Beyond Democracy In Cambodia

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 9.39.27 AMBeyond Democracy in Cambodia was published in 2009, but now seems a good time to draw attention to it, given the current interest in some quarters in the kingdom’s credentials. What follows is a summary of the main points as contained in this recent and excellent review by Virak Thun in New Mandala.

The basic idea is that around 1993 the international community wanted Cambodia to both reconstruct (reconstruct society, reconstruct the economy, reconstruct everything) and to become a liberal democracy. Only the first of these has happened. “International efforts to bring liberal democracy to the country have, one must conclude, hardly scratched the surface.” (Those are Virak Thun’s words).

  • The achievement of liberal democracy is highly unlikely in the predictable future, because of a political culture based on a deeply rooted patronage system and the absence of prerequisites for democracy.
  • Elections are used to gain external legitimization rather than as a force for democracy.
  • The judiciary is incompetent, corrupt, and politically manipulated.
  • Democratic decentralization (a reform introduced in 1993) has served as an instrument of local democratization, regime legitimacy, and post-conflict reconstruction in the form of stability in local communities. (I.e., this at least is a success).
  • Globalization has helped enhance women’s political legitimacy.
  • At the national level regime uses  foreign aid to gain internal legitimacy, but aid is not a substitute for a true democratic process. (This chapter is by Sophal Ear, who has argued elsewhere that massive foreign aid actually hinders the development of democracy in Cambodia).
  • At the rural local level also, reliance on foreign donors/NGOs has emasculated the development of indigenous political legitimacy.
  • The revival swept of Buddhism since the 1980s has played a contributing role in recreating and increasing political legitimacy.
  • The ECCC has been ineffective, and has thus missed the chance of contributing to the political legitimacy of the government.
  • Conclusion: post-conflict reconstruction was relatively fruitful, the Cambodian political context was better and more stable by 2009 than in 1991, and the government is arguably able to maintain a high level of political legitimacy. Nevertheless, “the middle ground, democratization, which is presumed to deliver post-conflict reconstruction, remains elusive”.

My own gloss on this is that Cambodia has achieved political stability and economic development, but that its future stability remains questionable due to the lack of genuine democratic and liberal institutions – meaning independent courts, a free media, oppositional politics, etc.

Lord alone knows why, but Beyond Democracy is free at google books. Or you can buy it through the usual outlets, like Monument.