Failed Democracy Promotion in Cambodia

I’ve spent a great deal of time in Cambodia over the last 35 years, most recently in January. And to this day, I remain astounded by American and other Western aid agencies that fund and treat the place as if it were a democracy.

American democracy-promotion offices, government-funded and otherwise, continue providing money to prop up opposition candidates—even though none of them stand even the smallest chance of winning an election, so crooked is the government and its slavish National Election Commission.

Just look at the money spent over many years to prop up Sam Rainsey, the state’s most prominent opposition leader who, along with other aspiring opposition leaders, is still protesting last summer’s latest fixed election—to no avail.

But Prime Minister Hun Sen is a clever man. He allows a few human-rights groups to put out critical reports, in English, and an English-language press to publish an occasional critical article.

He does this because he knows that the vast majority of his citizens are illiterate. Even those with rudimentary literacy certainly can’t read English. All of this is intended to help persuade Western donors that the country has democratic elements. For example, the US-based NGO Freedom House says that “laws regulating freedom of the press are vague and their application uneven.”

But this has been the state of play for more than 20 years, and while Hun Sen holds elections, he also makes pointed public statements proclaiming that he intends to remain in office for at least another 10 years. (He’s 61 years old.) Holding elections in Cambodia is like staging them in Zimbabwe, Russia, or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.

Why can’t American aid agencies spend their money the way they did in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union—working at the grass-roots level?

I wrote a story for the New York Times once about the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine. I remember talking to Leslie McCuaig, Ukraine project director for the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Vermont-based organization whose job was to promote democracy.

The US government gave his group an $11-million federal contract to help bring about a “fundamental cultural shift” in Ukraine “from a passive citizenry under an authoritarian regime to a thriving democracy with active citizen participation,” the groups said at the time. In a manner of speaking, it worked—for a while. But today, doesn’t that sound like what’s needed in Cambodia?

Well, a host of American institutions—including but not limited to Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic institute—run programs around the world that are like Leslie McCuaig’s former efforts in Ukraine.

In other places, on-the-ground democracy workers help citizens organize. The methods are varied, depending on the politics and practicalities of each particular country.

Most of these institutes have been active in Cambodia. But the work has been pursued in a wholly ineffective manner—propping up so-called opposition leaders.

In Cambodia, it’s time to change strategies.


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