Twenty years after the UNTAC mission brought democracy to Cambodia, the authoritarian Cambodia People’s Party continues to run the country with little accountability. What is it that is keeping Cambodia from becoming a ‘real’ democracy? And what do people mean when they refer to “democracy” given its varied history and practice as a form of governance?
One of the guest speakers for Lang in Cambodia was from a USAID funded organization that promotes democratic participation among the country’s youth. The premise of the organization is based on the idea that young people have to understand what democracy is in order for them to demand change. They teach them the basics of this governance structure (formal participation in voting, the concept of majority rules, the right to free and fair elections), encourage them to become active in council meetings and write petitions about social issues in their community, and train them in journalism. The staff members are met with resistance, and sometimes threats from the government, as well as many communities in which they operate, but they continue engaging in this work despite the risks.
Just before this guest speaker had arrived, however, all of us had been discussing in academic seminar geographer Simon Springer’s article, on the contestation of public space in Cambodia. Through our discussion, it became clear to me that there was something else that was preventing democracy from taking hold in Cambodia. Springer argues neoliberalization (the process and promotion of free market economics) and democracy are incompatible. He states, “neoliberalization effectively acts to suffocate an indigenous burgeoning of democratic politics. Such asphyxiation is brought to bear under the neoliberal rhetoric of order and stability, which can be read through the (re)production of public space.”
What seemed to be missing from the work of the organization I describe above, based on Springer’s claims, was an analysis of how the collapse of public spaces through processes of neoliberalization might also be contributing to Hun Sen’s hold on power. Educating youth about democratic principles and practices, while important, is not the only factor.
Public spaces are supposed to facilitate democratic realization. But what happens when a government does not want to encourage democratic participation, when they want to retain control? Springer would argue that these states reinvent public spaces in a way that stifles possibilities for collective resistance. For example, the state may position more police officers in parks and squares to promote “safety and stability,” which may not necessarily be done to the benefit of the population, but to control how segments of the population make use of public spaces. Public spaces can also be reimagined as sites of entertainment, a place where you go to have fun and relax instead of engage in politics.
So what can everyday people do when one of the most concrete avenues of democratic participation is compromised? It seems there are two choices: (1) people either become complacent and forget that public spaces are supposed to be a locus for self-representation, or (2) they rebel against their government through violent action because they believe they are left with no other option.
Unfortunately, the latter of these two could result in even more violence from above. This is what is currently happening in Cambodia. In a recent statement, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) called for a halt in the use of violence by state agencies and for an investigation of the events of July 15th, 2014. What was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration against the barricade of the Freedom Square in Phnom Penh and the ban on public assembly, turned repressive when protestors were attacked for voicing their concerns. This event is one among many that have culminated in state violence because of the repressive politics of the government, and one among the many that has not been addressed by the international community providing ongoing aid to Cambodia.
So I ask: if Cambodian elites need the country to appear stable and orderly to continue receiving foreign aid and participate in a “free market,” and the international community does not step in when basic human rights are violated, then how can democracy in Cambodia become real?