict between the King and the RGC which really controls the National Assembly.
In a Western democracy, the parliament makes laws. In Cambodian democracy, the government proposes laws to the National Assembly. The latter does not have the initiative or aggressiveness or intelligence to introduce any law. It clearly shows there are no checks and balances at all, especially when there is no independent judiciary at all. How long will it take to establish such a system? How many days during the past year has the National Assembly been in session?
Prior to the adoption of the bill, the failed coup against the RGC on July 2, 1994 demonstrated the real tragedy of Cambodian democracy. Instead of solving the problems through peaceful means, the coup plotters preferred to remove an elected government because they feared for the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in a national reconciliation government proposed and headed by the King. Was it really an attempted coup or just only a power struggle within factions of the CPP?
Normally in a truly democratic country, an aborted coup is always followed by an immediate announcement on radio and television of the putsch followed with the appearance(s) of the heads(s) of the government explaining to the people and also to the world of the accurate facts that happened and the present situation of the country. True to Cambodian politics, everything was secret. The Information Ministry says one thing, the Interior another.
To show that democracy works, the National Assembly should invite the RGC to explain the events of July 2 and 3, 1994. By doing so, the Khmer language newspapers don't have to play guessing games any longer. It is quite unfortunate that most of the Khmer journalists are irresponsible by mixing fictions, lies and innuendoes with reality sometimes damaging the image and credibilities of people.
But to threaten them with jail terms if they continue to write something unfounded about the coup is not the way.
What happens to the freedom of the press and expression? Of course Cambodia cannot be compared to the US and France, but if we don't start now when will we?
It is also quite unusual that the aborted coup did not produce any cabinet reshuffle. Is it not a good opportunity for the RGC to make changes in some ministries to project an image of confidence to the people?
The US already warned that it would not support a government that resulted from a coup. How about March 18, 1970? Will it change its mind if, for the sake of argument, the new government is composed of more competent people and looks better? Do we have to suppose that a coup is always associated with dictatorship?
The US is also betting on democratizing the CPP and making the former communists democrats. How about Funcinpec, the former US allies? Let's hope that this time the US is right for the sake of democracy in Cambodia.
- Hann So, president of Khmer Conscience, an NGO promoting democracy.