Cambodia’s Descent: ruling party was ‘never committed to genuine democratic process’



The United States has called on Cambodia to reverse steps that “backtracked on democracy” before a general election next year, Reuters reports:

“We are advising that these steps that have taken place here that have backtracked on democracy could be reversed,” said Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia, the most senior U.S. official to visit since the CNRP was dissolved. Murphy told reporters in Phnom Penh that Cambodia still had time before the general election in July to “conduct an electoral process that is legitimate”.


More than 1,000 Cambodian-Americans from across the United States converged on Washington on Sunday (see below) to call for the release of Cambodia’s jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and the restoration of his party, VOA adds.

The Cambodian government’s move to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) “effectively transformed the country into a one-party state,” said Kenneth Wollack, President of the National Democratic Institute.

“In hindsight, Cambodia’s recent history provides strong evidence that the top leadership of the nation’s ruling party has never been committed to a genuine democratic political process nor willing to accept defeat, or even the risk of defeat, at the polls,” he said, in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific hearing. “Since the transitional period began in 1991, the CPP has dominated the political landscape, maintaining control of the police, military, civil bureaucracy and virtually all of local government.”

The U.S. decision to restrict visas for Cambodians engaged in “undermining democracy” in the Southeast Asian nation demonstrates that it’s not necessary  “to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics” in order to advance democracy, the Economist noted this week. Despite a shift towards a more insular, America-First foreign policy stance, U.S. “democracy promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets,” it added.

“Despite deep flaws, the 2013 national elections and this year’s communal elections saw gains made by the CNRP,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) told the hearing on Cambodia’s Descent: Policies to Support Democracy and Human Rights. “Since that time, we have seen a complete dismemberment of the political system in Cambodia. Make no mistake, the government is now run by an authoritarian thug.”

Cambodia is one of the few places around the world where there is a clear overlap between American interests and values, said Monovithya Kem, the CNRP’s Deputy Director-General of Public Affairs, and daughter of Kem Sohka, the party’s president.

“It is not only a moral responsibility of the United States to support democracy and freedom in Cambodia, but it is also in the U.S. interest to do so from a strategic foreign policy standpoint,” she told the Congressional hearing  “In Asia, democracies tend to be more stable, open and prosperous, and also more likely to uphold the rules-based international order which underpins global commerce and international security.”

Cambodia’s authoritarian turn also reflects the growing influence of China, analysts suggest.

Although U.S. assistance to Cambodia for health, education, governance, economic development and clearing unexploded ordnance was worth more than $77.6 million in 2014, China is now Cambodia’s biggest donor and lender, VOA reports. According to The Economist, Chinese firms sent nearly $5 billion to Cambodia in loans and investments between 2011 and 2015, which accounts for about 70 percent of total industrial development.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia this week called on the government to return to a path of multi-party democracy and suggested that the crackdown imperiled the country’s prospects for inclusive economic growth.

“For gains in economic and social rights to be entrenched, it is important to also respect civil and political rights, such as press freedoms and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” said Professor Rhona Smith. “The fact that the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights was no longer under investigation and could return to its work was “a step in the right direction” she said.

The regime has accused the Cambodian opposition and NGOs such as NDI of colluding with Western democracy assistance groups in a plot for ‘regime change.’

The allegations against NDI – a core institute the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – were “ironic because the Institute, which had been working in the country since 1992, engaged all the major parties, including the ruling CPP, in its programs,” said NDI’s Wollack. “In fact, the morning that NDI received the letter ordering the closure of its office and expelling its international staff from the country, the Institute had met with a representative of the ruling party to plan its next training session with the CPP.”

If one vivid lesson shines through the dim shadows of Southeast Asia’s democratic downslide, it is that democratisation and human rights are far from the same thing, argues Dan Slater , Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies.

“Nationalists steeped in a lifetime of authoritarian state propaganda are analogously primed to see the world in terms of us (who belong) and them (who do not). Under such conditions, democratic rights may get extended — but no further than the ranks of the supposedly virtuous,” he writes for East Asia Forum. “What all this suggests is that the global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education,” Slater adds. “Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation predict that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by ‘people power’.”

There are other actions that the international community should consider until political conditions in Cambodia show marked improvement, NDI’s Wollack told the House hearing, including:

  1. Consider the withdrawal or suspension of all but humanitarian aid to the Cambodian government until the conditions for the return to democracy are met.
  2. Continue to support the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within Cambodia.
  3. Review the possibility of altering the terms of trade with Cambodia.
  4. Continue international engagement — such as the international response to Cambodia’s 1997 coup.
  5. Support exiled political leaders’ efforts to negotiate their return..
  6. Assist efforts to engage international financial institutions, as well as global and regional bodies on the Cambodia issue.

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