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  • Cambodia’s Fading Hopes
  • Julio A. Jeldres (bio)

Nearly three years ago, after almost two decades of terror, repression, and civil strife, Cambodia held UN-supervised elections that marked a key point in its transition toward more stable and democratic rule. Soon after those May 1993 elections, I wrote in these pages that the war-scarred country’s future depended “on the willingness of the democratically elected leaders to work together in order to . . . build the institutions needed for a democratic Cambodia.” 1 What, one might ask, has happened since then? Has the new government been democratic in character? Has the cause of democratic development fared well on its watch?

The voting for a new, 120-member Constituent Assembly, which promulgated a new constitution (including a restored monarchy) in September 1993, resulted in a coalition government under two prime ministers. The senior partner was First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (known by its French acronym FUNCINPEC), which had won 45 percent of the vote and 58 Assembly seats. Founded as a liberation front in 1981 to mount political and military opposition to Vietnam’s conquest of Cambodia, FUNCINPEC had generally neither conceived of itself nor organized itself as a political party, despite its presence on the ballot in 1993. The second prime minister, Hun Sen, was the leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), formerly the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary (Communist) Party, which had garnered 38 percent and 51 seats. Created by [End Page 148] the communist regime in Vietnam to serve as its proxy in running Cambodia, the CPP is tightly disciplined along classic Stalinist lines—a structure that it has used to its advantage. Both of the other parties in the Assembly, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) and Moulinaka, also received posts in the cabinet, despite having won only 10 seats and a single seat, respectively. The political scene under this government has been a mixed picture: there are signs that an independent democratic political culture is growing, but official hostility to democratic stirrings is apparent as well. The UN-brokered Paris Accords of October 1991 committed all the major political forces in the country to the proposition that “All persons in Cambodia and all Cambodian refugees and displaced persons shall enjoy the rights and freedoms embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other relevant international human rights instruments.” In response to this, and to the political-education efforts of the UN mission in Cambodia, new groups of students, workers, peasants, and young professionals sprang up to study the Accords and work for the democratic vision they contained.

The newly elected leadership did not appreciate any of this. In January 1994, a senior cabinet minister from FUNCINPEC—a party that had campaigned on a platform promising “full respect for human rights and a democratic future for Cambodia”—complained to me that there were “too many” political demonstrations and pronounced the country “not ready” for freedom of the press. True to these words, the government moved during the next months to silence press criticism, muzzle dissenting Assembly members, and restrict the activities of human rights organizations and student groups. What lay behind this deplorable change?

The Pitfalls of Power-Sharing

Despite having functioned for several years as a nominal political party, FUNCINPEC is still close to its roots as an informal mass organization. What actually holds it together is a species of feudal patronage, a system in which the leader makes decisions and distributes posts purely by personal preference and without consultation. Thus its strong showing in the May 1993 voting found FUNCINPEC poorly prepared to assume power, and still less able to hold its own against the CPP.

It now appears, moreover, that the CPP had done its homework well, thoroughly assessing FUNCINPEC’s weaknesses and devising ways to exploit them. The CPP hard-liners chose their favorite means—force (or the threat of it) and fraud—as the keys to throttling the new elected government and derailing the transition to democracy. First, they strong-armed FUNCINPEC into a coalition by warning that bloodshed, secession, and chaos would ensue if their demands...

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