The world’s longest-serving Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, handed power this week to his eldest son, who defeated all opposition during his 38-year reign. His legacy extends beyond the borders of the country itself, though it is in Cambodia that we best understand how he succeeded in subverting and defeating some of the West’s key assumptions.
For decades, the Western approach to geopolitics has been guided by modernization theory, which predicts that democracy will automatically follow economic development. Modernization theory seems sensible: As economies grow, people demand the right to protect their property and a greater say in how their wealth is used. People want to elect governments to spend their tax dollars and hold them accountable for the services they expect. This is how democracy develops.
In 1993, when Cambodia established itself as a pluralistic democracy, four political parties were elected to the National Assembly in United Nations-sponsored elections, and Cambodia’s gross domestic product was just $2.53 billion at current exchange rates. Thirty years later today, Increased by more than 1000%But instead of democratic pluralism, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party controls 99.8 percent of local councils, 100 percent of elected senators and 96 percent of the National Assembly.
The pinnacle of democracy came in 2013, when opposition leader Rainsy returned from exile and was greeted by 100,000 people at the airport, sparking waves of rallies across the country. Lansi’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 44 percent of the vote in the 2013 election, which was marred by irregularities in the voter rolls.
After a brief dialogue that eventually led to Ransi being forced into exile, Hun Sen began dismantling the pillars of democracy on which the opposition had relied. He stifled civil society, restricted unions, suppressed free speech, and shut down independent media. Then, when he faced defeat in the 2018 election, he outlawed the CNRP altogether, arrested its leader Kem Sokha and forced most of its senior leadership to join Ransi in exile.
The Australian government, which previously agreed to pay $55 million to the Cambodian government to take in seven refugees, announced that “it is deeply concerned;The U.S. cuts aid and the EU considers withdrawing from free trade agreements.However, China immediately Announce Further investment and military support will enable Hun Sen to weather any criticism.
It should have come as no surprise when CNRP successor Candlelight was excluded from national elections in July. How has the Australian government responded? It sent envoys to discuss trade issues, seen as support for Hun Sen’s rule and elections. After the visit, Australian Foreign Minister Wong Eng Yin was asked about the upcoming general election in Cambodia.She said the Australian government had commented on the “contraction of political space”, but continue:
We have different political systems…but…we want to go to a very similar place, which is a peaceful, stable, prosperous region where sovereignty is respected.
Clearly, “where we want to be” does not include democracy or human rights. Huang’s quote could be a reference to a speech Hun Sen made when he argued that human rights and democratic freedoms must be sacrificed for peace, stability and prosperity.
Australia appears to have established a new international development policy Its efforts in Cambodia have stability and prosperity as its main goals. The word democracy does not appear once. The government mentions that it seeks “a world where the rights of all people are upheld,” but has done nothing to make that happen. Instead, it said “it will apply mutually agreed rules and norms”. But who to agree with? Banning the leader of the opposition and imprisoning critics?
Australia and the West can no longer hope that increased wealth will miraculously achieve democracy. In the run-up to the latest elections, social media in Cambodia came alive with posts from the newly educated and upwardly mobile middle class calling on fellow citizens to support the status quo. Australia needs to support the pillars of democracy – civil society, trade unions, free speech and an independent media.
The linear idea that modernization produces democracy is replicated in Francis Fukuyama’s arguments for the emergence of capitalism. end of historywhen liberal democracy remained the only attractive form of government.
However, consider Cambodia. It looks not to the liberal democracies of the West but to the East for inspiration. It sees and senses China’s growing power as a global player with bigger goals than a beleaguered US or a confused EU. It sees Singapore as a peaceful, stable and prosperous country – in stark contrast to chaotic Britain or fiery France.
Hun Sen doesn’t care that Singapore ranks 70th in the world Democracy IndexOne place above Lesotho, but behind Moldova, Albania and Sri Lanka. And Hun Sen is unconcerned that Cambodia fell to 121st in the index. Whatever else Cambodia’s outgoing leader leaves behind, the country’s journey over the past three decades has shown that democracy is not inevitable.