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US democracy ‘not a good fit for Cambodia’, says academic

Royal Academy of Cambodia researcher Sok Touch speaks to the press earlier this year in Phnom Penh.
Royal Academy of Cambodia researcher Sok Touch speaks to the press earlier this year in Phnom Penh. Sreng Meng Srun

US democracy ‘not a good fit for Cambodia’, says academic

Pro-government academic and head of Cambodia’s Royal Academy Sok Touch yesterday continued to voice support for the government’s recent actions against the opposition while dismissing US pressure for Cambodia to maintain democratic principles, claiming the “American democracy” model was not palatable to the “culture and norms” of the Cambodian people.

The Cambodian government has been widely criticised over a crackdown on the main opposition party, civil society and some media outlets, with the US and EU having pulled funding for the upcoming national elections, and the US also issuing visa restrictions against certain senior officials.

Immediately following the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s dissolution over widely decried accusations it was fomenting “revolution”, Touch and the Royal Academy of Cambodia hosted a roundtable in which participants voiced support for the government’s manoeuvre.

Touch organised another panel discussion yesterday at the Academy to dismiss international criticism, specifically from the US. Touch maintained that Cambodia was still on a democratic path – within a model that better fits the Cambodian context.

“American democracy is good only in the US. But not all parts of it are good in Cambodia because it needs to reflect the culture and norms [here],” he said.

Touch rose to prominence as a border researcher and was considered a neutral arbiter when he was enlisted by the government to sort out disputes on the demarcation of the border with Vietnam. Since then, however, the scholar has stepped more and more in line with the government, and in the last year he was given the government rank of secretary of state. Speaking yesterday, Touch took creative liberties in illustrating how Cambodia’s democracy differed from that of the US.

“A hamburger is delicious in the US, and prahok is delicious in Cambodia. But prahok can’t be delicious in the US,” he said, referring to the common local fermented fish paste.

The researcher also challenged criticism by the EU and US of the Kingdom, when the two have recently ignored the repression of “communist” countries nearby. “Don’t believe foreigners who say they want to bring democracy to Cambodia. If they want to bring it to Cambodia then please change Vietnam and Laos, which are close friends of the US,” he said.

Touch chose to livestream the event on his Facebook, inviting criticism from social media users who questioned his understanding of democracy.

“[They say] democracy in Cambodia is going ahead because there are more than two parties,” said Facebook user Krabey Prey. “What is their definition of democracy? Parties or the people?”

Another user named Chao Khemrakmit wrote: “The communist parrots are singing to protect a dictator”.

Political commentator Lao Mong Hay said it was surprising that Touch continued to prop up Cambodia’s democratic credentials, which he said had fallen by the wayside despite being the centrepieces to the Paris Peace Accords and the Constitution. He added that Touch, surrounded by other Academy officials, should refrain from making such statements and instead focus on their jobs as researchers.

“But when the chief [Touch] does politics like this, and issues statements about government policy and the power of the [CPP], this means that he has made this institution into a political institution,” he said.

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