• Alex de Ramon

Death of a Democracy in Cambodia

Many academics in the foreign policy community, such as Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama, have noted and lamented the “democratic recession” (or authoritarian resurgence) of the past five or so years. According to these theorists, the Third Wave of democratization has not only ended but resulted in uneven results for the countries involved: while Southern European countries such as Spain and Greece have remained democracies, Eastern European and Central Asian countries have followed a more diverse track with some regimes ending up as semi-authoritarian (including Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan). Others have moved in a markedly illiberal direction, such as Poland and Hungary. These assertions of a democratic recession are supported by evidence such as Freedom House reports which have reported a relatively stable number of “Free” countries and a rise in “Not Free” countries over the past decade or so. Finally, these claims have recently gained attention due to the spread of populism in Western industrialized countries that challenges liberal democracy even in the “First World”, seen in everything from Brexit to the power of parties such as the National Front in France and the Alternative for Germany party.

One country that has been overlooked in this framework is Cambodia, a country with a dramatic history (carpet-bombing from the US and the Khmer Rouge) in a region that has been typically overlooked or not well understood by US policymakers (i.e. Vietnam). While its political system was reformed by the UN in the early 90s, the regime has recently abandoned all pretense of “democracy” and has become a de facto one party state ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country as a strongman for roughly twenty years. Although the country is not formally a dictatorship, Hun Sen has slowly closed off space for political opposition and discourse, and he has used all manner of tactics to intimidate and weaken opposing forces, from grenade attacks to arrest warrants.

In 2013, elections went badly for the Hun Sen-led CPP (the Cambodian People’s Party), which barely won a majority against the opposition CNRP, or Cambodian National Rescue Party. Although some have speculated that the CPP used election fraud to maintain power and (in actuality) lost the election, what is certain is that the result extremely threatened Hun Sen and his grip on power. Considering the international environment, with China rising and the US disengaging from certain areas, Hun Sen perhaps felt more emboldened to act. Late last year, Hun Sen effectively dissolved the CNRP through control of the police, military, and court system. Hun Sen also cracked down on independent press sources such as the Cambodia Daily, Cambodia’s largest English-language newspaper, which thrived in the immediate aftermath of the UN-mediated peace process from 1991-1993. For the next election later this year, Hun Sen will run virtually unopposed.

While this sequence of events is not particularly surprising in and of itself, Cambodia reflects global trends in geopolitics and the strength of democratic norms. Because the UN put so much money and effort into drafting a new constitution for Cambodia in 1993, the failure of the state represents the failure of the West to properly support “mixed” regimes and illiberal democracies. The constitutional design itself was confusing, establishing a constitutional monarchy that attempted to create a weak power-sharing model between opposition parties. In fact, Hun Sen overthrew his partner in a 1997 coup, and he has essentially run the country ever since. While Western governments and the UN make a point of using democracy in their rhetoric to justify military action and foreign aid decisions, their actions ignore strongmen when it is politically easier to do so.

Of course, Western hypocrisy in foreign policy is nothing new. Examples can be seen in the US-assisted overthrow of democratically elected leaders, from Mossadegh (who wished to nationalize oil) in Iran in 1953, to Allende (a dirty Marxist) in Chile in 1973. What is new is the type of hypocrisy. Rather than active interventions that destabilize regions and result in “blowback” (see Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Libya), a sort of “passive hypocrisy” is the new norm. Under the Trump administration, sometimes the right rhetoric is used, but authoritarian leaders from Putin to Duterte to Erdogan know that Trump does not truly care about either democracy or human rights. This factor has exacerbated the relative decline of the US in political and economic influence. Increasingly, we live in a new world in terms of international power, and the post-war “order” is over in all but name. The US and Europe can no longer run the world: China, India, and Japan in particular have grown rapidly in economic influence, and China and Russia have shifted towards more assertive foreign policies with little or no pushback from the US. The example of Cambodia shows that something has to give if US leaders truly care about democracy and want to protect and stabilize the gains that we have made so far, rather than engage in foolish adventurism with huge costs in lives and dollars.

Photo credit Sam Garza, Creative Commons


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