Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dysfunctional Democracy Revisited

On March 26 Dr. Lao Mong Hay published an op-ed on UPI online, which can be accessed here

Here is a complementary op-ed.

Without justifying any of the current government's actions, one must realize that we cannot expect a country like Cambodia to become a perfect democracy in only 15 years. Dr. Lao, though Khmer, makes the same mistake all Westerners make. They expect Asian cultures to imitate and emulate Western ideals of democracy in its purest and most ideal form. These people, and it is rather amazing to see they are highly educated people, forget that it took the West more than 3 centuries to evolve into democracies, and they are far from perfect. A look at France and the U. S., the birthplaces of modern democracy, makes this abundantly clear. But these same people expect Cambodia to be a shining example, a country that has never known anything even remotely similar to democracy, whose elite was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, whose Communist successors acted at the behest of their Soviet and Vietnamese masters. The woes Cambodia is going through are the birth pangs of an emerging democracy. Sometimes it takes a near dictatorial regime to ease the passage into this form of government. Time will prove that Cambodia will be no exception to that rule. It took Indonesia more than 40 years to become what it is today - the best democracy in SE Asia. Wait what Cambodia will be like in 10 years - you won't recognize it. Impatience has never contributed to the resolution of any problem.

Of course, it is legitimate and necessary to list and condemn all these violations of the Cambodian constitution and to call upon the government to uphold the rule of law. But in this context one must not forget the culture and heritage the current leadership comes from. People who followed Pol Pot, then changed allegiance to the Communist Vietnamese, and after the fall of the Soviet Union changed their political convictions once again, to finally become democrats in the U. N. sponsored elections, is a paradox in itself. This leadership is largely uneducated and its actions are guided by self-preservation. Getting rich along the way is an added boon. This leadership has withstood, defied, or even challenged any pressure from outside and inside the country. The outcries and outrage emanate mostly from human rights organizations and NGOs. Both friendly and critical governments have voiced only tepid condemnations. Donor nations have only made token comments on governance and human rights realizing that to punish the government with curtailment of foreign aid only punishes the poor people.

One must remember the outcome of the 1993 elections. The CPP lost but did not recognize the election results claiming they were rigged. After all FUNCINPEC and the CPP had never been partners in a common struggle, like FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge, as ironic as this may sound.

At that time it was clear to the world that the turncoat CPP would never be a truly democratic party. They wanted to hold onto power by all means. No one could exert any pressure to change the position of the CPP, which even threatened to partition the country and were going to declare the eastern provinces an autonomous region.

Anybody who believes that those people would adhere to the principles of a Western-style democracy is a fool and dreamer. Unfortunately, Cambodia had no powerful big brother as East Germany did when it collapsed. West Germany took over the whole governing apparatus and industries practically overnight and installed their own people. Only token positions were awarded to liberal East Germans because they were all suspect and the West Germans knew that once a Communist, always a Communist. They were proven right as all those ministers were driven from office amongst financial scandals and abuse of power. There is only one shining exception – the current female chancellor who, though born and raised in East Germany, had never been a Communist and is a model democrat and highly respected throughout the world.

This could obviously not be duplicated in Cambodia. Furthermore, the CPP controlled the armed forces, which to this day only serve one purpose – to preserve power for the CPP. There are many parallels with the former Communist Germany. Many of their party functionaries appropriated, that is stole, state funds, converted the East German currency into rubles before the unification and exchanged those rubles back into West German currency at normal exchange rates after the unification. They became respected and established businessman in the aftermath, oftentimes buying former state enterprises for a pittance. Many CPP officials, and quite a few FUNCINPEC functionaries as well, did the same thing with state enterprises or land the government sold. They were the first to know and the first to buy at prices beyond the pale.

How can one seriously expect this type of leadership to ever become democrats? This is not to say that calls for the respect of human rights and the rule of law should not continue be made to remind the people in power that their autocratic rule is permanently under scrutiny by the outside world.

But in today’s realpolitik one must also recognize that this leadership and its power structure are here to stay for some time. One must seriously ask whether it might not be better to engage these people in a non-confrontational way and work with them from within the system to initially implement smaller reforms that everybody can live with and then slowly ease into wider-ranging systemic changes.

After all, the people in power can accumulate only so much wealth. Perhaps they will one day be content to enjoy the fruits of their wealth in peaceful retirement. Even though their offspring have inter-married and are supposed to be a perpetuation of the current power structure, history shows that those strategies have always failed. Most Russian rulers, from the tsars to the Stalin tried this without lasting success. Oftentimes the successors have completely different ideas gained from higher education mostly in Western countries. Though this is far from a sure bet, it is a possibility. And one must not forget the young and better-educated generation.

One cannot impose and coerce people to be or become democrats. It must come born of conviction. This is an evolutionary process. Or to use an old saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Sadly though, the current leadership missed their opportunity to become large personages in Cambodia’s history. This will fall to the next generations. And maybe, just maybe, the leadership will make changes of its own accord. There are modest signs of change for the better evident in today's political life in Cambodia. Perhaps these have been brought on by the spreading wealth and thus more independence in Phnom Penh's middle class. Certainly, confrontation is counteproductive in this evolution.

No comments: