Cambodian policemen in protective face masks watch as the Westerdam cruise ship approaches port in Sihanoukville on February 13, 2020, where the liner received permission to dock after been refused entry at other Asian ports because of fears of the Covid-19 virus. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

In Cambodia’s nation-building process, it has faced two main challenges when dealing with foreign actors who are keen on molding the country into their own forms of democracy, with domestic actors and policies supportive of their own interests.

The first challenge is the internationalization of Cambodian domestic issues, and another is the “Cambodian puppet theory.” The latter is long-standing, with patrons changing according to time and geopolitical landscape. These two challenges create pressure on and obstructions to domestic political and economic development.

By regional or even global standards, Cambodia’s domestic affairs have attracted inordinate levels of unsolicited foreign attention and intervention, from freelance pundits and politicians alike.

It is understandable for pundits to write negatively about Cambodia because it is their job, but it is incomprehensible when foreign parliamentarians with many issues at home can still find the time to concentrate on Cambodian issues. In other words, Cambodia’s imperfections are conveniently used as leverage for their own domestic political point-scoring.

These days, it is also unfortunate that anyone can easily become an “expert” on Cambodia simply by compiling negative articles accessible online even if they have never visited the country, have never met or talked with real persons here, or have only a few years, if any, of working experience in the country.

No matter how logical their criticisms seem to be, the fact is that making and implementing policy is not a linear process, and multi-stakeholder challenges are something that only people with institutional working experiences can empathize with.

For that reason, a claimed understanding of Cambodia is often a by-product of already crafted and twisted images about the country and its administration. But those convicted to the cause can still justify themselves as crusaders who are neutral, nonpartisan and independent.

There are two common regrets that foreign actors of this ilk share. First, they regret that they failed to remove the current government actors from the state apparatus when they had the chance to intervene in the 1993 UN-brokered election. The second regret is that they were not able to come to the rescue of the believers in the liberal system when Cambodia fell into the hands of the bloody Pol Pot regime.

These two regrets share common characteristics in that they are altruistic and do not include local elements at all.

The second regret is natural for external actors because no country or group of countries can ever have enough planes, ships or welfare packages to bear the burden of receiving millions of war refugees for their belief in a specific ideology.

While it is normal to have a love-hate relationship with a specific administration, it is usually unclear whether foreign actors are attacking Cambodia as a country or its rulers. But either way, their punitive actions, such as the embargo in the 1980s, have affected Cambodia as a whole.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations requiring that all official business shall be conducted with the approval of the receiving state, and that each mission has the duty to promote friendly relations between the sending state and the receiving state, is not relevant any more. Defying the Convention, some foreign actors seek to deal only with non-state actors of their preference.

In its modern history, Cambodia is the real-life university for experiments in governance and ideology, as it has experienced them all, including the worst forms in human history, en route to establishing a multi-party liberal democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

Nevertheless, the firmness and absoluteness of Cambodia’s constitution in regards to the principles of its governmental system and foreign-policy approaches are still not sufficient to convince some foreign actors. For them, changing the administration seems to be the only solution to enable Cambodia’s perfection of its democracy.

They have a strong conviction that Cambodia is being run by a handful of individuals, elites or an establishment that is untouchable by ordinary people. But again, anti-establishment tendencies exist everywhere. Equally important, the Cambodian government has no means to ignore the voices and grievances of the people when citizens have direct access to the prime minister’s Facebook messenger.

With a mere 20 years of full peace and opportunities to build state institutions, it is unfortunate that some already take peace for granted and criticize the administration for benefiting from the peace legacy for far too long.

However, as a post-conflict nation that did not have a proper state apparatus from the beginning, yet has been able to achieve sustainable peace, high economic growth, poverty alleviation and a certain degree of democratization, Cambodia is historically an extremely rare case. Other countries that faced similar situations as Cambodia in the 1980s and 1990s are still struggling with factional wars.

Peace is like oxygen that people tend to take for granted. With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people are required to wear masks, one should realize how important it is to have unobstructed access to oxygen. Only with instability comes the consciousness of peace.

Looking at Cambodia’s evolution for seven decades after World War II, foreign actors should be happy to see its development as a nation that does not have internal strife or export its problems outside any more. Cambodia is now sending peacekeepers abroad.

With its limited resources, it even has strong compassion as “a small country with a big heart,” as in its responds to the humanitarian crisis of the Westerdam cruise ship, support multilateralism, and South-South cooperation, such as through provision of masks and medical supplies to Myanmar, Laos and Timor-Leste to support efforts against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite all the above facts on peace, economic development and international contribution, some foreign actors cannot give credit to Cambodia for fear of being seen as supportive of the current administration.

For the foreseeable future, these challenges will persist, and constitute an obstruction to Cambodia’s political and economic development. Cambodia should continue to walk its own path and stay focused on its own goals, and be firm on what it really wants: to achieve a durably peaceful, prosperous and independent nation that is caring about its people’s well-being.

Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.