World’s $20 Billion Investment in Cambodia’s Democracy Can Still Be Saved

Since the Paris Peace Agreements (PPAs) on Cambodia in October 1991, the world has poured billions of dollars into the attempt to create a functioning democracy in the country.

From 1992 to 2020, Cambodia received about $20 billion in official development assistance, or the lion’s share of the country’s GDP of $27 billion in 2021. That money, and the aspirations of ordinary Cambodians which it represents, cannot be written off. It’s still not too late to salvage the investment.

The PPAs lay down a system of liberal democracy and free and fair elections in Cambodia, requirements which are also enshrined in the country’s 1993 constitution. These requirements have been disregarded in the face of the very high participation levels in every local and national election since 1993 in which a choice of parties was available. 

The agreements, though sometimes forgotten today, were a major achievement in their time. There was nothing inevitable about the achievement of peace as communism retreated in the early 1990s, as the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia shows. The early signs in Cambodia were promising as voters turned out in huge numbers for the UN-organized elections in 1993, which were won by the Funcinpec party. Civil society, human and political rights, labor unions and a free press briefly flourished.

I served in that government as finance minister. But Hun Sen, who had ruled Cambodia since 1985, lurked in the background as “prime minister number two” while Funcinpec‘s Norodom Ranariddh was nominally “prime minister number one.”  The dual system did not last. I was ousted from my job, excluded from parliament despite my democratic mandate, and had my parliamentary immunity revoked. Hun Sen seized full control via a bloody coup in July 1997. This coup d’état allowed Hun Sen to establish an electoral commission, the National Election Committee (NEC), under the control of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and so win all the elections held since 1998 despite the population’s growing desire for political change.

A sense that change was still possible came in 2012 with the merger of the opposition party which I created, the Sam Rainsy Party, with the Human Rights Party led by Kem Sokha. The party officially scored 45% of the vote in the national elections of 2013, and won 55 out of 123 parliamentary seats, despite well documented electoral irregularities and the continued control of the NEC by the CPP.

Sustained Crackdown

The 2013 result was enough to raise a serious prospect of the CPP losing power and led to a sustained and bloody assault on the opposition, civil society and the democratic bases of the post-war Cambodian settlement. In 2016, the CPP-controlled national assembly passed new restrictive legislations on NGOs, labor unions and civil society to limit basic civic and human rights such as the right of associations, freedom of expression, rights to assembly and a free press.

Well-respected international NGOs such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) were forced to leave the country. The Khmer language press had always been essentially under government control, but the free English language press was wiped out. The Phnom Penh Post was taken over by a government crony and The Cambodia Daily forced out of business with a punitive tax bill. Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) left the country.

These were just early shots which proved to be insufficient to remove the threat of the opposition. Local commune elections in 2017 produced the same result as in 2013: 45% support for the CNRP, with the opposition having a history of scoring more strongly in national than in communal elections. There was only one option for the CPP to avoid the prospect of national defeat. The CNRP was dissolved by order of the politically controlled supreme court in November 2017, and Cambodia returned to the status of a single-party state. The CPP simply awarded itself every single parliamentary seat in the bogus national “election” of 2018.

By then I had already been forced into exile again in France. The CNRP’s co-founder Kem Sokha, who took over from as leader, was arrested in September 2017 and spent a year in prison on a trumped up charge of “treason” for which no evidence has ever been produced. Five years later, Kern Sokha remains locked in an interminable trial, with prosecutors and lawyers representing the Hun Sen government unable to come up with any shred of evidence against him, but the court unwilling to acquit him as this would remove the legal basis for the CNRP’s dissolution.

Signatory Obligations

Signatories to the PPAs include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all of Cambodia’s neighbors, Japan, India and Australia. The option for further countries to sign as a signal of political will to achieve the treaty’s aims remains open. The treaty states that the signatories “undertake to recognize and respect, the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and inviolability, neutrality and national unity of Cambodia.” The country’s increasing reliance on China, which has entailed the establishment of a Chinese military base at Ream, violates the requirements for neutrality and independence, but has not been effectively addressed.

Though his plan is to hand over power like a family heirloom to his son Hun Manet, Hun Sen realizes that a single party state is not sustainable in terms of maintaining the country’s international political and trade relationships. There has been a partial reversal of Cambodia’s single-party status with the Candlelight Party, which I registered as a political party in 1998, being allowed to contest local communal elections in June this year. This took place in a context of continuous harassment and arrests of opposition supporters, and vote counts conducted behind closed doors by the ruling party.

Cambodia’s next national election is in July 2023. Hun Sen will seek to use the exercise to validate handing over power to his son. It is crucial for the international community and the election observers to understand the extent to which elections in Cambodia are manipulated ahead of time, as well as on the day.

The electoral process starts now with the registration of voters. There are about 1.6 million votes out of a potential electorate of 10.8 million who will be eligible to vote but who are not registered. The narrow window in which they can register runs from Oct. 20 to Dec. 8, 2022. An election in which the voter registration takes place in a climate of intimidation, as is clearly currently the case in Cambodia, is compromised from the outset.

The NEC, currently controlled by government supporters, needs thorough-going reform before any election that could be considered free and fair. Parties must be able to field the candidates they choose without the fear of being arrested, sacked from their jobs or physically attacked by men wearing motorcycle helmets. At the downstream end, vote counting must be open and transparent, and there must be a neutral mechanism for resolving election disputes.

The reforms needed are a tall order compared with the status quo. They don’t need much money to implement if the international political will to pressure Hun Sen is there. Failing to muster that will would leave the world’s investment in Cambodia looking like a waste, and Cambodian dreams of a better future delayed yet again.

[Header image: CNRP supporters wave national flags of some Western countries who were signatory parties to the Paris Peace Agreement, Phnom Penh, Oct 24, 2013. By Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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