Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

For most of its history, Cambodia has failed its people. Except for the Angkorian period, which ended in the 1400s, Cambodia has failed to earn respect from and be an equal partner with its peers in Southeast Asia. Why?

Cambodia has favorable geography. Its fertile soils can nurture most tropical crops. The country’s pristine coastline serves as deep seaports and attracts international tourists. Inland waterways and lakes can be used to transport goods across the country, irrigate the country’s arable lands and provide abundant sources of protein. Mountains along its coastline block typhoons from inland regions. There are abundant natural resources such as minerals, timber and fish.

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The country also has two predictable seasons and moderate temperatures. The rainy season waters tropical crops for almost half of the year. The other “dry” season benefits the country’s cultural and eco-tourism sector.

In short, Cambodia has all the physical and natural capital for it to prosper. Why then can’t the country succeed?

A country beset by foreign incursions and war

Has Cambodia failed because of foreign invasions and occupations? Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east have invaded and seized Cambodian territory from time to time. France colonized Cambodia from 1863 until 1953. The United States, too, contributed to Cambodia’s fate during the 1970s when it dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War.

But really, who is to blame? And why does Cambodia remain poor while other places that had similar past experiences, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have prospered?

In their influential book Why Nations Fail, economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James A Robinson argue that countries fail not because of their geography, their culture, or their self-interested leaders; they fail because of the nature of their political institutions. Likewise, in his Political Order and Political Decay, political economist Francis Fukuyama argues that countries failed because they were characterized by a neo-patrimonial state, undemocratic institutions and the lack of rule of law.

The king and his constitutional obligations

For most of its history, Cambodia had been an absolute monarchy. For some periods, it has been a dictatorship. Since 1993, Cambodia has been a constitutional monarchy. The country’s constitution decrees that Cambodia is a monarchy with a king who shall rule according to the principles of liberal democracy and pluralism. In theory, the political power of the state is dispersed and shared among three institutions: the legislature, executive, and judiciary.

In reality, despite the constitutional provisions, Cambodian political institutions remain what Acemoglu and Robinson dub as “extractive”, in that the power of the state remains concentrated in the few individuals who control the government and other state institutions such as the legislature, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the security forces.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has ruled since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. It monopolized the state’s coercive power when it crushed armed forces loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a military showdown in July 1997 and co-opted the remaining Khmer Rouge forces in 1998. The CPP further consolidated political power after taking control of the government in 2008 as a result of an amendment to the constitution that made it possible for the government to be formed by a “50%+1” voting rule instead of the two-thirds majority voting formula.

With this amendment, the CPP-led government became less constrained in its exercise of power. With few restraints, the government adopted various laws to further empower the executive office. In 2014, it passed the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors and the Law on the Organization of the Courts. These laws effectively placed the Cambodian ministry of justice at the center of all key decision-making by the judiciary. In addition, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy was charged with appointing, disciplining, and overseeing the country’s judicial system.

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The Cambodian parliament has also been unable to  check the government  effectively and has acted as little more than a rubber stamp

The Cambodian parliament has also been unable to check the government effectively and has acted as little more than a rubber stamp. The proportional electoral system has undermined the legislature by making the members of the parliament more responsive and accountable to their party than to the voters. This system has proved inadequate in that parties rarely represent the interests of the voters.

Cambodian political institutions became more inclusive with the introduction of Western-style electoral democracy in 1993. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992-93 brought a temporary end to a decades-long civil war. Since then, the UN and Western governments have supported and promoted the development of a Cambodian civil society. Diverse media, free associations, and societies sprang up across the country. Political parties, especially the opposition parties, were also strengthened.

In addition, since the 2013 national election, the CPP has permitted limited political reform. Nevertheless, it does so only to the extent that these reforms do not endanger its political power. For instance, in 2014 the CPP promulgated laws on civil societies and political parties to control their activities and to penalize their political opponents.

Furthermore, the Cambodian government has used a mixture of legal, judicial and repressive tools to counter threats to its power. Since the 2013 national election, the government has used a combination of laws, courts and security forces virtually to eliminate the Cambodian National Rescue Party ahead of the 2018 national election. The CNRP presented credible threats to the CPP when the party secured about a half of the popular vote in the 2013 national election and 2017 local government elections.

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Cambodia has failed to realize its potential fully. Since the fall of the Angkorian Empire, the country has failed to face its peers in the region with confidence and dignity, because of its extractive political institutions.

Cambodia has failed its people for too long, and it has done so unnecessarily. It is up to the current generation of Cambodians, including the CPP, to make a difference. It is up to them to redesign political institutions that are fair, just and inclusive for all Cambodians, including those who have not yet been born.

Kongkea Chhoeun is currently a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy of The Australian National University. He has worked for many years for international development organizations in Cambodia.

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