Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cambodia - an April Fool's democracy

Cambodia - an April Fool's democracy

In Cambodia, the eve of the election is quietly known as “the night of the barking dogs”. The “dogs”; politicians and their henchmen; make their rounds, dispensing gifts and threats, winning votes through fear and favour.

This year, the night before Cambodia’s April Fool’s Day elections, the dogs barked in unison for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). As the polling booths shut, so did Cambodia’s chance to rid itself of this ex-Khmer Rouge military dictator. Hun Sen and his faction marched to victory with 98 per cent of the vote. The only other “democracy” recorded receiving such compelling voter support for a single party was Iraq, under Saddam Hussein.

The rise and rise of Hun Sen’s Empire marks the fall of the great democratic experiment in Cambodia. The country remains a democracy in name only; a thin shell hiding the power and corruption of the CPP beneath its surface.

Democracy arrived in Cambodia in a blaze of glory in 1992, when 20,000 international soldiers and civilians, under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), descended upon the small Asian country.

The mission was to be an international symbol of the new world order. The Cold War had ended; America's democracy had won over Soviet communism. Cambodia was the lucky recipient of exported democracy - a poultice to assuage the wounds received from years under the bloody Khmer Rouge.

The 1993 election went smoothly and FUNCINPEC (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif, which translates to "National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia") under Prince Norodom Ranariddh was victorious, receiving over 45 per cent of the vote. The UN, in a celebratory mood packed up and went home, declaring the whole event a great success.

However, under Khmer law, no party could rule with less than a two-thirds majority. Hun Sen’s CPP, which received less than 38 per cent of the vote, threatened a secession of the eastern provinces of Cambodia if Ranariddh did not share the victory. From the days of the Khmer Rouge a faction in the military and many other friends in influential positions in Cambodian society backed Hun Sen. His threats had clout.

FUNCINPEC submitted to a coalition government with the CPP. Cambodia became the only country which could boast not only one, but two prime ministers: First Prime Minister Ranariddh, and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen was later asked to reflect on what UNTAC had brought through their good efforts in Cambodia. He replied simply, “AIDS”. Hun Sen paid no thanks to the UN for their efforts to install democracy in Cambodia.

Since that first election the CPP has tightened its grip on Cambodia. Hun Sen has consolidated his coterie of thugs and villains. Cambodia’s standing army grew and became the largest per capita in the world. Compulsory conscription was introduced for Cambodian men between 18 and 30, and military spending consumed almost half the annual budget. Hun Sen’s faction became an unassailable force inside and outside of Parliament.

With this power, a decade later, Hun Sen set about ironing out the last wrinkles of opposition to his empire.

In 2005 opposition leader Sam Rainsy spoke up in parliament about the CPP’s attempts to assassinate him. The CPP quickly responded by passing a bill retroactively revoking Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity. Hun Sen then issued a $5 million defamation suit against him. Sam Rainsy fled the country, and two of his ministers were imprisoned.

In the months leading up to this election yet another political opponent was forced to flee the country. Prince Ranariddh, the former democratic leader of Cambodia, left the country after charges were brought against him. While married to Princess Marie, Ranariddh had publicly acknowledged a long-term relationship with another woman. With this in mind the CPP pushed legislation through parliament outlawing adultery.

Unofficially, as parliamentarians chatted among themselves, they referred to the law as the “Ranariddh legislation”. Within hours of it being passed by the National Assembly Ranariddh was charged.

The “monogamy law”, in reality, has the potential to see most of the Cambodian male population put behind bars. “Sweet hearts” and prostitutes are a broadly accepted aspect of Khmer male culture. The stooges of the CPP are certainly not exempt from this. All have mistresses. Yet few arrests have taken place since the Prince was charged. The law was merely one more example of how Hun Sen manipulated the law to ensure his own hegemony.

Outside parliament similar CCP plots to manipulate this election process took place. Efforts to monitor and observe the election process were thwarted with the CPP’s devious tricks.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) acts as an independent election watchdog. With more than 11,000 polling booths across the country; COMFREL is responsible for mobilising thousands of Khmer and international volunteers to visit the polling booths and report any incidents of violence or perversion of the voting procedures. COMFREL’s monitors report back to COMFREL by sending text messages to a COMFREL number which records all reports on a computer database.

Two days before the election, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) - a body made up almost exclusively of CPP party members - made an announcement. Text message services would be shut down up until the hour the polling booths closed. The NEC stated that this was to stop political parties spamming party propaganda in the “tranquility period” before the election. The real victim however was COMFREL and their monitoring activities. COMFREL had no way to instantaneously record the assessments of their thousands of monitors.

The NEC knew COMFREL’s monitoring strategy many months before. With the monitors muted COMFREL could not quickly dispatch additional observers to polling stations where trouble ensued.

Perversions and disruptions at booths went unrecorded and thwarted COMFREL's efforts to report the election.

Frustrating the efforts of COMFREL’s monitoring strategy was unquestionably an advantage to the CPP. The CPP boasts a long history of employing dubious and illegal methods of influencing results at the polling booth.

Booths with traditional swings against the CPP often receive visits from armed thugs with shady connections to the CPP. They cause disturbances outside the booth, scaring away prospective voters. In some provinces, Khmers have been scared out of voting after CPP candidates told them that the CPP had satellites that could see who they voted for. They were told they would be punished if they voted against CPP.

In a country where roughly 30 per cent of the population are illiterate crafty politicians can easily pull the wool over people’s eyes. Fear is by far the most effective electioneering tool. Cambodians know better than most what a government is capable of doing to its own citizens. The Khmer Rouge period hangs like a darkened shroud over the country still with the Khmer Rouge, 30 years later, still unpunished.

Yet despite the corruption, violence and fear Cambodians do want to vote. Sixty-five per cent of those registered to vote made the long trek to their provinces to make their contribution to democracy. Compared to long-established democracies of the UK and America, this is significantly high.

Each generation of Cambodians chip away at illiteracy levels and grow more politically conscious. Yet at the same time, Hun Sen's power base grows in strength. In a country with absolutely no social welfare system; corruption is a means of survival. It is entrenched at every level. While corruption remains, so will the CPP. While a vote can be still be purchased for roughly 25 cents (US) no change can be expected in Cambodia.

In a country that has known no past other than the reign of emperors, the weighty burden of colonialism and the barbarism of a murderous communist force, perhaps the end result of the democratic experiment is not so surprising. The culture of power and violence entrenched long ago did not dissipate overnight in one expensive UN operation. They merely adapted to a different system. It has happened many times before.

Cambodia bodes ill for the similar experiments of nation building in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that polling booths, monitors and peacekeepers are all very well but cannot alone displace embedded hierarchy, powerbrokers and mobsters. These result from far more systemic problems of poverty and instability.

Cultural norms of hierarchy, religion and tradition also contribute to the perpetuation of such power structures. It’s time we abandoned the concept of democracy as a universal band-aid solution, applicable to any country and situation. The reality is far more complex and so should be the response.

First published in The Diplomat on May 28, 2007.


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