Guest Column

Lessons from Cambodia

By Mu Sochua 6 May 2013

“What can you share with me about Cambodia’s experience on economic sanctions?”

This was one of the questions put to me by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when I had the privilege of meeting her early 2011 during a visit by the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and during another discussion that year with the National League for Democracy’s Women’s Wing.

International sanctions were imposed on Cambodia throughout the 1980s during the occupation of the country by Vietnam, which had ousted Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

The answers to Daw Suu’s profound question came from what I have lived with as a citizen and a Cambodian opposition member. An immediate positive result of the lifting of sanctions in 1992 was the open contact that Cambodians were able to have with the outside world.

It allowed the return home of the members of the Cambodian diaspora like myself. It brought in an atmosphere of hope, of a new beginning. There was an immediate boom of non-governmental organizations, small and medium-sized businesses, and the local and international media made its re-appearance at newsstands and in the city’s cafes. People enjoyed the new sense of freedom.

It also allowed the UN to sponsor and conduct the 1993 election, which had over 98 percent of voter participation. The elections led to the victory of the royalist party Funcinpec over the Cambodian People’s Party (led by current Prime Minister Hun Sen).

The international community poured in significant amounts of aid for Cambodia’s physical reconstruction, including schools, health centers, roads and bridges. Currently, Cambodia receives more than US $1 billion in international aid annually with close to no conditions.

But what has since gone wrong in the Cambodian peace and democratization process? That was another question that Daw Suu asked.

I pointed out the facade of democracy that has been created in Cambodia today. I also cautioned against a lack of independence of national state institutions, such as the police and armed forces. And I warned of the complacency of the donor community to violations of human rights, as the West wants Cambodia to be a success story of a rebuilt post-conflict nation.

This latter experience serves as a warning for Myanmar as the international community will be keen to term the country’s reform process a successful transition to democracy.

One key lesson that Myanmar can learn from Cambodia is that a genuine democratic reconstruction process begins with the moral commitment of a country’s top leadership to human rights, to freedoms and to liberties of the people and the media, with no marginalization.

A strong, independent electoral institution and system for free and fair elections, with the support and respect of voters, must be established early on to avoid conflicts and the return of a one-party system or dictatorship.

Another point is that national reconciliation requires full recognition of the role of a loyal opposition beyond the arena of Parliament. The people should have the same duty and privilege as their leaders to come to the negotiating table.

A program of reforms of key national institutions in charge of national defense, citizens’ security and justice to establish rule of law should also be part of peace and reconciliation negotiations.

Development aid to a country must be comprehensive, with key priority sectors and clear and well-defined benchmarks for measurable results. Promotion and protection of human rights must be a condition for receiving aid.

Training and support for small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs should be a top economic priority, instead of relying on trickle-down effects of the growth of big businesses that monopolize large swathes of the economy, as we have seen happen in Cambodia.

Programs for decentralization of power from the national to the local level should be established with the engagement of local civil society organizations, and local government positions should be filled through elections.

After two decades of receiving development aid, Cambodia still has a poor track record on human rights, and is unlikely that the upcoming parliamentary elections on July 28 will be free and fair.

The challenges that Cambodia now faces began at the early stages of the political reform process: The transfer of power by the country’s political elite never took place and the international aid community continues to maintain the status quo. Myanmar would do well to avoid these pitfalls in its current, early phase of reform.

Mu Sochua is a former Minister of Women’s Affairs and a leading member of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, Cambodia’s main opposition party. This article first appeared in the May issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.