Sunday, April 24, 2011

Promotion of Democracy

The International Republican Institute in Cambodia

I came across this article in the New York Times. On the surface, it may not pertain to Cambodia but it led me to take a closer look.


By Ron Nixon, April 14, 2011

WASHINGTON — Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states.

The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. ……….They are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, ……….received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the United States and many Middle Eastern leaders.
The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.
“We learned how to organize and build coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy. Mr. Fathy attended training with Freedom House. He said, “This certainly helped during the revolution.”
But some members of the activist groups complained in interviews that the United States was hypocritical for helping them at the same time that it was supporting the governments they sought to change.
Diplomatic cables report how American officials frequently assured skeptical governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting revolutions.
Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s president, was “deeply skeptical of the U.S. role in democracy promotion,” said a diplomatic cable from the United States Embassy in Cairo dated Oct. 9, 2007.
For the full article visit:

The IRI website’s mission statement for Cambodia is just normal PR-speak for such an organization. I would assume intelligence services sometimes hide behind similar statements. I do not want to intimate that the IRI is involved in any clandestine activities but the article above points to some highly interpretable agendas for those organizations.

The IRI finances at least in part the CCHR and as recently as October 2010 supported Kem Sokha. As a matter of record, Kem Sokha resigned from his post in 2007 after employees of the CCHR accused him of corruption and embezzlement of funds. He is now president of the Human Rights Party and has lately been in the headlines for his mental acrobatics in pushing for a merger with the SRP and soliciting their party members to join the HRP at the same time.

The IRI is widely known among informed circles in Cambodia as the organization that publishes annual surveys of public opinion, which at least for the past few years have always shown a favorable rating of the CPP-led government. As a reminder, as this was reported in the press before, the one for 2010, published in January 2011, for instance, found among other things:

1. 76% believe the country is headed in the right direction
2. 72% and more of all age groups believed that it is headed in the right direction
3. Between 65% and 77% witnessed corruption
4. Only 0.4% reported that they had no rice to eat several times a week
5. 36% think border demarcation impacts the country the most

For item no. 5 it is not clear whether the Eastern or Western border is meant. I would venture to think that people were thinking of the Thai border with its periodic outbursts of fighting over the Preah Vihear issue rather than the SRP-alleged border encroachments by Vietnam.

The IRI regularly draws the ire for those surveys from especially the SR Party, which claimed the respondents were too afraid to voice their true concerns and no great credence should be attributed to the survey. The general state of the country, all the pressing problems notwithstanding, belies that claim, which has not deterred the SRP from reiterating it and similar claims at every twist and turn.

The question arose in my mind what exactly the IRI’s agenda might be in light of that article above. They have been active in Cambodia since 1992 and one of their aims was to strengthen political parties. It appears that they have failed miserably in that department. Both the SRP and HRP are in a dismal state, and by all appearances in no position to challenge the dominating role of the CPP. The latter, however, is stronger than ever. This might raise the question in some people’s minds whether the IRI rather helped that party entrench and solidify that party’s power to such an extent that it seems all but impossible to unseat them in any of the next elections, barring any unforeseen events. Seeing the reality on the ground, however, I don’t think that party needed any outside help. Its leaders know how to play the instruments of politics.

Sam Rainsy is hoping that events similar to the one in Tunisia and Egypt, and now in Syria and Yemen, may one day happen in Cambodia as well. By deductive reasoning from the NYT article, the IRI’s role might substantially be the same in Cambodia as in those Arab countries. In that case, Sam Rainy’s hope appears to have some substance. Does he know more than appears to the naked eye?

On the other hand, the article points out one very essential fact of the U. S.’s policies towards autocratic regimes. Strategically, they assist and support the regimes, whether it is for economic or military reasons. At the same time, as the purported ‘greatest’ democracy, they profess to foment and support democratic movements and reforms through other means, e. g. through NGOs like the IRI, which are funded by the U. S. Congress. In Cambodia, you have the IRI on the one hand, and joint military maneuvers of Cambodia’s RCAF and the U. S. forces on the other. Hun Sen’s son even attended West Point, from which he also graduated. Additionally, the U. S. Navy makes repeated friendly calls to Cambodia. All this indicates a rather close official relationship.

Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, was ‘deeply skeptical of democracy promotion’. According to their website the IRI provides country-wide civic education, which indicates they are indeed involved in ‘democracy promotion’. In other words, the U. S. and the IRI believe this country needs democracy-building, despite the fact that, after all, Cambodia is a democracy, although the absolute majority of the CPP makes it a virtual one-party state. Civic lessons are a subject for middle and high schools. From my experience they are part of the curriculum in Cambodia. The question is whether these lessons do help the young generation really understand the principles and characteristics of a true democracy and whether they do need the help from organizations such as the IRI. Currently, it appears as though the people as a whole do not pay particular attention to these things. They are happy the way things are and value stability and economic progress more than truly democratic components and values.

Given the positive surveys and the virtually non-public profile of the IRI in Cambodia it appears that their work in the democracy-building process is directed not at helping to bring about (regime) change but to really enhance public awareness of the true characteristics of a democracy. That involves first and foremost a multi-party system. And this is exactly where Cambodia is lacking. Officially it does have a multi-party system but with the current opposition parties in such a disarray and without any true party leadership and mired in their internal power struggles, the IRI’s work looks to be a long and arduous task. Are they playing a similar role as in the Arab states, though? I don’t think so. First, Cambodia is not at the center of a volatile region such as the Middle East, in which the U. S. has vital interests. Second, I don’t think Cambodia would stomach any unsettling activities given that China and Vietnam have much greater influence on the government than the U. S.

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