Book Review: Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia


April 16, 2019

Book Review:

Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia

Garry Rodan (Cornell University Press, New York, 2018)

 

Those of us who study politics differ on whether our discipline is rightly termed a “science”. People who weigh in on the “scientific” side tend to emphasise, alongside the permeation of numbers and deductive hypothesis-testing, the stock of knowledge we have accumulated: core concepts and theories, tested and refined over time. With his provocative latest book, Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia, Murdoch University’s Garry Rodan puts years of field research and insight honed over decades to work to prove that such pretensions are more aspirational than well-founded. His argument, taken to its logical conclusion, impugns much of what political scientists study when we study “democracy”. It suggests we have missed the crux both of what distinguishes regime types, and of what sorts of political dynamics spur, constitute, and emerge from transitions. And his argument is convincing.

Southeast Asia—home to a bewildering array of institutional innovations—offers Rodan a trove of variation to mine, as he probes how these states really function. Those readers familiar with Rodan’s extensive oeuvre will note points of continuity with his earlier work: the inseparability of politics from economic forces, the salience of civil society, the crafty ways in which regimes and their leaders sustain dominance. With its rich detail and critical perspective, this book seems something of a capstone as Rodan approaches formal retirement, bringing his rich, career-spanning material on Singapore as well as Malaysia into conversation with a similarly nuanced discussion of the Philippines, and weaving together theoretical threads.

Participation without Democracy places modes of participation (MOPs) front and centre, characterising regimes in terms of both the extent and the type of participation and contestation possible. The book is explicitly oriented toward theory; hopefully the words “Southeast Asia” in the title will not deter readers focussed on other regions. But Rodan builds his analysis with fine-grained evidence, astutely assessed, from his three cases.

He proposes that elites meet the challenges that contradictions of capitalism pose—rising inequality, social disruption and others—by introducing new modes of popular participation. Elites use these MOPs to contain and channel dissent, while deepening concentrations of power and wealth; opponents sometimes hope these same modes offer tools to dismantle elite power. The “central paradox” Rodan traces is the extent to which “expanded political representation—in both its democratic and nondemocratic forms—is serving more to constrain political contestation than to enhance it”. Regimes and the elites at their helm find ways of serving their own interests by strategies that may look participatory on paper but, in practice, narrow the space for contestation and fragment or co-opt challengers.

Political scientists have long placed participation and contestation at the fore of definitions of democracy, but usually with a primarily electoral focus and more as indicators to be measured than as patterns requiring qualitative evaluation. Rodan demonstrates that we need to delve deeper: to ask not just whether participation happens, but who can participate and via what modes, which questions are open to debate and what happens to input gathered. He brings ideology squarely into the frame, not just vis-à-vis neoliberalism—he presumes elites are devout capitalists and popular opponents, less so—but also as shaping how citizens and states engage and pursue their respective interests.

Rodan argues that consultative and particularist ideologies predominate in the Southeast Asian cases he studies. The former favours technocratic, seemingly apolitical problem-solving without political competition while the latter favours discrete communities’ or identities’ rights to specific representation. He also finds germane, though, democratic ideologies (those that facilitate challenges to inequalities inherent to a hierarchical order) and institutionally unbounded (and infirming) populist ideologies. By embedding their preferred ideological frame in institutions—MOPs—elites may fragment or delegitimate challengers and corral the scope of debate. While these ideologies of representation are not mutually exclusive, the “struggle over the permissible boundaries of political conflict” is central to what constitutes politics.

MOPs emerge from relationships within capitalism, developed over time. History matters—especially legacies of Cold War-era suppression of the left and its institutions. Also, the sites of participation under different modes shape the sort of inclusion they allow. On the menu are autonomous individualised political expression, extra-state civil societal expression, collective societal incorporation, and state-sponsored, individual administrative incorporation. This framework shifts our gaze from democratic elections or authoritarian coercion to, for instance, the extent to which civil society is organised and articulated with or independent of political parties, and the breadth of elite-challenging issues and alliances.

Rodan uses two broad initiatives or patterns from each of his three countries to illuminate distinct MOPs and tease apart how each regime functions. Singapore exemplifies societal and administration incorporation, driven by a largely consultative and particularist ideology of representation. Rodan homes in first on the explicitly nondemocratic Nominated Member of Parliament scheme, designed to pre-empt partisan parliamentary opposition by incorporating unaccountable and appointed representatives of sectors and under-represented social segments (who might otherwise find common purpose and/or drift toward opposition parties) for their apolitical expertise. He parses, too, a series of institutions and initiatives for soliciting individuals’ policy feedback, from elaborate ongoing mechanisms to periodic mass “conversations”—albeit with largely pre-set agendas and without necessary influence. This vision of incorporating feedback demonstrates, Rodan explains, a technocratic ideology of politics as the “noncompetitive technical exercise of solving problems”.

In the Philippines, state institutions and capacities serve the interests of oligarchs, who are challenged by opponents ranging from moderate social democrats to anti-capitalist revolutionaries, all with differing visions of democratic representation. Rodan’s first case, the party-list system for electing a share of members of Congress, encourages fragmentation of challengers (as by a three-seat-per-contender cap). The system has been co-opted by forces of traditional politics; it does more to contain than amplify threats to elite privilege.

Meanwhile, proponents of bottom-up budgeting, introduced in 2012, pressed hard-to-reconcile the goals of first, reforming undemocratic institutions via fortified civil societal organisations and second, problem-solving efficiency. That divide served to diminish its role even before Duterte nixed it altogether, and was exacerbated by the program’s ideologically consultative approach of incorporating stakeholders and expertise into cooperative deliberation on elite-defined policy problems.

Lastly, in Malaysia, we find the challenges of a deep-set and structurally reinforced particularist ideology, rendering any sustainable, shared alternative vision elusive. Rodan details how the deep permeation of that ideology has effectively scuttled periodic, carefully delimited initiatives for high-level economic policy consultation and transformation. Any real challenge to extant privilege, as well as critique of the integrity of state institutions, have been put beyond the pale. Last May’s electoral upset may have loosened strictures on the latter front, but to question racial privilege remains, for now, verboten. Over time, these initiatives have disabused many reformers otherwise willing to accept administrative incorporation of hopes of genuine influence. Overall, there are fewer consolidated state-sponsored, extra-parliamentary MOPs in Malaysia than in Singapore or the Philippines, even despite the launch, post-publication, of new consultative initiatives.

The more independent modes that have emerged in Malaysia also face hurdles. Efforts to coordinate within civil society, Rodan argues, as for restoration of local-government elections or broader electoral reform, had made headway even before the 2018 elections. This could be seen most notably in the at least minimal inclusion of nonpartisan local counsellors in opposition-controlled Penang and Selangor after 2008 and the wide-ranging, if more catch-all than coherent, Bersih coalition. But the vagaries of Malaysia’s political economy, as well as NGOs’ preference for prioritising liberal ideological notions of good governance and individual liberties rather than economic issues, intercede. Bersih, for instance, lacks “a socially redistributive reform agenda to address structural inequalities”, without which “UMNO’s particularist ideologies of race and ethnicity would remain seductive for many disadvantaged Malays”. The new government’s embrace of ethnic particularism as a core plank of its campaign strategy in 2018, he suggests, was an unsurprising result.

As Rodan illustrates, these three countries manifest different patterns of capitalist development, including the role of the state and parties, such that they may even adopt similar MOPs with different motives. In all, though, we see starkly the gap between participation and even discursive, or issue-based, representation. In all, we see the balance among and implications of different MOPs as encoding and reinforcing ideas about how power is organised and what it means to be represented—from being permitted to help hone pre-defined policies to being able to change policy agendas, and from participating qua individuals or officially sanctioned categories to seeing promise in and space for novel collective mobilisation. This all presses us to assess regimes less in terms of their institutional structures than per a deeper evaluation of whether those institutions serve more to consolidate elite control or empower outsiders—an issue less of whether the institutions “work” than of how they are designed, and in whose interests.

Rodan’s analysis throws down the gauntlet to scholars of regimes. He offers a trenchant, if polite, rejoinder to more superficial assessments, and ups the ante by concluding with sketches of how an MOP framework helps us to understand contemporary populist challenges or transitions to other institutional forms. He considers how an MOP framework may also assist in making sense of the permeation of depoliticising consultative and particularist ideologies in established democracies such as the UK. The agenda Rodan presents recommends a fundamentally different approach to understanding and classifying regimes—one which will surely call into question the status of most purported democracies by scrutinising how the policy/political process actually works. Illiberalism at home, and pro-market ideologies abroad, are putting pressure on Southeast Asian civil society organisations’ financial health.

Moreover, and in keeping with his intellectual roots, Rodan asks that we not pretend a distinction between politics and economics: it is the “dynamic societal conflicts” economic processes generate that produce political institutions. That said, the language of capitalism’s contradictions seems at times a bit forced. Presumably any other economic order would yield its own contradictions and its own similarly skewed MOPs. Still, given the near-hegemony of capitalism in Southeast Asia and globally, whether state- or market-led, Rodan’s critique of this particular structuring of production, wealth, and interests is understandable.

But it is not just scholarly observers, but domestic reformers, who may find Rodan’s analysis challenging. Rodan stops short of describing what MOPs would enable effective challenges to elites and their privileges—real democracy—or from what quarters we might expect such a push. Which interests understand themselves sufficiently as silenced that they seek another path, and how might institutions be remade (or opposition parties be induced) to engage with those perspectives and preferences more directly? There is an underlying assumption here of a politically neglected non- or anti-neoliberal core in all three states, not just the Philippines, ready to be mobilised.

One might ask, though—particularly given the now-protracted enervation of organised labour, plus mass investment in capitalism (for example, cross-class participation in stock markets), however manifestly inegalitarian—whether alternative ideologies are now more decrepit or discarded than actively suppressed. And are there positive examples operating alongside, and perhaps at cross-purposes to, these institutions: have these patterns of social conflict yielded also more progressive, perhaps even scalable, MOPs? Put differently, where do we go from here, beyond trudging resignedly toward an elitist, contention-stifling future? Uplifting this book is not —but Rodan’s provocative exegesis is not just a good read, but a call to rethink how we study as well as pursue participation, representation and elite-challenging reform.

Meredith L Weiss is Professor and Chair of Political Science in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She has published widely on political mobilisation and contention, the politics of identity and development, and electoral politics in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on Malaysia and Singapore. Her books include Student Activism in Malaysia: Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow (Cornell SEAP, 2011), Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, 2006), the forthcoming The Roots of Resilience: Authoritarian Acculturation in Malaysia and Singapore (Cornell), and ten edited or co-edited volumes, most recently, Political Participation in Asia: Defining and Deploying Political Space (with Eva Hansson, Routledge, 2018) and The Political Logics of Anticorruption Efforts in Asia (with Cheng Chen, SUNY, forthcoming). She co-edits the Cambridge University Press Elements series on Southeast Asian Politics and Society. Current projects focus on “money politics” in Southeast Asia, urban governance in the region, and reform processes in post-GE14 Malaysia.

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Cambodia–On what basis will there be reconciliation?


April 1, 2019

Cambodia-On what basis will there be reconciliation?

by Thomas Fowler

https://www.khmertimeskh.com

A few days ago, former parliamentarians of the late CNRP launched a call for national reconciliation, mentioning in particular the very short episode of the culture of dialogue. We can only rejoice at this state of mind that seems to mimic the CPP’s opponents.

Above all, Cambodia needs a form of democracy that is based on a desire for dialogue and a spirit of conciliation. The democracy of confrontation, with its winners and losers, so dear to Westerners – even if it offers for the moment rather puzzling examples as in Europe – is absolutely not what Cambodia needs.

Although today a very large majority of its population did not experience the extreme horrors of the 70s, Cambodia still keeps track of the traumas suffered and a collective memory forever marked by this dramatic past. All specialists of mass crimes agree that the victims’ children are also not immune to the shocks suffered by their parents.

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The Cambodian human and social fabric is still fragile. The extraordinary erasure of knowledge inflicted by the men of Pol Pot, but also the propaganda of his movement that lasted until 1998 are not without consequences. The Cambodian population is a fertile ground for those who conceive politics as a call to passions, lies and radical behaviors. The conditions are in place to allow the demagogues to prosper and sow the seeds of division.

This is what we have known since the day Sam Rainsy began to poison the political life of this country. The only candidate, in 1993, to be blamed by UNTAC for his calls for racial hatred, he built his entire political career on the most hateful form of demagoguery – the one that made the success of a Hitler or a Le Pen in Europe both of whom designated a popular scapegoat for all the problems of the country.

Using ignorance of historical realities, neglecting no opportunity to falsify the past as the present, resorting to opposition to power that create a climate of civil war, insulting, slandering, Sam Rainsy is rapidly hysterical when it comes to political debate.

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Don’t BULLY US– We are a sovereign Nation

With the support of Westerners, at all times careless of Cambodian realities, he has had considerable financial means to prosper in his political adventure. After unsuccessfully igniting the streets of Phnom Penh in 2013, he deigned to accept the prime minister’s proposal to practice a culture of dialogue. He sabotaged it, once obtained a reform of the electoral law he wished.

Everyone knows what followed. Today, some of those who have supported Sam Rainsy’s hateful practices speak of national reconciliation and a culture of dialogue. Very well! If there is in the opposition, including the former CNRP, women and men of goodwill, all the better. We can only rejoice. But we must glean from a quarter of a century of lessons why the attempt to establish a peaceful democracy failed.

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What has been lacking in the Cambodian people and their political class since 1993 is a national consensus on a number of fundamental issues. The lack of unity of views on these issues has allowed demagogy to flourish. Cambodia offers the spectacle of a country that is not reconciled with itself on essential issues. This is the lesson of the past 25 years: a democracy cannot work if there is no agreement among all political sensitivities on a common denominator.

The Kingdom needs a national consensus on its past, on the territorial configuration of the country before and after colonization, on the reality of the March 18, 1970 coup, on all the crimes committed by Pol Pot’s gang, on the role of Vietnam in the liberation of the country, and on the true pacification of the country.

To question the borders resulting from colonisation is to deny not only the historical facts (Cambodia lost Kampuchea Krom before the arrival of the French and Koh Trâl because of the French), but also the international law and its principle of uti possidetis, however successfully invoked when it comes to the border with Thailand. This is the first essential consensus: to accept the borders of November 9, 1953, and to take into account the consequences of 30 years of war that require modest and balanced adjustments.

This is a historical fact: it was the 1970 coup that plunged the country into a civil, regional and international war in the end of which Polpotism triumphed. To recognize and accept this fact must help to turn the painful page of divisions between Cambodians who survived these events. It is a second constituent element of a necessary national consensus.

The Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot was the one who systematically organized the physical elimination of more than two million Khmers. Evidence has been gathered of the responsibility of this regime and its leaders for the innumerable crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated against the Cambodian people, between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979. To deny it, to attribute it to other than to the Pol potists, is to insult the victims and the survivors and to rewrite history. The third consensus that Cambodian democracy needs is to recognize that fanatical Khmer people blinded by a mortifying ideology have massacred their own people.

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The Pol potists launched in 1975 a war of aggression against the Vietnamese neighbor. For reasons of national security of its own and to answer the call for help from tens of thousands of Cambodians who fled to Vietnam, after failed negotiations during two and an half years followed by the rupture of diplomatic relations and the intensification of fighting, it ended Pol Pot’s regime by entering Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.

Even though people may have a different opinion about what followed, there is no doubt that January 7, 1979 symbolizes the end of a regime of terror and massacres. Recognizing this fact is the fourth component of a necessary national consensus.

What followed was probably, for those who lived it, still too present to agree on a common appreciation and should therefore be restrained in political debates. As a fifth element of the common ground, it should not be difficult to unite all to recognize that the real pacification of the country took place at the end of December 1998.

And finally, to secure the future, an endorsement and commitment by all to give up the anti-democratic practices used by Sam Rainsy should be the sixth element of the political agreement sealing reconciliation.

How can national reconciliation and peaceful democracy be envisioned if those who govern and those who do not want a dialogue respecting mutual values do not agree on these six elements which constitute the historical and political heritage of Cambodia? Will the whole Cambodian political class have the wisdom to conclude a pact that recognizes these six elements of a national consensus and thus open a new era, looking to the future?

Thomas Fowler is a Cambodia watcher based in Phnom Penh.

Linking BRI with Cambodia’s rectangular development


March 29, 2019

Linking BRI with Cambodia’s rectangular development

Khmer times:
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in Beijing, capital of China, May 17, 2017. Xinhua/Rao Aimin

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious international cooperation and connectivity project initiated by China in 2013. Cambodia is one of the staunchest supporters of the initiative with the expectation that BRI will contribute to peace and shared prosperity. As a small and open economy, Cambodia is committed to building an open and inclusive international system.

The second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will take place in late April this year to further expand and deepen international collaborations and partnerships based on the spirit of peace, cooperation, openness, transparency, inclusiveness, equality, mutual learning, mutual benefit and mutual respect by strengthening cooperation on the basis of extensive consultation and the rule of law, joint efforts, shared benefits and equal opportunities for all.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will lead a big delegate consisting of deputy prime ministers, ministers and other senior leaders to attend the forum in Beijing. Cambodian leaders will also have a number of bilateral meetings with some key Chinese business leaders who are interested in investing in Cambodia. BRI is a key framework, or even a catalyst, to encourage and facilitate the investment inflow from China to the Kingdom.

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In the joint statement of the first forum, the leaders stressed of forging joint endeavour on BRI and urged to build synergy between BRI with other connectivity initiatives. From the Cambodian perspective, building synergy between BRI with the five-year development plan, called Rectangular Development Strategy, is the priority of bilateral cooperation between Cambodia and China.

The Rectangular Development Strategy Phase IV prioritises four pillars namely human resource development, economic diversification, private sector and job development, and inclusive and sustainable development. At the core of the four pillars is the acceleration of the governance reform, which refers to institutional reform and capacity building, strengthening accountability and integrity in the public administration, strengthening of work effectiveness, and strengthening of private sector governance.

Under the BRI cooperation framework, China should further align BRI with key development areas of Cambodia. So far, Chinese development assistance and investment projects concentrate on hard infrastructure and labour-intensive industry. Both countries need to expand their areas of cooperation to include human resource development, digital economy and sustainable development.

The Chinese companies and factories should build vocational training centres or schools to build and transfer skills to local workers. Due to lack of local skilled labour forces, most of Chinese companies choose to bring Chinese workers, which costs more than hiring local workers. Chinese companies should also provide on-the-job training to build the capacity of local workers in order to improve productivity. In this regards, Chinese companies can learn a great deal from Japanese companies in terms of skills development and knowledge transfer.

Digital economy is the future economic sector of Cambodia. The key challenges facing Cambodia to realise a full-fledged digital economy are the lack of human resources and digital infrastructure, and the lack of public and private investment in innovation and entrepreneurship. Mega Chinese private companies like Huawei and Alibaba could help Cambodia to build the necessary infrastructure and human capital to help the Kingdom fully harness digital economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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In terms of inclusive and sustainable development, China and Cambodia should work closely together to link BRI with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the National Sustainable Development Goals. Chinese investments need to further link with rural development and poverty reduction. Some investment projects relating to land grabbing, serious environmental degradation, and socio-economic exclusion need to be reviewed. Environmental and social impact assessment needs to be seriously conducted before deciding on investment or development projects.

The success of BRI depends very much on the quality of the projects and the perception and participation of the local community. Both countries still need to double their efforts to ensure that development projects under BRI really benefit the local people. People-centred development approach should be at the core of BRI and Cambodia-China partnership.

Suos Yara is Member of Parliament from Cambodia.

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The quintessential UN diplomat-DR. Benny Widyono

When career diplomat Benny Widyono died in his sleep in the United States on March 17, the world lost a beautiful bloke, a distinguished diplomat, a United Nations governor of Siem Reap Province and an Ambassador and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps as UN Ambassador to Cambodia.

Copyright © 2019 Khmer Times

 

Hun Sen addresses ousting of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970


March 23,2019

Hun Sen addresses ousting of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970

by Ben Sokhean.www.khmer times.com

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said that it was Khmer Republic President Marshal Lon Nol and his allies that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970.

During the height of the US’ war in Vietnam, members of the National Assembly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk from power as he was in Moscow, forcing him to create a government in exile in Beijing. They then appointed Marshal Lon Nol as President of the Khmer Republic.

Mr Hun Sen yesterday during a graduation ceremony said the ousting of Prince Sihanouk was a result of Cambodian leaders colluding with foreigners, referring to the United States.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen says Lon Nol conspired to oust Prince Sihanouk.

“Even though there was a push from foreigners in 1970, had Lon Nol, Sisowath Sirik Matak […] not conspired to push for war and a takeover, the coup would not have occurred,” he said. “Whether the coup would succeed or not depended on internal factors.”

Lon Rith, son of Marshal Nol, on Wednesday during a Cross-Talk discussion with Khmer Times said the removal of Prince Sihanouk was a National Assembly decision.

“It was not [my father’s] decision, it was the decision of the National Assembly and the Cambodian people,” Mr Rith said. “They were no longer confident in Prince Sihanouk.”

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The US embassy in Phnom Penh has denied ever being involved in a coup in Cambodia and accused China of supporting Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

The Chinese embassy responded by accusing the CIA of being involved in the removal of Prince Sihanouk from power.

Paul Chambers, lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of Asean Community Studies, yesterday said the CIA was very much involved in the ousting of Prince Sihanouk.

“The National Assembly voted to depose Sihanouk, allowing Lon Nol to assume power, but this was a mere post-facto formality,” Mr Chambers said, adding that Marshal Nol worked with Prince Sirik Matak to arrest Prince Sihanouk’s in-law, Oum Mannorine, on “trumped up charges”.

“With Oum Mannorine arrested, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak could control the armed forces,” he said. “Ultimately, blame for the coup falls on the feet of the US Central Intelligence Agency which had been plotting for years the overthrow or assassination of Sihanouk. The CIA code name for the 1970 coup operation in Cambodia was ‘Operation Sunshine Park’.”

Ou Chanrath, a former opposition party lawmaker, yesterday said regardless of who was behind the ousting of the prince, the Kingdom has yet to form a national consensus on the matter.

“It is a historic issue, we cannot say who is right or who is wrong,” Mr Chanrath said. “We are not clear whether the US was really behind the coup, but they did strongly support Lon Nol’s government later.”

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Cambodia: Emerging from the Shackles of History in relations with Thailand, Vietnam and China


March 16,2019

Cambodia: Emerging from the Shackles of History in relations with Thailand, Vietnam and China

By Kimkong Heng and Veasna Var

http://www.ippreview.com

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Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. Veasna Var is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra and a Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Cambodia has a long history. It has both a proud past and a tragic history. The country had its period of greatness during the ancient Khmer Empire, an empire which built the fabled temple Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world. Following the Angkorian era which began at the beginning of the 9th century and collapsed 600 years later, Cambodia found itself in one of the most tragic periods in its history. For almost 500 years, the country came under the enduring pressure of foreign invasion and annexation. Both Thailand and Vietnam, its stronger neighbors, annexed large parts of Cambodian territory.

Cambodia, unable to survive by itself due to constant foreign encroachment from its two more powerful neighbors, reached out to France for protection. The French protectorate of Cambodia was then established in 1863, signalling the beginning of Cambodia’s colonial period which lasted for 90 years before the country gained its independence in 1953. Following independence, Cambodia, under late King Sihanouk’s reign, saw major development in almost all areas. Unfortunately, peace was short-lived and the process of nation building did not last very long, as Cambodia soon after found itself engaged in a series of civil wars which dragged on for more than three decades.

Starting in the 1960s, the country became a Cold War battleground and involved in the Vietnam War, was bombed by the US, and later suffered an unspeakable tragedy during the Khmer Rouge regime which lasted for almost four years and killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians.

The Khmer Rouge genocidal regime was so devastating that it had instilled in virtually every Cambodian a strong sense of hatred, fear, and scepticism. Although Cambodia was fortunate to have survived the auto-genocidal regime, this tragic past has profound implications for Cambodia and its people.

The memories of pain which cannot be blotted out easily and which will not fade away anytime soon have been carried over to present-day Cambodia and they still haunt the new generations of Cambodians. These bitter memories, either experienced first-hand or told from the survivors, have adversely affected the minds of Cambodian people from all walks of life. Common among them are negative thoughts and feelings towards foreigners or xenophobia.

Xenophobia in Cambodia is a serious issue which should not be ignored or taken lightly. It is a critical issue that has to be addressed carefully and quickly. If not addressed properly and timely, xenophobic sentiments may lead to large-scale violence, discrimination, and hatred. One example was a violent riot against Thai embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh in 2003. This incident was obviously motivated by anti-Thai sentiments among Cambodians. At that time, there were rumors that a famous Thai actress had claimed that Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand. Without knowing whether the rumors were true or not, many xenophobic and nationalistic Cambodians began a savage attack on anything related to Thai.

Thailand and Cambodia share a common culture and history. People of both countries have made numerous claims regarding past events, lands, temples, arts, dances, and more. Each side has asserted and will continue to claim as their own relevant pieces of land, elements of arts and culture, and other claimable abstract and non-abstract things, despite historical facts.

There is no doubt a deep-rooted anti-Thai sentiment among Cambodians and perhaps vice versa. Whenever something which is controversial or uncertain happens, as long as it involves Thailand and Thai people, a sense of anti-Thai sentiments, an element of Cambodia’s broader xenophobic issue, would take centre stage. A notable example is a series of fierce border clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops over the Preah Vihear Temple between 2008 and 2011. The skirmishes were sparked by a land dispute which was in turn caused by conflicting narratives of historical facts and animosity towards each other.

All decisions, measures, and approaches to solutions of issues, be it political, economic, social, or cultural, tend to be clouded by anti-Thai sentiments which seem to exist in every Cambodians of all ages and genders. They seem to lie in hibernation inside Cambodian people and just need a small trigger to come back to life and begin, in many cases, to create problems and issues that could further exacerbate an already troubled situation. The consequences of which are generally unpleasant and harmful, easily leading to more racial discrimination, hatred, and anti-Thai nationalism. This issue of xenophobic sentiments, if not taken into account properly by both Cambodian and Thai governments and relevant stakeholders, will remain and will continue to harm Cambodia-Thailand relations and prevent harmonious co-existence between Cambodian and Thai people.

The anti-Thai sentiment is just one thing; anti-Vietnamese nationalism is another, an issue which appears to be even more serious in Cambodia. It is widely believed and known among Cambodians that Vietnamese people’s intention to encroach on Cambodian land never changes. Many Cambodian people hold a perception that Vietnam is a threat to Cambodia’s territorial sovereignty. This constant pessimistic thought about the Vietnamese, the so-called anti-Vietnamese sentiment, exists in almost every Cambodians to varying degrees. Much like the anti-Thai sentiment, this hatred towards Vietnamese people lies in a dormant state until it is “awakened” by any issue or incident involving Vietnamese.

Youn”, a Khmer word commonly used to refer to Vietnam and Vietnamese people, is arguably a pejorative term associated with anger and hatred. Khmer people often use this word instead of its equivalents, Vietnam and Vietnamese, to refer to their eastern neighbors when they are angry or want to express negative emotions about Vietnam and its people. As noted two decades ago, “forms of Cambodian racism towards Vietnam and the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia did not develop in a historical vacuum but rather developed particularly in response to the expansionist tendencies of the pre-colonial imperial state”. Apparently, almost if not all Cambodians know or have heard stories of Vietnam’s encroachment on Cambodian territory. They are all aware of the fact that many Cambodian provinces were lost to Vietnam. In particular, it is well-known among Cambodians that Vietnam encroached Prey Nokor (formerly a Cambodian territory) and institutionalized it as a city, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

emories and knowledge of Vietnam’s encroachment on Cambodia’s sovereign territory are passed down from one generation of Cambodians to the next and are seen to be ingrained in the minds of many Khmers. Even now Cambodian people still think that Vietnam wants to “swallow” Khmer land and that Vietnam’s wish to take over Khmer territory still remains. This line of thinking is not helpful. Not only does it fuel anger, hatred and distrust among Cambodians, but it also stirs up widespread anti-Vietnamese feelings in Cambodia.

Recognizing the deep-rooted anti-Vietnamese sentiments among Cambodians, Sam Rainsy, the exiled leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has always taken advantage of this issue and used it as part of his party’s main propaganda. As one of the authors of this analysis has argued in a recent article, anti-Vietnamese sentiments have always been a political tool Sam Rainsy and his party’s senior officials use to undermine their opponents, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) elites. The use of the anti-Vietnamese sentiment, another form of Cambodia’s xenophobia, is harmful, although the opposition party draws support from it. What this anti-Vietnamese rhetoric does is create tensions, division, and confrontations among Cambodians. Sam Rainsy and his party elites should begin focusing their attention on tackling other important social issues, not dwelling on using anti-Vietnamese sentiments for political gain at the expense of Cambodia-Vietnam relations and amicable existence between people of the two neighboring countries.

Moving beyond the anti-Thailand and anti-Vietnam sentiments, Cambodia still has to face other forms of xenophobia. There were memories of anti-French sentiments, particularly among older Cambodians, driven by the impact of French colonization of Cambodia. However, now there seems to be no evidence of any anti-French sentiment in Cambodia today, as all attention is given to more modern issues facing the country. Looming large are key issues such as income generation, self and family survival, education, politics, and other critical social issues.

The Cambodian government should improve law enforcement and work hard to reduce the large and growing number of unpleasant incidents such as violence, accidents, and abuses that tend to involve the Chinese diaspora living in Cambodia. The anti-Chinese sentiment has emerged from these issues.

It is particularly and surprisingly fortunate that seemingly the whole country has moved beyond discrimination and historical hatred against France whose colonization of Cambodia led to the loss of Kampuchea Krom (former territory of Cambodia) to Vietnam in 1949. Although there have been petitions demanding the decolonization of Kampuchea Krom territory, there seems to be no sign of animosity expressed towards France and the French people. Little is known why Cambodians seem to disregard the fact that the French colonialist “cut” Kampuchea Krom and gave it to Vietnam, despite numerous protests from Khmer Krom activists in Cambodia and abroad. However, that Kampuchea Krom was ceded to Vietnam by the French has obviously further intensified anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians.

Moving forward, two issues remain which could potentially become new forms of xenophobia in Cambodia, if not addressed properly and in a timely manner. The first is the incumbent government’s recent reiteration of the US bombing of Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s that contributed to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which took control of Cambodia in 1975 and immediately proceeded to decimate the country and its people, wishing to create a pure, self-reliant, and sovereign Khmer nation. Hun Sen and his team’s criticism of the United States, although offering short-term benefits to their party, is also harmful. It may over time develop a sense of hatred and ill will towards the US and American people, potentially creating another form of xenophobia in Cambodian society, that is, anti-American sentiment among Cambodians, particularly those who support the current ruling party.

In reality, history is history; it can neither be denied nor changed. However, it is much better to learn from past lessons to plan for the present and future rather than let the past control the present and dictate the future. The ruling elites of the CPP, in this regard, should move beyond their recent narratives of the “US bombing” and, like the CNRP, should direct their attention to resolving pressing social issues facing Cambodia. Repeating and promulgating the damage that the US inflicted on Cambodia in the 1970s will not benefit Cambodia and its people in the long run. It only exacerbates the current poor relations between the US and Cambodia, which is certainly not a viable foreign policy option for the latter.

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The second issue which has arisen recently in Cambodia is the emergence of anti-Chinese sentiment which appears to be on the rise. The perceived increase of anti-Chinese feelings among many Cambodians are seen as a negative side effect of the growing Chinese presence in Cambodia, especially in the country’s coastal province, Sihanoukville. Over the last few years, Chinese investors have in large numbers flocked into Sihanoukville to invest in building casinos, apartments, theme parks, and resorts.

The Chinese’s increasing presence has implications for the Cambodian province and Cambodia at large. Not only can one see the mushrooming of high-rise buildings, casinos, restaurants, and other businesses run by the Chinese immigrants, but one can also experience or at least feel an increase in crime, violence, drug trafficking, and pollution, in the once-sleepy coastal province. There are frequent reports in the news about violence, abuses, scams, cybercrime, and violations of expected social norms and rules of law, many of which involve the Chinese living and working in Cambodia and in Sihanoukville in particular. Until October 2018, for example, 1,649 Chinese nationals were deported from Cambodia for scams and cybercrime offenses. These many incidents, together with similar stories happening in other countries, have arguably contributed to the emerging rise of anti-Chinese sentiments among the general public in Cambodia.

This new issue of anti-Chinese nationalism may not be seen as a serious issue now, but if left to develop freely and not addressed properly and timely, it is likely to lead to a big problem, consequences of which is less predictable and should raise concerns for the Cambodian government and Cambodian people. It is the duty and responsibility of the current ruling government of Cambodia to find ways to address the issue while it is still in the early stages. Although the Cambodian government, especially the ruling elites, has significantly benefited from Cambodia’s close relationship with China, it is wise to diplomatically bring this issue to the discussion table and work towards collaborating with the Chinese government to tackle this rising anti-Chinese sentiment among the Cambodian populace. It is always a good idea to make big problems small and small problems even smaller. To do so, the Cambodian government, with support from its Chinese counterpart, has to do something to deal with this emerging issue.

Xenophobia in Cambodia, whether it is a long-standing issue like anti-Thai and anti-Vietnamese sentiments or a new one like anti-Chinese sentiment, is a critical issue that needs to be addressed properly and taken more seriously than it currently is. As has been argued, Cambodian youth have crucial roles to play in improving Cambodia-Vietnam relations. Youth are the backbone of the country and the future of Cambodia. They are “Cambodian ambassadors in the making who are responsible for raising the profile of Cambodia in the region and the international stage”. They can contribute to navigating the Cambodian ship as long as they are given chanced and their efforts are recognized and valued. Thus, engaging youth in all realms of political, economic, social, and cultural life, for example, is important and is what the Cambodian government should strive for.

Cultivating and nurturing mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance between people of all nations involved is also crucial. In the case of Thailand and Vietnam, prevalent racial hatred, contempt, and discrimination resulting from awful past history and recent events can probably be minimized through the cultivation of genuine and mutual respect between Khmer and Thai people and between Khmer and Vietnamese. With respect to improving Cambodia-Thailand relations, one of these authors has also argued in an article in the IPP Review for the important role of mutual respect and the role of Cambodian youth in shaping Cambodia’s relations with Thailand. As it is argued, Cambodian people, youth in particular, “should not dwell on their dark history; instead, they should use lessons from history to help them make informed and impartial judgments when dealing with issues concerning Thailand and its people”.

However, these cannot be done without support from the Cambodian government as well as governments of Thailand and Vietnam. All parties have vital roles to play in fostering and improving their respective relations. Efforts, commitment, and cooperation at all levels, individual, institutional, and national, are essential. These are important steps towards fostering good relations between these countries which have regarded each other as one’s own traditional enemy.

With respect to the US, the Cambodian government should stop using the rhetoric of US bombing of Cambodia. While it is true, it only worsens Cambodia’s relations with the world’s largest economy. Although Cambodia has great relations with China, its largest economic and military benefactor, it would be unwise to alienate the US and fully embrace China. The most viable approach or way forward for Cambodia is to make as many friends as possible. It is undeniably true that having two best friends, the US and China, is absolutely better than having just one friend. All Cambodian eggs should be placed on two or more baskets, not just one basket. It is safer and more secure that way.

On the issue of anti-Chinese sentiment, Cambodia should take it into account most seriously. Now it seems to be not an issue yet but it will be a problem, a big one, if no due attention is paid to it. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged and assured that many Chinese immigrants who are working in Cambodia, particularly in Sihanoukville, will leave the country once the Chinese projects for which they work are complete. This assurance is helpful but not sufficient. The Cambodian government should improve law enforcement and work hard to reduce the large and growing number of unpleasant incidents such as violence, accidents, and abuses that tend to involve the Chinese diaspora living in Cambodia. The anti-Chinese sentiment has emerged from these issues. Addressing them would also address the recently growing anti-Chinese feelings among the Cambodian general public.

Finally, xenophobia in Cambodia is a major social problem that requires absolute attention from all stakeholders in the country. It is neither the job of the government nor the duty of Cambodian citizens alone. It is a critical issue that requires cooperation, commitment, understanding, and willingness from all parties, regardless of their political views, positions, or beliefs. Cambodian xenophobia and paranoia, no doubt, have a malign influence on Cambodia’s efforts to promote the Kingdom’s integration into the region and the world. It will definitely damage the image of Cambodia on the global stage in the long term.

It is time for Cambodians, the ruling elites and the ordinary people, to work together in unity and in harmony to solve key issues facing their country. As a saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves”. Thus, Cambodians must work collaboratively and willingly to help themselves and their country.

 

 

EU- Cambodia Relations–The EU should do the right Thing– Respect Cambodia’s sovereignty


March 8, 2019

EU- Cambodia Relations

The EU should do the right thing– Respect Cambodia’s sovereignty

By Kimkong Heng
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The European Union’s coercive measures or scare tactics do not seem to yield intended results as the Cambodian government refuses to give in to the EU’s demands for improving core human rights and labour rights in the Kingdom. Xinhua

Though the European Union could succeed in withdrawing Cambodia’s EBA status, the EU also has to be prepared to accept the fact that it could fail to reverse the perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in the country, argues Kimkong Heng. 

The European Union (EU) and Cambodia are now engaged in what can be seen as a tug of war for influence and sovereignty, respectively. Despite unequal power relations, both sides are apparently trying to strengthen their stances against one another.

While the EU demands that the Cambodian government reverses Cambodia’s democratic drift and improve the country’s human and political rights situation, the Kingdom wants the EU not to interfere in its internal affairs. Both parties appear not to understand or seemingly ignore each other’s calls and look set to proceed with their own agendas, understanding, and assumptions.

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In response to Cambodia’s crackdown on dissent and the dissolution of the leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the EU announced last October that it would begin a formal process to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme from Cambodia. On February 11, it kicked off a six-month period of intensive monitoring and engagement that could lead to the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s preferential, tariff-free access to the EU market. The EU stated that the removal of Cambodia’s EBA status is only “the option of last resort”.

Cambodia has firmly responded to the EU’s EBA threat. The country has condemned the EU’s demands, regarding it as an “extreme injustice” and “acts of interference” in Cambodia’s domestic affairs. Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly maintained that Cambodia will not “exchange national sovereignty with aid”.

As it now stands, the EU seems to have no other choice but to eventually withdraw its trade privileges from Cambodia, if no concrete measures are taken by the Cambodian government to address the EU’s concerns and demands. The Kingdom, however, is presented with limited options and the lack of willingness to manage the EU’s demands is because Cambodia views such actions as a practice of “double standards”.

Thus, while the world’s largest trading bloc criticizes the Southeast Asian nation for engaging in human rights violations, the latter sees such criticism as an injustice and interference. Each side no doubt sees the same issue from different angles, the result of which is a failure to engage in channels of dialogue at both bilateral and multilateral levels.

In this regard, it seems sensible that both parties take a step back and rethink their own approach. The EU’s coercive measures or scare tactics do not seem to yield intended results as the Cambodian government refuses to give in to the EU’s demands for improving core human rights and labour rights in the Kingdom. Cambodia’s “sovereignty-maintaining approach” does not seem to turn out to be effective, either.

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If both sides proceed with their plans and stick to their own terms, it will lead to a lose-lose scenario that is in no one’s interests. Clearly the suspension of Cambodia’s EBA status will definitely damage relations between Cambodia and the EU. Cambodia will draw closer to China, its closest ally and largest economic and military benefactor, at the expense of its relations with the West. The EU, together with the United States, surely would not want Cambodia to alienate them and fully embrace Beijing.

Cambodia also does not want to break with the West, but the incumbent government led by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) seems to have other more important priorities than its diplomatic relations with the EU and the US. Political domination and maintenance of peace and sovereignty are seen as number one priorities for the CPP-led government.

As argued in a recent article in the Bangkok Post, the CPP is “willing to lose the EBA status in exchange for getting rid of the opposition party” so that its dominance in Cambodian politics will not be undermined. This statement has implications for the EU.

Rather than moving ahead with its forceful approach to suspend Cambodia’s EBA trade benefits, the EU should perhaps consider alternative measures that would have consequences for the ruling elites, not the ordinary Cambodians. It is agreeable that withdrawing Cambodia’s EBA privileges will most likely have negative impacts on nearly one million Cambodian garment workers, most of whom are women. The chance that such measures would adversely affect the financial standing of the CPP elites is slim.

Thus, it is arguably more judicious that the EU direct its actions toward the CPP leadership rather than threaten the mainstay of Cambodia’s economy. The EU should try to understand Cambodia and what Hun Sen’s government wants and is willing to lose. For the time being, losing the EBA benefits perhaps does not cause great concern for the Cambodian government in the same way as losing votes and political domination.

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Whether one likes it or not, a warning by Prime Minister Hun Sen that the withdrawal of EBA scheme from Cambodia could amount to the West’s third mistake may become true, if the EU succeeds in withdrawing the Kingdom’s EBA status but fails to reverse the perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in this Asian country.

The EU, taking into account this scenario, may consider rethinking its approach to dealing with Cambodia. Instead of jeopardizing its relations with the Kingdom and compelling this small and open economy to have no hesitation in further embracing China, the EU as a major international actor has the responsibility to bring about hope and prosperity to people of all nations, and Cambodians are no exception.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship.