Is Democracy Suitable for Cambodian Society?

You Kimhak
Sep 16, 2020 · 7 min read
Credit: Autor Invitado (Click Here)

It is not very uneasy to write about this topic as democracy is, by the Westerners’ definition, a universal political system. What is even more difficult is that I am assessing whether or not democracy fits Cambodian society. However, I am not trying to answer the question, and the nature of the question in itself is very subjective. The purpose of this article is to show all viewpoints from different people; including, but not limited to, politicians, researchers and ordinary citizens. Before we get on to the viewpoints, we may first have to understand what democracy and Cambodian society are.

  1. Democracy

Democracy derives from a combination of “Demos” and “Cracy” or “Kratos” (in Greek). The former refers to “people”, while the latter means “power”. Therefore, democracy means people’s power or power of the people. Democracy has been through many major changes in the history of the world, starting from the era of Greek city-states, as evidenced by Athens’ direct democracy which allows all citizens (slaves were not citizens, and they did not have rights to participate in national decision-makings) to take part in making decisions. As society develops and the number of population keeps increasing, direct democracy no longer worked, and it was replaced by indirect democracy which means citizens choose their representatives to participate in national decision-making processes. Democracy, however, did not just stop there, but it keeps evolving. For example, in the 20th century, the black people in the United States demanded an end to racial discrimination after they had been released from slavery under Abraham Lincoln’s administration in the 19th century. Likewise, women, too, fought for their suffrage rights.

In principle, democracy needs a number of elements. Firstly, a democratic society needs a free and fair election. However, many scholars and politicians have debated on the terms, as evidenced by the exchange of verbal clashes between politicians in Cambodia after each election. Secondly, mass participation of the people is vital in case they want to express their opinions for or against what the government is doing in the form of demonstration. Thirdly, a democratic society also needs human rights agenda to bind the government. There are two types of human rights — Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. Fundamentally, it is the former that is always mentioned. Fourthly, a democratic society needs check-and-balance system. There are three branches of government institutions — executive, legislative and judicial branches — which are expected to be independent from each other. Surprisingly, media seem to gradually become another independent branch as it does play a vital role in influencing public opinions. Let us now delve into Cambodian society in the next section.

2. Cambodian Society

To understand Cambodian society as a whole, it requires an understanding of many foundations, such as history, culture, people’s way of life, religion and people’s mindset. However, I will talk about history, religion and people’s mindset because these have been shaping Cambodia so far.

Historically, Funan (扶南: the name was given by China) or the Kingdom of Mountain was established in the 1st century AD. The Kingdom was heavily influenced by Indian culture, as seen by the adoption of Hinduism and Buddhism in the society. As Funan became less powerful, its subordinate states — called Chenla — challenged the central power, and later Chenla was also divided into two independent states. It was at the end of Chenla era that King Jayavarman II, the founder of Khmer Empire, introduced Deva-raja political notion or God-King concept, which means that the King is the God (Hindu Gods), and that all subjects must follow the King. There have been many people who say that the political notion is a fundamental value of Cambodian society back then, since it united a fragile, war-torn society at the end of Chenla period. However, in the 14th century, there was a change of religion from Hinduism to Buddhism, and it was said that the revolution shook the foundation of God-King political concept. More to the point, Cambodia, after the fall of Khmer Empire, got subsequently attacked by its neighbors, specifically Siam in the West and Vietnam in the East. In the 18th and 19th century, both neighbors tried to challenge each other in order to expand their sphere of influence over Cambodia. Thanks to the arrival of France to install protectorate and, later, colonization; Cambodia could secure its existence on the world map to this day.

Religiously, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Cambodia has been heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Not only have both religions shaped the way Cambodians think, but also they are a part of Cambodian tradition and culture. Although Hinduism seems to be less worshiped by many Cambodian people, it is, to a great extent, mixed in the current practices of Buddhism today. For this reason, the philosophies in both religions are definitely the foundation of today’s Cambodia. Hinduism is polytheist religion in which more than one God is worshiped. There are three important Gods in Hinduism — Shiva (God who destroys the universe), Vishnu (God who preserves the universe) and Brahma (God who creates the universe). On the contrary, Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) rejects the idea that God exists, and Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, taught people a “right” way to free themselves from the circle of life and reach nirvana — which is believed to be the ultimate inner peace. The ideas remain existing among Buddhist Cambodians.

In terms of Cambodian people’s mindset, some scholars and politicians are criticizing the mindset, while some are defending it very fiercely. During the French colonial era, many Cambodians were trying to group in order to claim independence for the country. One group was called “Khmer Issrak” or “the free Khmer”, which claimed to expel French from the country by force. Bunchan Mol, a pro-republic political figure who joined the Khmer Issarak back then, wrote a book, titled “Charek Khmer” or “Khmer Character”, which mentioned a lot about negative personalities which were possessed by Cambodian politicians at that time. I would like to name a few as follows:

  • Getting-ride-of character: Cambodians or political leaders may not like to listen to any criticism from others or their inferiors; and, in response, the leaders will get rid of them through whatever available means.

These are just a few points I extracted from the book. Of all these points, there are some that are supported by some scholars and today’s politicians. In response to these negative criticisms, some scholars and politicians are defending Cambodian people. Even so, most people seem to recognize the criticisms over the defending arguments. Likewise, Marie Alexandrine Martin, the author of “Le Mal Cambodien” or “Cambodia’s illness” translated by Ti Kheayu, also wrote at the end of his book that Cambodian people are very obedient, and that, by not changing this mindset, Cambodia will never been as powerful as it was. This seems to reinforce the argument made by Bunchan Mol.

3. Is Democracy Suitable for Cambodian Society?

Let us now come back to the question. When we talk about democracy, we for the most part talk about “the people’s power”. If we review Cambodian history, we could only see that the power, back then, belonged to leaders or Kings, and the subjects had to follow the Kings. For instance, the Deva-raja notion or God-King concept gave legitimate power to the King to rule the country, as evidenced by King Jayavarman II and his successors. On top of that, even though the concept collapsed at the end of Khmer Empire, Cambodian people were still ruled by legitimate Kings who worshiped Buddhism. As the country gradually got weakened, the neighbors invaded Cambodia, forcing Cambodia to invite French to install protectorate system in Cambodia. Even after French colonization, Cambodia entered a new democratic era, since Cambodians had rights to cast their votes. However, the Sangkum Reast Niyum, led by King Norodom Sihanouk, won a landslide election, and his power was very enormous in the country.

Religiously, Buddhists believe in Kampol theory, as introduced by Buddha. The theory posits that you get what you did. Likewise, when someone becomes powerful or wealthy, most people usually think that the person did good in his or her previous life, which is called “Bon” in Cambodian term. Therefore, most people seem to accept that the person is powerful and wealthy, and the theory legitimately justifies the powerful and wealthy person. Apart from that, Cambodian people usually respect their leaders and do not dare to question them. This character gives the leaders a power without being questioned and challenged by his inferior.

All in all, whether or not democracy is suitable for Cambodia remains under debate. If we use history, culture, religion and mindset to prove that democracy is not applicable for Cambodian society, it seems too hasty to jump to the conclusion. Similarly, if we reject the existence of Cambodian social foundations and insist on claiming that democracy still has a ground on Cambodian soil, that seems dangerous for the society as a society, under whatever political system, needs a solid ground or foundation. Under the current Cambodian constitution, Cambodia practices multi-party liberal democracy. Thus, we need to find a common ground between this western political notion and Cambodian society. I would like to leave this question here for further discussion.


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