Malaysia’s Democratic Renewal Points the Way Ahead for Cambodia

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia

Malaysia provides a lesson to countries in Asia and beyond about how seemingly timeless dominance of power can instantly disappear when the popular will is exercised.

The Barisan Nasional coalition held uninterrupted power in Malaysia for six decades. Its defeat at the hands of the Alliance of Hope coalition led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in elections in May 2018 was predicted by no-one outside the country.

I made a three-day visit to Kuala Lumpur from August 14 to 16 this year and met with several members of parliament from the ruling coalition. I witnessed how the country’s democracy has become open and vibrant, with the country’s talents now empowered to work together in the absence of repression for the national interest.

Malaysia has made great progress since the election, with corruption and the national debt being reduced. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is standing trial on multibillion-dollar fraud charges. Dr. Mahathir visited Cambodia at the start of September, and the advice he gave to our leaders, couched in diplomatic language, provides a roadmap that could yet help to end the political crisis in which Cambodia has been mired since 2017.

“It is our duty to ensure that our citizens get a fair trial and if there is no case, they should be released speedily,” Dr. Mahathir said. Read between the lines and there is a possible reference to the ongoing plight of Kem Sokha, the co-founder and current leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, who spent a year in prison before being transferred to a form of virtual house arrest which remains in place. Kem Sokha has yet to stand trial, due to the lack of any evidence which would meet even the low threshold needed to try to make such an exercise credible.

At every modern election in which a choice has been offered, Cambodia participation rates have been extremely high. Such a choice was denied in the fake Cambodian election of 2018, before which the CNRP was arbitrarily dissolved by court order. “I think the systems of government and democracy, for example, are very good – we should copy that,” Dr. Mahathir said of the Western democratic systems which Prime Minister Hun Sen holds in open contempt.

Dependence on China

Cambodia under Hun Sen has taken a dangerous turn by becoming too heavily dependent on investments from China. Dr. Mahathir said on his visit that it’s necessary to “avoid one-country dominance of foreign direct investment (FDI).” Becoming over-indebted to China is the fastest way to surrender national independence. “We do not let any country dominate the FDI sector,” Dr. Mahathir said.

Hun Sen plans to hand over power to one of his sons, probably Hun Manet, so treating Cambodia as a private family estate. He has sought to protect himself against domestic opposition by positioning himself as a compliant ally of Beijing. Cambodia’s agreement to allow China to establish a military base on our soil disregards both our constitution and the national interest.

The superpowers look after their own interests and not those of small countries like Cambodia and Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir said. “They say when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” Cambodia, Dr. Mahathir said, should not weaken ASEAN by siding with China, but seek to strengthen solidarity among ASEAN members.

All Cambodians should take advantage of Dr. Mahathir’s unparalleled experience and wisdom by valuing his advice and pushing for its translation into effective policies for the benefit of our country. Malaysia has achieved a peaceful democratic transition of the kind that has historically eluded Cambodia. One benefit of this is to allow the allegations of corruption against the former prime minister to be calmly tested in the country’s courts. This is the best that corrupt former national leaders can hope for. History shows that those who fail to hand over peacefully, such as Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, or Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, risk facing the justice of the street.

Such a bloody unravelling of the Hun Sen regime can still be avoided. Together with other exiled CNRP leaders, I will return to Cambodia on November 9, our independence day. I ask all friends of Cambodia, and notably the signatory countries of the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, to do everything in their power to dissuade Cambodia’s government from using violence against a population which seeks simply the respect of its rights and freedoms guaranteed by an international treaty which remains in force.

The release of Kem Sokha, the reinstatement of the CNRP and the scheduling of prompt and genuine national elections are the essential first steps to replicating the progress made in Malaysia. As Dr Mahathir said: “When you have a government that does not care about the people you should not let that government continue to function.”

Image credit: Chatham House [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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