Cambodia goes rogue

In this morning’s Fairfax papers (don’t worry, there’ll be a post about Fairfax in due course), Peter Hartcher couples together last week’s elections in Pakistan and Cambodia as examples of “fake democracy”: they “were manipulated very blatantly to produce the result to suit the strongest force in each country.”

As will be apparent from yesterday’s report, I think that in the case of Pakistan that’s basically true but a little unfair. Imran Khan’s victory seems to me to be a genuine reflection of public opinion, albeit one that the military took a large hand in.

But in Cambodia there’s no dispute at all. Its election on Sunday was a travesty, with the main opposition party having been outlawed, its leaders in prison or exile, and independent media silenced. It was no surprise that the government of prime minister Hun Sen won 76.8% of the vote and a huge majority, 114 seats out of 125.

Hun Sen has been an autocratic leader for a long time. But previous elections, while less than fair, had not been meaningless – notably the last one, in 2013, in which the opposition made significant gains. (See my report here.)

That left Hun Sen with a choice: either to introduce reforms that would meet public demands, or to crack down. I optimistically suggested he might do the former, but of course he did the latter.

Hartcher is not the only one to sound the alarm; both pundits and officials have criticised Sunday’s vote. But there seems no serious move to do anything about it.

This is unfortunate, not just in the general way that the international community never seems to do anything much towards defending and promoting democracy, but more specifically because Cambodia’s imperfect democracy was the creation of the international community in the first place.

In the early 1990s, after years of civil war, Cambodia was turned into a United Nations protectorate and a new constitutional regime constructed from scratch. It never worked very well, but it worked better than any of the available alternatives – and it was much more democratic than neighboring Laos and Vietnam.

Now, however, that it has all come to grief, where is the UN? Where is the Security Council resolution to tell the world that Cambodia has breached the conditions under which its government was established?

I don’t for a moment suggest that the international community should invade Cambodia to unseat its autocratic leader. That would be a bad idea for a number of obvious reasons. But there needs to be concerted action to send the message that Hun Sen’s behavior is unacceptable and that his government has forfeited its title to legitimacy.

Of course, it won’t happen. Nations can agree, more or less, on the need to promote peace, or economic development, or literacy, or infant welfare, or even sometimes (very selectively) human rights.

But electoral democracy, which does so much to underpin all these other goals, has few friends.


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