Democracy, dictatorship or something in between - it has been the biggest debate
of 1997. Khmer Institute of Democracy director Dr Lao Mong Hay, one of Cambodia's
most articulate and outspoken democracy advocates, reviews the government regimes
of the past and present, and offers a blueprint for the world to breath new life
new into Cambodian democracy.
D emocracy was first born in Cambodia in 1947 when the first Constitution was adopted,
transforming an age-old absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy with multi-party
If one can visualize Cambodia's democracy as a "demo-graph" - like a cardiograph
measuring heart beats - then the graph begins at a certain height in that year.
It remained at that level until 1955 when King Norodom Sihanouk, who had just achieved
a triumphal success in his crusade for Cambodia's independence from France, abdicated
and formed a movement called Sangkum Reastyr Niyum (People's Socialist Community)
to include all political parties to lead the country under the banner of guided democracy.
The demo-graph began to decline when no other political parties could operate, press
freedom was curbed, and there were no genuine, competitive elections. It declined
so low that at one time Sihanouk was seen as a dictator.
The graph climbed up sharply in 1966 when Sihanouk no longer hand-picked parliamentary
candidates and all Cambodians were free to stand for the general elections of that
year. Executive powers shifted away from Sihanouk for several years and the demo-graph
remained high, before it declined again when Sihanouk succeeded in wrestling back
In 1970 General Lon Nol toppled Sihanouk and many leading intellectuals succeeded
in getting the new ruler to embrace multi-party democracy. The demo-graph jumped
again, only to nose-dive when Lon Nol became himself a dictator, before it fell flat
out and democracy was completely dead in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power and
brutally imposed communism. The graph remained flat following the ousting of the
Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese troops and during the rule of the People's Republic of
Kampuchea and then the State of Cambodia.
The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements gave that dead democracy a new lease on life and
buttressed it with the pillars of liberalism, pluralism, human rights and the rule
of law with an independent judiciary. The United Nations Transitional Authority in
Cambodia (UNTAC) propped it up with more than 26,000 peacekeepers, and the demo-graph
shot up to new heights with the holding of genuine, competitive elections in 1993.
The graph remained at that height for a couple of years, then began to dip yet again
when conflicts started between the two major parties, Funcinpec and the Cambodian
People's Party (CPP), in the coalition government. The graph fell almost flat from
July 5-6, 1997 when military actions were used to settle those disputes and oust
Funcipec co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh. CPP co-Prime Minister Hun Sen has since
become the de facto paramount leader of Cambodia.
All are losers
The CPP victor is not victorious, however. The vanquished Funcinpec loyal to Ranariddh
is fighting back. The international community has not condoned the use of bullets
to destroy the ballots which the vanquished received in the 1993 elections. Some
countries have withheld their bilateral aid or are not considering new assistance
projects in Cambodia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has postponed
Cam-bodia's membership. Cambodia's seat at the United Nations has been left indefinitely
Inside the country, King Norodom Sihanouk has not approved of the power-grab. Almost
all Cambodians have been adversely affected by the July events, with some losing
their lives or property, and others their jobs and trade. Factories and shops in
the fighting areas were badly damaged. Thousands of jobs there were lost overnight.
Many foreign residents have left Cambodia, leaving behind houses for rent. There
are virtually no new investors coming in. Business enterprises have seen a decline
in their activities, some laying off workers. A wait-and-see attitude has prevailed
in a climate of uncertainty. Tourists have not come. Ten of thousands of jobs in
the tourist industry have disappeared. Of late, tourism has arduously been picking
Now the focus is on the forthcoming elections which were initially scheduled for
23 May, 1998, and now delayed to July 26. These elections had been thought of as
a solution to the conflicts between Funcinpec and the CPP before July, but they are
now seen as the solution to the present crisis and as a means to restore democracy.
The preparations for these elections have been going on for over two years, and currently
special efforts are being made to finalize them and meet the deadline. The National
Assembly recently adopted the political party law and the election law, and technical
and logistical preparations are underway.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continue to be made to ensure the safe return of all
opposition politicians who fled abroad following the July events, and their security
and freedom to carry out their political activities. The UN has sent monitors to
scrutinize their safety and security. Some MPs have now returned and resumed their
work. Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Khmer Nation Party, has also returned and commenced
straight away to mobilize crowds to support him. An advance team of the Union of
Cambodian Democracts (UCD), a loose coalition of opposition politicians fleeing the
July events, came in to "test the waters".
There have been positive developments: the return of those opposition politicians,
who have so far been safe and able to work without hindrance; some degree of humility
and flexibility on the part of Hun Sen after his delegation's failure to occupy Cambodia's
seat at the UN; the return of King Sihanouk to Phnom Penh; Hun Sen's yielding to
pressure to strengthen the independence of the National Election Commission and to
return to Funcinpec the control of its radio and television stations seized during
and after July.
Several important issues remain though. Hun Sen still insists on the trial of Ranariddh
for collaborating with the outlawed Khmer Rouge and for smuggling in weapons for
Funcinpec's army. Time - the election deadline - is running out. Fighting continues
between forces loyal to Ranariddh and "government" forces. The Khmer Rouge
continue their armed struggle and are reported to side with the Ranariddh forces.
The CPP has the control of the state administrative apparatus and security forces
for election purposes, to the detriment of opposition parties. Opposition parties
may not have enough time to organize and prepare themselves for the elections. Doubts
have been raised over whether the CPP would be willing to relinquish power should
they lose the elections, despite its reassurances that it will respect the election
It seems that the holding of elections is an inevitable event when there is pressure
from all sides on the powerful leaders in Phnom Penh. They cannot withstand such
pressure, least of all any prolonged suspension of bilateral aid, especially the
budgetary contribution which covers some 40% of the national budget. Any delay beyond
September 24, 1998 would raise a complicated constitutional issue as the current
National Assembly term expires on that date. The King would then become another rightful
player as he is the one who can request the National Assembly to extend its term
for "one year" at a time, not for any length of time at his choosing. If
the King refuses to make such a request, the victor's government would lose all its
remaining legitimacy. The King might then force the formation of a care-taker government.
Such prospects may not be palatable to the present government.
Over-reaching power is the enemy of development
In Cambodia, a country ruled by the centralized French system and by the more
centralized communist system, powers tend to concentrate in the hands of one powerful
man or a group of powerful men (politicians, generals and businessmen). This concentration
of powers is an obstacle to the separation of powers and to a system of checks and
balances. On past experience in Cambodia and a number of other poor countries, over-reaching
power is an enemy of development.
Cambodia's Constitution of 1993 contains all important institutions whose effective
workings should ensure a system of checks and balances: the Legislative, the Executive,
the Judiciary, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy (SCM), the Constitutional Council
(CC), the King, and the National Congress (NC). So far the SCM, the CC and the NC
do not exist.
One of the duties of the King is to ensure the independence of the judiciary with
the help of the SCM. As the establishment of the judiciary and the appointment of
judges were carried out under the socialist legal system, that is, under the communist
party, that judiciary and those judges have been accused of lacking independence
from the CPP. The King has not been able to ensure such independence.
Because of the absence of the SCM, the CC cannot be established either, for three
of its nine members are appointed by the SCM. There is no verification of the constitutionality
of laws adopted by the current National Assembly, and of laws made by the communist
government in the past, especially those laws establishing the judicial system and
the appointment of judges. The National Assembly rules of procedure, and all laws
establishing any state organizations, need to have their constitutionality checked
by the CC. When there is no such CC, when there is no second chamber to have a second
reading of those laws, and when the National Assembly is effectively under the control
of the leaders of the two major parties, and now of one powerful leader, those two
leaders and now that single leader can dictate what laws to make.
Currently, the National Assembly and the government no longer reflect the will, wishes
and aspirations of the people as expressed in the 1993 elections. The state organs
are very much under the control of the CPP and Hun Sen, the loser in the last elections.
Funcinpec, the then winner, is disintegrated and some of its members have allied
themselves with the CPP, which the majority of the people had rejected. Ung Huot,
the unconstitutionally-appointed First Prime Minister in replacement of Ranariddh,
has demonstrated no independence from Hun Sen. To many, Ung Huot is simply Hun Sen's
The National Congress (NC) is a channel for people to voice their concerns over public
issues, and express their wishes and aspirations to their leaders. It could check
powers to some extent and make leaders more accountable for their actions. But this
important institution does not exist.
The King's status as constitutional monarch who "reigns but does not rule"
is so much emphasized that he is actually unable to exercise his constitutional powers.
Many of these powers have been overlooked, and the King was bypassed altogether over
the appointment of Ung Huot as First Prime Minister. He is unable to protect the
rights and freedoms of his citizens and to ensure the independence of the judiciary,
all of which are his constitutional responsibilities. He is too concerned not to
antagonize his Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Preparations are underway to set up the SCM and the CC, but under the present circumstances
their composition would be very much one-sided, biased towards the CPP. This party
and Hun Sen in particular are effectively running Cambodia, using force of arms if
need be; the civil service and the military and security forces are not politically
Under such circumstances, in order to help the democratization process, there is
a need to disperse powers away from the center. The enhancement of the authority
of the King can do the trick, but it should be reinforced by the enhancement of the
role of Cambodia's civil society.
Many NGOs have worked hard, even throughout the difficult times during and after
July, to uphold the integrity of the pluralistic, liberal democratic order which
the international community helped establish from 1991 to 1993 at the costs of over
$2 billion, the sweat of over 26,000 peacekeepers and some of their blood. While
some bilaterial aid to the government has been suspended, the maintenance of humanitarian
assistance to the Cambodian people - mainly through NGOs - has proved effective in
not "punishing the poor". The poor, and the Cambodian people in general,
can identify clearly who the international community is "punishing" for
misconduct and deviation from that liberal order. Thanks to better and more accurate
information through international radio stations, in particular the Khmer-language
service of Voice of America, it is very doubtful whether many Cambodians believe
what is put out in the local media which, except for some "opposition"
newspapers, are under the control or influence of the CPP.
The role of Cambodia's civil society can be enhanced further by channeling more assistance
to the Cambodian people through NGOs. Though these NGOs cannot build major economic
and social infrastructure, they nevertheless are capable of managing smaller projects
which benefit directly the Cambodian grassroots. More effective and efficient than
the government's bureaucratic machinery, these NGOs, with more resources, can contribute
further to socio-economic development and democratization.
Many NGOs, with human rights NGOs as their core, have joined forces in order to participate
in the administration of the forthcoming elections. There is now a Coalition for
Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL) and a Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL).
Both groups are cooperating in their efforts to provide voter education and poll-watching
to help ensure free and fair elections. But both need technical and financial assistance
and support to work effectively.
The civil society has so far produced no mean achievements. Cambodians, especially
at the grassroots, have appreciated the role of NGOs in socio-economic development.
Many owe their survival or better standard of living to NGOs. Many came to know and
understand the meaning of human rights and other democratic values or have vindicated
their rights through human rights NGOs. All these values were unknown to Cambodians
before 1992 when UNTAC started to disseminate these values. Over some six years these
values are known up and down the country, even in remote villages. Throughout Cambodia,
people talk about elections and ask whether they can be held in 1998 and whether
they can be free and fair, without violence, intimidation and vendettas. Without
some knowledge of democratic values they would not be able to talk about these election
A Constitution-bound coalition
While the civil society can contribute to creating a political climate and an
environment conducive to as free and fair elections as possible, political parties
need to do their part. Powers cannot be handed to them on a silver plate; they need
to work for them. Politicians need courage and a lot of it under the present circumstances.
It is now like a confrontation between the forces of evil and the forces of good.
The next elections are crucial to ensuring a genuinely multi-party system and an
active and effective National Assembly. Now many have known and lived the rules of
the game, whether democratic or otherwise. Over the past five years, politicians
and parties have laid bare their colors and spots. Some relapsed into their old dictatorial
ways, including the use of force of arms, while others made efforts to prevent the
return to that old road to serfdom. Many Cambodians have enjoyed the new, democratic
way, and want to continue along that road. With free and fair elections, if such
elections can be held, with the proportional representation system, and with the
participation of all opposition politicians, including Ranariddh, it is very hard
for a single party, however united and well-endowed it might be, to win the majority
required to form a government of its own. The Constitution requires a majority of
two-thirds, and the quorum for meetings of the National Assembly is seven-tenths
of its members.
A coalition may need to be hammered out and even small parties with seats in the
National Assembly may have bargaining powers. A party which may be dominant but short
of a majority will need to mobilize the support of as many parties as possible to
muster that majority.
But the functioning of the multi-party system depends on the neutralization of the
civil service and the security and military forces, the independence of the judiciary,
and also the effective workings of the SCM, the CC and the NC. The establishment
and expected performance of these bodies remain a tall order, which also depends
on the election outcome. If the victims of the present lacunae come out victorious
or get a substantial number of seats, then they could push to fill these gaps.
Decentralization and local democracy
The idea of local democracy still exists though it is very much on the back burner
compared with democracy at the national level. Village development committees are
being set up under the aegis of the Rural Development Ministry through democratic
elections. Associations including those at the grassroots are using democratic elections
to elect officers and make decisions.
Local democracy is an ongoing process, but whether local authorities will be based
on democracy seems to depend on the outcome of the national elections. The CPP, whose
party faithful already control those authorities, does not seem to have any incentive
to change the status quo. Furthermore, there is no obligation on the part of the
government to organize local elections.
Local democracy is a seedbed of the pluralistic, liberal democratic order. It is
yet another instrument to disperse powers from the center. The homogeneity of the
Cambodian nation is more in appearance. Actually, this country has a range of diversity
of geography, ethnicity and ensuing needs. Local democracy caters better for such
a variety of needs.
Poverty does not disqualify democracy
An entire generation of Cambodians, those aged under 35, missed out on education
altogether. Almost all moral and ethical values of the nation have been destroyed,
while schools were more indoctrination than education centers. Now the focus is on
human resource development, even at primary schools, as Cambodians are needed as
economic resources, not as human beings, forgetting altogether that in the Khmer
Rouge time Cambodians became "labor units" to be used ruthlessly by those
Some educated and skilled Cambodians survived the Khmer Rouge massacre, and many
more have been trained since. However, due to the lack of proper education of the
younger generation, the difference of influence from different educational systems,
and the destruction of moral and ethical values, Cambodians have plurality but no
pluralism. They have no common system of values yet. And some 40% of them live under
the poverty line.
The prospects for pluralistic, liberal democracy look bleak. But one has to bear
in mind that Cambodia has tried out all major regimes and political systems: Sihanouk's
absolute monarchy and, later on, constitutional monarchy with multi-party democracy;
Lon Nol's republic with dictatorship; and Pol Pot's and Heng Samrin's republics with
communist dictatorship. While Sihanouk's constitutional monarchy with multi-party
democracy ensured peace, security and some prosperity for Cambodians, all republics
with dictatorship led to war and disaster.
Cambodians under Sihanouk's constitutional monarchy with multi-party democracy were
no better off than Cambodians of today, yet they appreciated their rights and freedoms,
and whenever there were genuinely competitive elections, they thronged to exercise
their right to vote. There was a low degree of violence and no candidate was killed
or seriously injured during those elections. The voter turnouts were 60% in 1946
and 65% in 1966. There were genuine parliamentary debates and some degree of a free
press. Independent intellectuals could voice their criticisms and concerns over public
issues. There were even lively public debates at the National Congress held twice
a year, and ministers lost their jobs after the exposure of their lack of performance
Poverty is no hindrance to democracy in Cambodia and elsewhere, for instance in Bangladesh.
The main obstacles and dangers are powerful people with guns who are after riches
and use their powers and guns to protect these ill-gotten riches. They are the ones
who are not keen to establish the system of checks and balances as enshrined in the
Constitution. They are the ones who break the law and get away with impunity, and
who break the oath they took upon taking office. In the 1993 elections, who silenced
and intimidated the opposition, and led to the death of over 100 party officials
and agents? Who resorted to force of arms to resolve conflicts in July 1997, causing
the brutal death of over 40 party officials? It was not the ordinary Cambodian people,
Non-interference does not apply
Cambodia has drained a lot of the scarce resources of the international community.
This community has shown no fatigue yet over the internal conflict which has repeated
itself again and again, or over the refusal of Cambodia's leaders to resort to the
mechanisms that the same international community earlier helped put in place to prevent
or resolve that conflict. These mechanisms are enshrined in the Paris Peace Agreements
of 1991 and the 1993 Constitution.
However, the prompt actions of the international community in the form of suspension
of aid, diplomatic interventions, and safety arrangements to protect lives during
and after the July 5-6 event were very effective in curbing the severity of the violence
between Funcinpec and the CPP. Without such prompt actions, that violence would have
continued with more bloodshed and destruction.
The actions subsequently taken by some countries, especially in the form of economic
sanctions, the postponement of Cambodia's ASEAN membership, the vacancy of the Cambodia's
seat at the UN, and continued diplomatic pressure, all have yielded positive results:
a degree of relaxation of open control of the population; the openness to opposition
politicians; and more liberal election-related laws. These encouraging developments
need to be nurtured and given more momentum in order to get Cambodia back on the
track of full-fledged pluralistic, liberal democracy.
The international community should act in the following areas in order to maximize
the results of its efforts to support such democracy:
A. In the long run:
Get the Cambodian government to abolish the national army and simply maintain
a professional police force to ensure law and order. The national army has a very
dismal record. It has failed to defend the country whose territory has kept shrinking.
It has failed to defeat the Khmer Rouge. Its members are among the violators of human
rights. It has drained the country's meager resources.
Cambodia is too poor to pay some of its people to bear arms. Better relations
with neighboring countries and human settlement and development of border regions
are a better defense of the country. Cambodia should be helped not to fear its neighbors
and to adopt a new, positive attitude towards them: "A prosperous Vietnam is
good for Cambodia, and vice-versa; a prosperous Thailand is good for Cambodia, and
vice-versa." Signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 should fulfill
their obligations to guarantee Cambodia's territorial integrity.
A Cambodia unarmed can protect itself better. A Cambodia armed is simply its own
Help Cambodia to redeploy demobilized soldiers.
Help Cambodia to reduce the number of its civil servants fast, increase the pay
of the remaining ones, and retrain them in order to have an honest, efficient, neutral
Help Cambodia to redeploy those retrenched civil servants by enlarging the economic
hubs away from the capital and other major urban areas through the creation of regional
Help Cambodia to decentralize its public administration and establish local democracy.
Enhance the role of the civil society, and the dispersal of powers away from the
center, by channeling more assistance to NGOs.
Help Cambodia to establish an independent judiciary staffed by independent, impartial
and competent judges, through a judge evaluation committee, retraining and pay rises.
Help Cambodia to make laws, rules and regulations, and establish effective law
enforcement mechanisms and authorities with respect for human rights.
Assist Cambodia to have well functioning and effective institutions of the rule
of law, namely the Supreme Council of the Magistracy and the Constitutional Council.
Help enhance the authority of the Monarch by getting him or her to exercise his
or her constitutional powers.
Be frank with Cambodian leaders, some of whom do not understand diplomatic language.
Bear in mind that as far as Cambodia is concerned, the sacred principle of non-interference
into internal affairs of sovereign states does not apply. Cambodia is bound by the
1991 Paris Peace Agreements, and by its recent tragic history. It can slip back to
that past very easily because of the absence of checks and balances and of moral
and ethical values. Shame and guilt are scarce commodities in Cambodia.
B. In the short term; a package for free and fair elections in 1998 for donors:
Help create a less confrontational political environment through peace talks between
rival parties, a cease-fire, a commitment to free and fair elections with no violence
and intimidation and with the participation of all politicians, and the offer of
power to the winner.
Enhance the authority of the King to convene such a meeting between rival parties.
With regard to the election law, ensure:
The independence of the National Election Commission, with its chair and vice-chair
appointed by the National Assembly, with autonomy over its finances, powers to recruit
electoral officers and its own rules and regulations, and with the power to give
orders to all forces during the electoral period. Any defiance of the commission
should be a contempt of court;
The freedom and security of all poll-watchers, international and national.
Set up a steering committee to work alongside the National Election Commission
to ensure the enforcement of electoral laws and regulations, and to second at least
two officials, a program officer and a finance officer, to the National Election
Commission to: help address technical problems; ensure the enforcement rules and
regulations; provide sound financial management (the electoral process should not
be disrupted by financial scandals or technical problems); and supervise and coordinate
the work of international poll-watchers.
Appoint international monitors to be posted in all provinces and districts (altogether
around 200), to be assisted by local monitors provided by NGOs, to oversee the entire
electoral process from the registration of voters to the taking of office by the
Also appoint special monitors to ensure the enforcement of laws on the neutrality
of armed forces and civil servants.
Ensure that the party and election laws and regulations do not discriminate against
the poor and minorities by imposing too large a number of party members and/or too
big a deposit to qualify.
Ensure that all such laws and regulations reflect the views of politicians who
Ensure that all opposition politicians including Ranariddh are able to return
to participate in the elections, free of all violence, intimidation and discrimination.
Ensure that all contesting parties have equal access to the media, and can campaign
throughout the country free of obstacles.
Insist on the prosecutions of those responsible for the killings during a peaceful
demonstration on March 30, 1997 and during and after the July events. Those people
could strike again and have an incentive to uphold the system that allows impunity.
Request a pledge by all parties to offer power to the winners on a specific date.
Empower NGOs though technical and financial assistance and cooperation with COFFEL
Adhere to the Paris Peace Agreements and avoid political expediency which risks
establishing bad precedents (the UNTAC-required 5,000 members for election qualification
has already been used to impose almost that high number, 4,000).
Maintain the status quo with regard to Cambodia's ASEAN membership and Cambodia's
seat at the UN until the elections are proven free and fair, and the winners take
Many Cambodians are speaking up against the deterioration of democracy in their country,
and are working to uphold the pluralistic, liberal democratic order as established
by the Paris Peace Agreements and by the Constitution. These Cambodians are putting
pressure on their leaders to revert to what those leaders themselves agreed upon
by signing the Paris Peace Agreements and by adopting the Constitution. They are
mobilizing like-minded fellow Cambodians to join in these efforts.
However, in the face of leaders who are not afraid of using force to stay in power,
and considering the trauma still afflicting many Cambodians, multi-faceted support
from the international community is still very critical in order to get Cambodian
leaders back on the road to a pluralistic, liberal democracy which respects human
rights and the rule of law, and to help that demo-graph climb upwards again.