Cambodia’s unique brand of free-market democracy is so closely entwined with patronage that the society puts “profits over people” and compromises the rule of law, according to a new paper.
In Klepto-Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and Patronage in Cambodia, academic Simon Springer argues that neoliberalism – the school of thought that holds that free markets breed broad-based prosperity – is always under the influence of patron politics in Cambodia and works “in concert with authoritarian means”. The dynamic, he goes on to say, allows powerful elites to co-opt reforms and manipulate privatisation to enrich themselves.
The article, recently published online and due to be released in the book States of Discipline in March, critiques the idea that “legal reform will somehow serve as cure-all for development” because of the “realities of a judiciary firmly entrenched within patron relations”.
“As a system of hierarchical relations that are woven through the political economy of Cambodia starting with the Prime Minister and extending down through every level of government to the village, the patronage system offers rewards for those who capitulate and punishments for those who refuse its logic,” the paper reads.
“While neoliberal ideology would have us believe that such patronage will be eroded as the mechanism of the market comes to dominate social relations, the Cambodian experience instead actually shows how patronage becomes strengthened and entrenched.”
“[E]fficiency and competency are of little concern, and the primary motivation becomes profit for well-connected powerbrokers.”
The sweeping essay cites close associates of Hun Sen gaining preferential treatment in being given lucrative government contracts, such as petroleum giant Sokimex, as well as mass forced evictions of people living on valuable land, such as the mass evictions at Boeung Kak lake – overseen by a company owned by a ruling-party senator.
In contrast to the rapid adoption of legislation for oil and gas exploration, the passing of a domestic violence law was an example of “bureaucratic foot-dragging”, Springer argued, “not only because Cambodian elites had little to gain by passing the law but also that such a law would counteract the male dominated, masculine interests of the elite”.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan, however, denied the ruling party favoured the rich, but agreed wealthy tycoons were given oknha status for their humanitarian donations.
“It would be political suicide to prioritise the upper class over the lower class,” Siphan said. “The rich have one vote, like the poor. So the rich do not have more of the vote.”
Political analyst Ou Virak said the state’s prevention of real market competition was the source of many of the country’s evils.
“People in power can effectively pass a law that will benefit the inner circle; that’s not rule of law, that’s rule by law,” he said.
“In the case of Cambodia, it’s so obvious, so blatant, that it’s a lot easier to point out. For that reason, we have an opportunity to change it.”
Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition, which has criticised the dominance of elites in the past, said his party would end the enduring patronage system “by creating decent jobs and ensuring decent revenues for all under the rule of law”.