Cambodia’s struggle for independence and its subsequent tumultuous experiences have profoundly shaped the country’s approach to peace, stability, sovereignty and democracy in the Cambodian way on the basis of these experiences, histories, identities and practices. From the legacy of the colonisation to the devastating Khmer Rouge regime, and the subsequent efforts to rebuild the nation, each event has left an indelible imprint on Cambodia’s political landscape.
Essentially, at the heart of Cambodia’s pursuit lies sovereignty – the cornerstone of a nation’s self-determination and independence. Sovereignty represents a state’s authority to govern its territory, make decisions and exercise control over its affairs without external interference. Given Cambodia’s history of foreign interventions and occupations, the preservation of sovereignty has been a paramount concern. Protecting and upholding national sovereignty has been viewed as an essential prerequisite for Cambodia’s development and stability.
It is crucial to understand that sovereignty and democracy are not mutually exclusive; instead, they can be mutually reinforcing. Upholding sovereignty should not come at the expense of democratic principles, nor should the pursuit of democracy undermine the nation’s sovereignty. Nurturing democratic principles while upholding sovereignty requires a delicate equilibrium, one that recognises the importance of both concepts in shaping a prosperous, inclusive and self-determined Cambodia.
The Kingdom’s democratic journey is remarkable, and overall, the nation is on the right track towards fostering a vibrant and inclusive democratic society. Through tireless efforts and dedicated reforms, Cambodia has made significant strides in strengthening democratic institutions, promoting human rights and empowering its people.
One of the key pillars of Cambodia’s democratic progress has been the continuous development of electoral processes. The country has witnessed numerous successful elections, allowing citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote freely and fairly. The electoral system is designed to ensure transparency, inclusivity and integrity, with strong measures in place to safeguard the sanctity of the ballot box. Through this process, the will of the people is consistently reflected in the composition of the government.
Over the past 30 years since the first general election and the adoption of the 1993 Constitution, Cambodia remains fully committed to liberal democracy and pluralism. The democratic development and governance have been attributed to regular elections and practical reforms based on the rule of law. Unlike in the past 25 years when elections were held with some bouts of violence, last year’s commune council elections were conducted in a free, fair and peaceful manner. I believe the 2023 parliamentary elections will be as peaceful, free, fair, inclusive and responsible, marking a new height in democratic progress and maturity.
Cambodia’s commitment to political pluralism and civic participation has flourished. The diversity of political parties in the political and democratic development process and the vibrancy of civil society organisations have created an open landscape for dialogue, debate, exchange of ideas and decision-making. This inclusive environment has paved the way for a flourishing democratic culture, empowering citizens to actively engage in shaping the nation’s future. Additionally, the recognition of Buddhism as the country’s state religion has strengthened social inclusion and moral values, further enhancing the depth and breadth of social and religious harmony. The democratic foundation of Cambodia also lies with the inclusive harmony and peaceful co-existence of the triad “People, Government and Monarchy” as reflected in the Motto “Nation-Religion-King”, which the Kingdom has embraced with pride and accountability. Recognising that democracy extends beyond elections, Cambodia has taken significant steps to strengthen its institutions and uphold the rule of law. The country has invested in the development of an independent judiciary, ensuring equal access to justice and safeguarding the rights and freedoms of every individual. Cambodia’s commitment to human rights is unwavering, as it collaborates closely with international partners, civil society and human rights organisations to enhance the protection of its citizens. Cambodia embraces diverse views and opinions from every corner of society, making it an open society.
Notably, Cambodia has prioritised socio-economic development hand-in-hand with its democratic progress. By focusing on poverty alleviation, education, healthcare and infrastructure, the government empowers its citizens to fully participate in and benefit from the democratic, and indeed peace, dividends. Cambodia firmly believes that a prosperous society is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy, and it strives to leave no one behind as it advances on this path.
Cambodia is neither a welfare state nor a social planning economy, but is a free market economy whereby the government has introduced various legal, institutional and policy reforms to provide a greater economic freedom for the people, a greater protection of private investment and a greater marker access. To date, several bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) have been signed and enforced, including the Cambodia-China FTA, Cambodia-Korea FTA, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), among other regional and bilateral FTAs.
To foster a smooth transition toward living in a rapidly digitalised world, the government has adopted and embraced digital society and digital economy policy framework to promote public service delivery, good governance, digital literacy, digital democracy and cybersecurity. These are examples of how to align development and social progress with democracy, while the government is ensuring the good access of the people to clean and safe drinking water, education, health, road and other physical infrastructure, clean and renewable energy, healthy and nutritious food, employment, among other key priorities, to foster their higher living standards and social progress.
All in all, while challenges undoubtedly exist, Cambodia’s commitment to democracy remains resolute. These challenges are viewed as opportunities for growth, learning and continuous improvement. The country is committed to fostering a culture of dialogue, understanding and collaboration, both domestically and internationally, to overcome obstacles and build a brighter future for all Cambodians.
As we reflect on the progress made, I invite the global community to witness firsthand the positive transformation unfolding in Cambodia. I urge our friends and partners around the world to engage in constructive dialogue, support our efforts and recognise the genuine strides Cambodia has taken towards consolidating democracy. Cambodia’s journey towards a prosperous, inclusive and self-determined nation is a testament to the power of resilience, determination and unwavering commitment to the values of sovereignty and democracy.
Suos Yara is a member of the National Assembly of Cambodia.
The views expressed are his own.