Looking Toward Democracy

Cambodians Discuss Hopes and Thoughts on a Political Future

sba mon district, Kompong Speu province – Pao Sitha gazes across the rice field that has fed her family since 1979 and says with resolution that she doesn’t think much about politics.

“Because I am a farmer, we never hope for anything other than the rice field. The rice field is the heart of our living conditions,” she says, her eyes cast over quiet jade land with distant palms swaying in a breeze. “I don’t know exactly what democracy is, we just think about whether we have rice to eat.” And this year, sparse rainfall evokes far more worries than politics.

Her sentiments—from Sopor Tep commune, Rom Loung village—sound distant from the country’s capital about 30 km away where, for weeks, people have protested and marched and died in the name of “democracy.”

But democracy is a little different for everyone. And, in truth, 28-year-old Pao Sitha has much clearer thoughts on politics than she acknowledges to herself. She, like many of her neighbors who echo her words, knows the essence of democracy, even if she doesn’t articulate it.

The road to peace, democracy, stability is long. Some Cambodians realize that, but discerning and enduring the road isn’t so easy.


Defining Democracy

Democracy for Pao Sitha’s family is food on the table, the rice itself, the right to own and work the land and the responsibility of cultivating it.

Across the Prek Thnaot River at Wat Ompe Phnom, on a bamboo mat in an open-air pagoda full of saffron, 70-year-old monk Nham Soeung says that he understands democracy as “a fresh life.” It’s where religion is free from government control and “people live under the law, people respect the laws, people live with freedom.”

“The religion of Cambodia now is not quite free because when people want to become monks, they must ask permission from the village, commune, whatever,” he says. “The religion is under the control of the government.”

But, as a monk, he says he doesn’t involve himself in politics. Yet peace is high on his agenda. “Almost 100 percent of Cambodian people want peace, but Cambodian people don’t know how to get peace for the country.”

To him, it starts with religion. To others, it starts with a stable livelihood.

In her furniture shop off National Route 4 a few kilometers away, Hem Sorom says she isn’t quite sure about democracy or the ways of politics. Her husband is the CPP chief of Panech village in Chbar Mon district. But even in their home, with a CPP sign out front and sawdust piled high behind the house where workers carve spindles, she says politics isn’t discussed much. “People here, they focus on business. They don’t think much about politics.” They think far more about feeding their families.

And a couple kilometers away, back in Sopor Tep commune in the home of Nai Sokhoeun and Ty Khan, democracy means peace. Their home isn’t much—just a one-room thatch hut for themselves and six children (five, actually, since a 3-month-old son died four months ago) with no floor, two slat beds, a few hammocks, a baggie of dried shrimp tacked to the wall.

They have no rice field; just a small swath of ground surrounding the home and fresh air that smells of sweet vegetation. Ty Khan once worked as a security guard in Phnom Penh until the company moved and left him jobless in 1984. He often suffers a recurrent illness from working in the jungle during Vietnamese rule. Nai Sokhoeun sells eggs in the local market, but that has fared poorly since a poisoning scare two weeks ago has left customers wary of market foods.

“I don’t know exactly what democracy is,” Ty Khan says. “But I just want peace in the country. I don’t want to see both sides fighting each other. If there is peace, maybe we can start a business and make a little money.”

A small radio dangles from their wall. He has heard fragments of news reports and knows vaguely of Phnom Penh’s demonstrations and political paralysis. “I just want the government to talk, to form a new one and work together nicely,” he says, with a grin that never leaves his face. “If the three big parties can talk together and work together forever, then this country will be OK.”


Where is Cambodia?


Now, Ty Khan’s words sound remarkably similar to those coming from Phnom Penh’s alleyways, vending stalls and offices in the heart of last week’s protests, where talk has since centered on politics, parties and Cambodia’s future.

Most agree: Democracy has yet to gain a foothold.

Heng Kheng, a market vendor outside the US Embassy on Wednesday, says negotiation is the key to a democratic solution. “I want them to compromise and end this problem as soon as possible. We’re tired of listening to the criticism between them.

“If they don’t talk and compromise, how could a solution appear?” Heng Kheng says, standing in the same place where students, monks and curious bystanders gathered, day after day last week, talking strategy and milling about until the police forcibly shooed them away.

A monk was shot here; numerous others were injured in protester-police clashes that turned bloody from gunfire, stone-throwing and stick-wielding.

But to others, the demonstrations are and were necessary.

“The demonstrations are hope,” says 54-year-old Phang Sokhom, a rice farmer from Kandal province who shopped at Olympic Market on Monday. “If the election were really right, there would be no demonstrations.

“I want the international community to help Cambodia, to get Hun Sen to step down…. If not, democracy will be hopeless. The reason why the Cambodian people want the international community to help is because the government side has weapons, but the opposition side has no weapons.

“The situation around my house, people have the same ideas as me,” Phang Sokhom continues, clutching her black handbag and hunching her shoulders next to a market wall between clothing shops. “People want demonstrations against the government to get democracy. Some people cry because they didn’t get democracy.”

The anger, the frustration, the disgust in her voice surface elsewhere throughout the market, where vendors left Sunday when CPP and opposition protesters clashed in the surrounding streets. On Monday, crowds gather to bellow about politics. Some speak openly, announcing their names with a little coaxing; others refuse, citing fear of retribution from CPP market owners.

(Indeed, Ly Ra, a 25-year-old CPP security guard peering over a second-floor balcony with a machine gun slung across his left shoulder confirms this. “I’m not afraid because I have a weapon and because I’m CPP. The owner of the market is CPP.”)

“The market vendors, we have no right to talk about politics,” says Narom, a second-floor cloth seller whose shop emits the vibrancy of Khmer silk. “I would like the international community, the USA, the UN to help Cambodia as soon as possible…. There is no way to work with Hun Sen. People here don’t believe him anymore. They’ve lived with him for 20 years.” She insists the second prime minister will not allow democracy. “No way.”

But what is democracy?

“Democracy is: The people should have the right to talk, the right to do what they want, the right not to be scared,” the crowd clogging a narrow aisle choruses in agreement.

Experts spell out democracy in precise ways: It’s a mixture of rights and freedoms. It includes free speech; a free press; the right to form political parties; regular free, fair and credible elections; a transfer of power after the elections; separation of power within the government; tolerance and perhaps, most importantly, rule of law.

And that, many people say, Cambodia lacks. “The missing link, and this is very important, is the legal vacuum. Civil society cannot develop in a legal vacuum,” says Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. “We need to ensure political will that Cambodia moves toward a state of law. Rule of law, not rule of man. What we have in Cambodia is more a rule of man. That is a setback to democracy. That is a stumbling block.”

Furthermore, says Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a living, working democracy must start with a society that embraces democratic values. That means tolerating differing views. That means accepting all people as equal. “We need to internalize the concept,” he says. “We are equal human beings.”

Cambodians relish the thought of a day when that happens.

Kep Chanto, acting deputy director of the Cambodia Academy of Business Studies a block from the US Embassy, closed his school last week while demonstrators converged in the streets. “Our students, they kept trying to come to school, but we told our students, ‘Please go home,’ because we cannot protect them,” he says Monday. He speaks safely inside his cement building behind an iron gate just hours before a police officer opened fire into a crowd of protesters less than a block away.

Kep Chanto can’t and won’t predict the future; he doesn’t discuss politics with his students— “We keep silent about politics. We teach only English and business.”—but he exudes optimism for political negotiations and peace.

He ends most sentences with, “I hope, I hope…”


Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Kep Chanto expresses hope in 1998 just as countless others have for decades before him. Cambodians and historians alike know that Khmer people have long awaited, prayed for, anticipated change.

In his book “Cambodian Diary: A Long Road to Peace,” Jacques Bekaert writes in 1987 of a country “weary of a hopeless existence.”

On May 28, 1990, he writes, “After all, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. But what about the tunnel itself? How long is it? Most Cambodia watchers seem to believe it is still fairly long.”

Then again, a month and a half later, he writes: “There is little good news coming from Cambodia these days. And if there is a light at the end of the tunnel, never before has the tunnel appeared so long.”

Eight years and two elections later, Cambodians still wait. But that, scholars say, is the nature of democracy.

“Cambodians should understand that democracy is a long process. It’s a time-consuming process,” says Kao Kim Hourn. “People have high expectations. They’re frustrated. But the thing is, it’s normal in society. No one expects the road to democracy is going to be easy, is going to be speedy, is going to be smooth, is going to be less painful. People forgot that democratic countries took years, they took centuries to be where they are today.”

Historian Craig Etcheson agrees. “I think that democracy is a process, not a destination,” he says via e-mail from the US. “Cambodian political culture is fundamentally feudal in structure, and this is one of the biggest obstacles which Cambodia has to overcome before it can become more fully democratic.

“This kind of transformation does not take place over the course of an election, or two, or several. It is a generational process.”

He says many Cambodians know the struggle it takes for democracy to permeate society. “I recall that before the 1993 elections, I visited Rattanak Mondul district of Battambang province, right on the front lines of the confrontation between the Khmer Rouge and the government,” he says. “There I interviewed a group of [Internally Displaced People] about how they viewed the upcoming Untac election. What did they want from the election, I asked them. They said they hoped that the election would bring them ‘good government.’ What would make a good government, I asked them. One woman replied, a good government is a government that does not abuse us, that gives us our land back, and that allows us to earn a living. I thought that was an excellent definition.

“Then I asked the group, do you expect that you will get good government from the election? And they all started laughing, as if they thought I was a complete idiot to ask such a silly question.

“The Cambodian people understand more about the nature of democracy, and about the realities of politics in Cambodia, than many people give them credit for.”

Shedding the Past

Many Cambodians also realize that people must first erode the country’s undemocratic structure before a democracy can rise in its stead.

Historian David Ashley points out that elections rarely suppress “despotic” or “dictatorial” regimes because “a truly dictatorial regime will ensure that any elections are organized in such a way that they’re either certain to win, or that the results can be ignored, or that their power is so entrenched that it doesn’t really matter if they win or lose…. If the judiciary, military, police, bureaucracy all belong to the ruling party, then if the ruling party wins, it enjoys total power and if it loses, it can still ensure that all its fundamental interests are protected.

“This is the reason why the protesters in Phnom Penh can claim to be democratic yet reject the results of the elections.”

He further explains that elections will solve political conflicts only if the country’s institutions and customs protect the loser and, at the same time, allow the winner to proceed with a new government. This was not the case in July’s elections which, he says, predictably spawned further conflict.

“The stakes become too high for any party to agree to lose…. Moreover, the inevitably competitive aspect of any election gets out of hand when the parties approach the elections with their mutual animosity and suspicion, not to mention their weapons, intact.

“If the international community had really wanted to transform the military conflict in Cambodia into a democratic, political one…then they should have taken steps to put in place the necessary preconditions for the elections.” He reiterates the conditions of a democracy: free press, rule of law, separation of powers, neutral army and police, peaceful transfer of power.

But instead, Cambodia’s quest for democracy has turned to the streets, where students, monks and other disgruntled citizens proclaim their will to keep on fighting. The conflict touches most everyone: From vendors who lose money to mothers who lose sleep to protesters who lose their lives.

Seng Bunthon, a 44-year-old police officer, sits on a stone bench near the Independence Monument, watches for protesters and talks of his tiring job. “In the past two weeks, I’ve had no time to rest. Sometimes I have no rice to eat—too busy.” With a two-way radio in his left hand and a pistol on his right hip, he explains that breaking up the demonstrations is his public duty. “I sometimes get angry with demonstrators,” he says, but “this is my job.”

He says he works as he was trained, giving little thought to the weapons he has and sometimes uses: the pistol, an electric stick, a police baton. “I carry the gun for defense. Sometimes the demonstrators throw stones…I feel worried, too.”

Though the demonstrations have waned in recent days, many say the spirit and the memory have not. And some say the protests are of paramount importance in Cambodia’s long road to democracy.

To wit, Etcheson points out that casualties from recent weeks linger far below previous Cambodian conflicts—a significant sign of progress. “We should recall that in the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ 20 years ago, an average of more than 10,000 people died horribly in each and every week of that insane three-year, eight-month and 20-day regime. Fifteen years ago, at the height of Cambodia’s civil war…it seems likely that more than 10,000 people died violently each year. In the 1993 Untac election, UN officials said that about 200 people were killed in the 10 weeks before the election, while this time around, UN officials say that the number of politically motivated killings in the 10 weeks before the election was ‘fewer than half a dozen.’

“It is clear that Cambodia has been, and remains, a violent place,” he says, but “the cycle of violence” seems to be declining.

For someone like Lao Mong Hay, who builds a career on the hope of democracy in Cambodia, the sight of thousands of hopefuls weaving through Phnom Penh’s streets is a fortuitous mark on Cambodian history.

He describes watching such a march gain momentum Sunday as perhaps 2,000 people waving flags and peace branches strode and motoed along, while early-evening clouds shrouded the city. “You can see crowds of people coming out from their shops and houses—old and young,” he says. “I was so moved, I was in fact in tears.”

He knows the struggle isn’t over. “I would think this is the tip of the iceberg.”

(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Kimsan Chantara)




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