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Australia's Role in Resuscitating Cambodian Democracy

15 Feb 2018
By Sam Rainsy
Sam Rainsy waving to protesters. Pic Source: Wikimedia Commons

The international community can play a vital role in reviving good governance in Phnom Penh. In the past, Australia has been central in promoting Cambodian democracy; will it step forward again?

Democracy is dead in Cambodia. A fledgling democracy was killed, less than a year ago, in my country. No, I am not exaggerating. Please imagine a comparison. Suppose that in Australia—which implements the same parliamentary system as Cambodia, with two main competing political parties—suppose that the government led by the Liberal Party suddenly and arbitrarily dissolves the Labor Party and arrests Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and puts him in jail. Suppose it then organises a new election without any challenger to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Would this be acceptable in this country? No. It is not even conceivable.

In Cambodia now, the situation is exactly the one that you would not even imagine in Australia:

  • In November 2017, there was the dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). Its 118 top leaders were banned from politics and its parliamentary seats were confiscated and redistributed to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and to very small parties that had won no seats at previous elections but were aligned with the ruling party.
  • In September 2017, CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested and sent to jail where he still is.
  • New national elections are scheduled for July 2018, with a forgone conclusion: a landslide victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen who will face no competition.
  • Return to a one-party system as under the communist regime that prevailed during the Cold War before the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia in 1991.

How to resuscitate democracy

The Cambodian people will definitely strive to resuscitate democracy; it determines their destiny. I have the duty and the honour to lead the fight in my capacity as co-founder and former president of the CNRP (the first ever united democratic opposition party in Cambodia) and now the president of the newly-formed Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM).

However, the Cambodian people alone cannot resuscitate democracy in their country. Cambodia is too small and too vulnerable a country to be able to determine its own fate as history has shown over the last centuries and particularly over the last decades. When peace was restored and democracy established in 1991, it was the result of an international treaty—the historic Paris Agreements—initiated by Australia’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans. The agreements were signed under the auspices of the UN by 18 countries, including all the world and regional powers.

It is obvious that another coordinated international effort is necessary to revive the democratic process enshrined in the Paris Agreements. There are two steps and two possible scenarios that revolve around the national election scheduled for 29 July 2018, or, more precisely, around the nature of that election.

First scenario: Under adequate and timely international pressure, the Hun Sen government accepts to reverse its political repression and to organise acceptably free and fair elections that will be held in a little bit more than five months with the participation of a real and vibrant opposition. This implies the reinstatement of the CNRP, the release of all political prisoners starting with Kem Sokha, and the reestablishment of fundamental freedoms for all segments of the Cambodian population. This scenario is politically the best one that can materialise with adequate international pressure.

Second scenario: The Hun Sen government refuses to reverse its repression and remains adamant about holding an electoral farce in July 2018, even though there is a degree of bluff in official statements that may hide the possibility of a moving position. The government’s final decision will depend on its final assessment of the consequences of actually killing democracy and the Paris Agreements for possibly a very long period of time.

To avoid the second scenario, the international community of democratic nations that want to help Cambodia must elaborate a common and consistent approach where the key word is legitimacy. A clear warning must be issued that any government formed after, and on the basis of, an electoral farce as described in the second scenario, will be denied legitimacy.

Cambodia is too small a country—depending too heavily on international assistance, trade privileges, debt forgiveness, new loans, foreign direct investment and access to export markets in Western countries—to be willing to risk any form of international isolation associated with ‘delegitimisation’. This is clear even for a brutal leader like Hun Sen.

From a more personal perspective, legitimacy for the current Cambodian regime allows the powerful to abuse their power in the conduct of illegitimate but lucrative businesses often associated with the plunder of natural resources, which in turn consolidate their power and help ensure the survival of an anachronistic regime. The blatant destruction of democracy by the regime should end the legitimacy of these business and jeopardise Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family’s colossal business interests and fortune as recently exposed by Global Witness. Only the prospect of ‘delegitimisation’ can push Hun Sen to reverse his totalitarian drift and to show more respect for democratic rules and principles.

The Western democratic world—which Australia belongs to, politically speaking—is recognised as the bearer and defender of universal values such as democracy and human rights. This Western democratic world is in the unique position to assess and question the legitimacy of unpopular or shady regimes worldwide. This ability to deny, confer or condition legitimacy is part of that soft power that the community of democratic nations must use to promote democracy with a might that can be greater than the power of money or the power of the gun.

Why we turn to Australia

Australia is probably the country that most heavily invested in Cambodia politically, economically, financially and emotionally to help bring about the rebirth of my country in 1991. Australia deployed top-class human resources in this most noble endeavour for which the Cambodian people remain deeply grateful. Names like Gareth Evans, John Sanderson and Michael Kirby are inscribed in golden letters on the latest pages of Cambodia’s history. The destruction of such a legacy is just unacceptable to both Cambodians and Australians.

The recent internationally condemned repression has isolated Hun Sen’s Cambodia from the rest of the world except China, which has seized the occasion to invest more and more heavily in my country. Hun Sen says he can easily counter international condemnation with the massive and unconditional support from China.

This situation is reminiscent of the one prevailing in Cambodia under Pol Pot 40 years ago. Pol Pot with his killing fields was cut off from the rest of the world except China which massively and unconditionally supported him and the Khmer Rouge regime. Hun Sen’s present anti-Americanism—and anti-West approach in general—is reminiscent of the Pol Pot regime and the Cold War.

Hun Sen’s democratic opponents are being accused of plotting with the CIA to topple the regime. CNRP President Kem Sokha is in jail and the CNRP has been dissolved on the basis of such an accusation. Hun Sen is doing the same thing as Pol Pot when it comes to causing misery and sufferings to the Cambodian people while unconditionally siding with China.

As Cambodians, we oppose such a policy, but the international community in general, and Australia in particular, should also oppose such a policy because the fact that Hun Sen—for the survival of his regime—blindly takes side with China, affects the interests of many other countries. China is securing more and more facilities in Cambodia, including military facilities, and this will strategically affect Japan, Vietnam, Australia and India. I think Australia should feel concerned because this could disrupt the balance of power in the whole region.

Last but not least regarding the future of democracy in our region, Cambodians would like to see Australia show leadership in Asia, especially East Asia, to help democracy prevail. We have authoritarian countries in the region but Australia should take the lead in the support of the democratisation of the whole region because Australia is a vibrant and functioning democracy, which is an example for weaker democracies in this part of the world. This will strengthen and deepen Australia’s commitment and involvement in the region because we believe in universal values. It makes sense because, even though Australia is generally associated with the West, you are a regional power and we share the same values.


Sam Rainsy is president of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement. He was previously co-founder and president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party and a long-time member of  the Cambodian parliament.

This is an edited extract of the speech Sam Rainsy presented at the National Press Club of Australia on Thursday 15 February 2018.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.