The head of the government-run Cambodian Mine Action Centre this week attempted to draw parallels between the historic rule of the Cambodian People’s Party in Cambodia and single-party dominance in prosperous regional countries Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, a comparison that one analyst called “ignorant” and “superficial”.
A Tuesday Facebook post by CMAC director-general Heng Ratana notes that the three countries mentioned “have a single party leader to ensure the sustainability, security and orderly development of their societies”, and have “developed their democratic system based on their own values, cultures and social principles”.
“Why can’t Cambodia walk the path of these three countries?” he added. “The people pay attention to the government and see growing hope and prosperity.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, who also shared the post, supported the statement yesterday, saying in an interview that the Cambodian people have “enjoyed” the relative stability provided by the CPP, which has been in power since a Vietnamese invasion overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. When asked why Cambodia ranked significantly worse than the other three countries in international democracy indices, Siphan dismissed outside observers entirely.
“As Cambodians we know our country better than you, better than Western nations. We see people appreciate peace and the ability to improve their quality of life,” he said.
Southeast Asia historian David Chandler, however, said that the ruling party hasn’t shown signs of becoming more democratic, as the parties in the other three countries have.
“The CPP is the only ex-communist party in power in Asia. Its behaviour since 1997 at least has not become more democratic,” he said.
Regional political analyst Carl Thayer, meanwhile, called the comparison superficial and pointed to Hun Sen’s personal grip on the country as a primary distinction.
“Hun Sen made himself the centre of CPP. The CPP has dominated the military and civil society since 1993. All UNTAC did was add opposition to an apparatus that was already controlled by the CPP,” Thayer said, referring to the 1990s United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Kingdom.
Thayer also added that the other countries in question have more independent courts and police forces than in Cambodia and haven’t raised international concerns over election meddling.
“The three other countries – despite imperfections – have made progress. And I think Cambodia has not gone forward,” Thayer added.
Professor Paul Chambers echoed Thayer’s comments on Hun Sen’s personal influence over the Cambodian political system and the comparative lack of strong institutions outside of his control.
“The undeniable difference is that Cambodian politics is lorded over by a single person – Hun Sen,” he wrote via email. “The three other countries possess a more institutionalized system through which individuals rotate. Cambodia is today the classic example of party politics converted into a personalized fief.”
Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the Cambodian people have sacrificed freedom, but have not gotten the promised development or stability in return.
“In Singapore they have jobs, security, dignity for their people, education, growth and sustainability,” she said, adding that Cambodian citizens want their fundamental rights.
Reached yesterday, Ratana clarified that Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge but needs the firm stability of a single party to continue to develop.
“It’s more practical to compare post-war to post-war,” Ratana said, referring to the recovery time following World War II in comparison to Cambodia’s recent conflict. “There has been less than 20 years of peace.”
Chambers, however, disputed that Cambodia is heading in the right direction.“The implication seems to be that Cambodia could become a modern-day Singapore. I do not think that Hun Sen is a Lee Kuan Yew,” Chambers said in reference to Singapore’s former long-term ruler.
“So far the [Zimbabwe President Robert] Mugabe future seems to be the path down which Hun Sen is leading Cambodia.”