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  • Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society
  • John Tully (bio)
Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society. Edited by Joakim Öjendal and Mona Lilja. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2009. Softcover: 320pp.

Editors Joakim Öjendal and Mona Lilja have assembled a thought-provoking series of essays, each of which casts light on a particular aspect of the weak Cambodian "hybrid" democracy, and offers suggestions on how Cambodia might be made a freer, less unequal and fairer society. The collection includes a knowledgeable chapter by Caroline Hughes on elections and political legitimacy; a cogent essay by Kheang Un on the judiciary and the separation of powers; a piece by Kim Sedara and Öjendal on the potential of local government to spread democracy; an optimistic chapter by Lilja on the effects of globalization on women's participation in politics; and a contribution by John Marston on the role of the Buddhist Sangha in building respect for human rights. Lilja and Öjendal conclude with a chapter on the future directions of what they call "Hybrid Democracy" in Cambodia. The chapters by Khmer scholars are also proof that despite being governed by a system fraught with corruption and cynicism, Cambodian intellectuals are seeking ways in which to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

The Third World is full of examples of failed democratic experiments, of thinly disguised autocracies ruled by strong men. Seventeen years after the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) oversaw free elections, Hun Sen's Cambodia is a case in point. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) holds the country in a vice. Corruption and patronage are ubiquitous and start at the top. The legal system is in shambles. The poor are abused as they always were. Education and social welfare is largely funded by overseas aid, leaving the kleptocratic government free to focus on "security" and economic development which largely benefits the rich and overseas interests. All this takes place behind a democratic façade.

The UNTAC intervention epitomized the euphoria which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, the Free World enthusiastically embraced Fukuyama's the "End of History" thesis: the United States was the model for the rest of the world, so if Cambodia could have free elections, a liberal constitution, and a liberalized economy, then success would be assured. It is worth bearing in mind — and this volume does not say so — that the comparatively stable democracies in Europe, North America and [End Page 151] Australasia took centuries to emerge, and here too democratic rights were seldom freely conceded by the ruling classes. What, then, were the chances of a democratic system taking root in poverty-stricken Cambodia, a state which lacked a strong democratic tradition, and which had come perilously close to becoming a failed state at the beginning of the 1990s?

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Cambodia was an almost bankrupt pariah state. It had endured almost two decades of war, carpet bombing, mass fratricidal murder, social and economic dislocation, foreign intervention and punishing isolation. Suddenly, with the end of the Cold War in sight, a solution to the intractable problem of Cambodia seemed possible. The UN donned the mask of peacemaker. Brokering a truce between the warring Cambodian factions, the UN created UNTAC and charged it with the formidable task of rebuilding a shattered society, reconciling the factions, and introducing democracy and the rule of law.

The UN meant well but it seriously underestimated the problems facing the country. They imposed democracy in one "big bang" (Chapter 4, "Decentralization as a Strategy for State Reconstruction in Cambodia", p. 102). This would be done without consideration of the fact that "for countries coming out of an internal war, democratic values are not widespread, institutions are not developed, and few powerful internal interests are prepared to defend 'democracy'..." (Sedara and Öjendal, p. 101). Civil society, too, was weak. On paper, Cambodia now boasts many of the attributes of democracy. There are regular and fairly free elections contested by three major political parties. The Constitution guarantees civil rights, the rule of law and the separation of powers, yet as Kheang Un...


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