Those who remember say it thundered and rained in Cambodia on the morning of May 23, 1993. But the day cleared, grew hotter and then humid as the UN voting booths opened for Cambodia’s first ever multi-party democratic elections.
Like the rain showers, there were some outbreaks of violence.
But not enough to jeopardize the vote as millions of Cambodians showed up and queued enthusiastically at the polls to choose a government.
Organized by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the election was described as a success despite political machinations after the results were announced.
Untac had spent more than $2 billion on an election that largely put to rest the worst of decades of conflict in Cambodia.
The 10th anniversary of the Untac election slipped by last month largely unnoticed amid the political jockeying and mud-slinging ahead of the July 27 general election.
With just weeks until polling day, Prime Minister Hun Sen has undertaken marathon visits of rural Cambodia to remind the population of the progress they have seen since an earlier version of his CPP took power in 1979.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh have joined the campaign trail, but their message is more about the failings of the CPP and the bright future that would be bestowed upon those who votes for change.
Hun Sen’s critics have a list of complaints,
Despite the annual injection of vast sums of donor assistance and loans over the past 10 years, Cambodia’s economy remains on tender hooks and poverty levels are more akin to the least-developed African nations than a member of the Asean club, the critics say.
The billions of dollars in aid money, given to the government as an encouragement to reform, have so far failed to buy positive changes in the judicial system or tackle the endemic levels of corruption in society, they claim.
On Cambodia’s horizon, challenging economic hurdles loom while at the same time other, more needy countries are taking attention away from Cambodians.
Government officials and key donors disagree and say great strides have been made and a decade is not yet long enough to judge the government’s performance.
But with just two months to the country’s third general election, questions are being raised about Cambodia’s decade of experimentation with democracy.
“The  elections, undoubtedly, were a magical success for Untac and initially succeeded in creating a pleasant illusion of democracy in Cambodia,” David Roberts writes in his 2001 book, “Political Transition in Cambodia 1991-1999.”
Charting the currents in Cambodian politics between the years building up to the 1993 election and the year after the 1998 election, Roberts claims the core values of Cambodia’s political culture contrast starkly with the model of Western liberal democracy that Untac promised.
The transition of power resulting from Funcinpec’s victory in the 1993 election was quickly challenged by Hun Sen’s CPP, which was reluctant to hand over power.
Possible disaster was averted in the short term by a power-sharing agreement with Prince Ranariddh as first premier and Hun Sen as second premier.
Despite Hun Sen’s semantically lowered status, the CPP effectively retained control of all aspect of government until the co-prime ministers’ arrangement was annulled when the prince was ousted by Hun Sen in bloody factional fighting in 1997.
Roberts claims that power sharing is scorned in Cambodia because it weakens links between patrons and clients, a system of back scratching at the foundation of political life and power in Cambodia.
“As long as no alternative to patronage exists to distribute largesse and wealth, jobs and favors, rewards and gifts, the socio-economic model and the politics that succor it and derive from it are unlikely to be changed significantly,” Roberts stated.
Cambodia’s track record since 1993 was also recently used by some as justification to keep the UN out of US government plans for rebuilding Iraq.
“A sample of what Iraq might face under the UN, we could look at Cambodia. It was a liberated dictatorship when the UN took over in 1992, and it’s only marginally better off today,” Canada’s National Post newspaper said in an April editorial.
Former US presidential contender Senator John McCain also took wide, if somewhat inaccurate, swings at Cambodia and the UN while the war in Iraq was still underway.
“Let me remind you in Cambodia, the UN ran a $3 billion operation and then accepted a bad guy who didn’t win the election who later became president,” he told US cable channel MSNBC. McCain made similar a attack in an interview on another US cable channel, Fox Television News.
Criticism of areas that the government has not yet reformed should not overshadow the government’s successes, said Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen.
“As you know, we do not only do one thing. There are a lot of things to [reform],” he said.
The government has demobilized thousands of soldiers, reformed the economy and undertaken administrative reforms—the commune elections being the main example of the government’s efforts to decentralize decision making, he said.
Claims by the opposition that the country is not democratic do not stand up to scrutiny either, Om Yentieng said.
“[Cambodia] has freedom of expression. [Critics] can say what they want to say. People even have the right to say something that is contrary to the truth,” he said.
“[Critics] have not looked in every nook and cranny. If Cambodia is like the reports that are written, Cambodia would be in hell,” Om Yentieng said.
There are many indications of a “budding civil society” in Cambodia, yet “Cambodian democracy often seems like an abstraction,” Evan Gottesman writes in his recently published “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge. Inside the Politics of Nation Building.”
“Cambodia’s leaders have accepted a new level of political discourse, to be sure, but they do so only to the extent that it does not jeopardize their power,” writes Gottesman.
The changes Cambodia has undergone in the past decade, however, should not be seen as the leadership’s commitment to democracy “but as a new lever of patience and indulgence,” he claims.
Foreign advisers and diplomats “find that it is easier simply to support the government financially while eliciting a general and superficial allegiance to political and economic principles than it is to influence how the country actually operates,” Gottesman adds.
Critics should never lose an “historical perspective” when discussing Cambodia’s development, says Urooj Malik, country representative of the Asian Development Bank.
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed Cambodian socially and economically and the country suffered a second tragedy as a result of international isolation that continued until the UN-brokered peace settlement in late 1991.
Peace in the countryside has only been achieved since 1998, and major infrastructure projects are now underway, particularly repairs to the country’s road network that will one day be “corridors for development” linking Cambodia with neighboring countries.
Commenting on progress in the past decade, Malik says that much has been achieved and more needs to be done in crucial areas.
“[Now] you have to deepen the discussion on certain complex and sensitive issues. You have to inculcate in the minds of some the principles of good governance and the benefits from good governance,” says Malik.
Donor assistance enables the government to govern well, while at the same time “cajoles” reform in areas where donors want to see change.
“There are gains to be achieved on both sides, that [public servants] are cajoled to works targeting the poor and transparency in public transaction,” he says. The benefits for public servants and the government in a democracy is that a content population will vote to keep them in office, he says.
“That is the manner in which you tinker with the institutions that you help, to inculcate better procedures, principles and practices and you monitor, to the extent you can, to ensure that money is being used where it is supposed to go,” he says.
Malik recognizes that some areas of reform have been slower than desired, particularly the passage of an anti-corruption law, legal and judicial reform, the implementation of the procurement sub-decree and public administration reform.
But solutions to such problems are not simple in a country were official’s state salaries are not enough to survive on, says Malik.
“Anti-corruption is a complicated issue. What do you do? Do you take it head on and talk about people who are corrupt? Or do you actually build institutions of accountability and empower them and give them the protection they deserve, give them the incentives to work properly?” he asks.
“But I also ask the question, in many of the developed countries how long did it take to develop a court system?” he adds.
Economy wise, Cambodia needs to end smuggling, collect taxes and to invest in small and medium enterprise and diversify its agro-industry sector, he says.
Fruit juices, fisheries, the country’s rubber crop could be growth areas, and employers of future generations of Cambodians, says Malik. He notes that other countries in the region have been successful in their bids to develop.
“It will not be an easy task to raise the standard of living…. But I believe this country has potential,” says Malik, adding that it is Cambodia’s increasingly educated youth where the future lies.
But some believe Cambodia does not have the leisure of waiting another generation to tackle looming problems.
Cambodia’s economy has grown steadily over the past decade, while inflation has stayed low and the rate of exchange between the riel and the dollar remain on an even keel, despite small seasonal fluctuations.
However, the seemingly healthy state of national economic indicators have only patched over what is in fact a house built without solid financial foundations, claims Kang Chandararot, economist with the Cambodia Development Resource Institute.
Cambodia’s national currency, the riel, is used only for small transactions and the US dollar, though officially the country’s second currency, is unofficially the primary unit of monetary exchange for most of the nation.
Cambodia’s highly dollarized economy and government policies that have focused on promoting Foreign Direct Investment to the neglect of local, small and medium-sized investors, are time-bombs at the heart of the national economy, Kang Chandararot says.
“We are still facing dollarization, which makes [an] economy without financial basis,” he says.
The trouble will start when the foreign dollars that power the economy become scarce, says Kang Chandararot noting the tremors of such a situation were already felt by the impact of the severe acute respiratory syndrome on the once thriving Southeast Asian tourism industry.
Cambodia’s largest foreign exchange earner and single biggest employer, the garment industry, is also under the gun as preferential trade agreements with the US draw to a final close on Jan 1, 2005.
Kang Chandararot’s gloomy predictions see diminishing foreign investment followed by unemployment, which in turn forces an increasingly desperate population toward the “black economy.”
“If [the government] does not focus on domestic engines of growth, I foresee unemployed people, poor people, social problems,” said Kang Chandararot, adding that the sum total will be “higher dependency on the assistance of outside countries.”
Kang Chandararot says the answer is to de-dollarize the economy and promote the riel.
“If Cambodia’s economy remains the same structurally, financially…the economy will remain fragile and [that] looks dark for Cambodia,” he warns.
A second leading economist speaking on condition of anonymity said that much needs to be done to convince people to abandon the dollar, and that will only come with increased confidence in Cambodia and economic growth.
But Southeast Asia, as a region for foreign investment, is petering out and Cambodia must broaden its economic base in agro-industry and small and medium enterprises.
On the bright side, tourism is a growth industry and Cambodia’s record on labor standards may help it retain high-quality garment orders when the US quotas end.
But good governance, ending under the table payments, official taxation and legal protection for businesses need to be addressed if Cambodia is to grow.
“You can’t do it overnight,” said the economist, but added that it had to be done sooner rather than later.
Based on the criteria used to assess a country’s degree of democratic participation, Cambodia is a free and steadily progressing country, says Dominique McAdams, UN resident coordinator and resident representative of the UN Development Program.
That assessment is based on three main indicators: elections, a multi-party parliamentary system and a free media.
Cambodia held general elections in 1993 and 1998 and a commune election in 2002, and is now preparing for the July 27 general election. The country also has three main political parties and more than 20 smaller parties registered for the July elections.
“So in other words, they have met their commitments,” said McAdams, adding that Cambodia also has a thriving print media.
Other democratic indicators include the presence of hundreds of NGOs, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the government’s commitment to reform in the areas of public administration, civil service, judicial, forestry and macroeconomic reform.
“When it comes to political parties, very frankly, I don’t know any other Asian country that would tolerate the…level of strong words used by the MP Sam Rainsy in his media papers or whatever,” McAdams says.
Cambodia’s economy has seen growth of between 5 and 6-plus percent each year, and Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world that the International Monetary Fund conducts quarterly checks of key financial and economic indicators.
“If each time there is a clearance [from the IMF], who are we to assess that?” she asks.
“So, if you take all this criteria and indicators, the conclusion is, well, the country is on track,” says McAdams. She says Cambodia is one of the few countries where the prime minister sits down with donors at quarterly and annual donor meetings.
That the government may not have performed as well on judiciary reform or the issue of corruption may be the result of an over-ambitious reform agenda, McAdams says.
“We have a 10 year state….It took centuries to build states. So for a 10 year old state I would say it is not bad,” she says, adding that urban Cambodia is hardly recognizable from a decade ago.
Phnom Penh is also a very safe city, unlike Paris or New York where there are neighborhoods that are unsafe to travel in at night, she says.
Those that are criticizing Cambodia need to do more research, says McAdams.
There is a need for judicial reform and for a larger percentage of financial transactions to go through “regulatory frameworks.” But the way to achieve that is to strengthen the systems that exists and put in place mechanisms to limit the risk of abuse, increase capacity, education levels and incentives.
“The role of the development partners is certainly not to make the choice for the country. The role of the development partners is to empower the country so the country can make the right choice,” she says.
“Whatever fantastic law you have, if your population still doesn’t [know] what it means to be equal between men and women, what it mean to have rights…. You will not make any progress,” says McAdams.
“This is a very long undertaking,” she says.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay has a colorful response to those who claim that Cambodians will take many more years to understand democracy.
“It only took a few seconds for Cambodians to use a mobile telephone,” he says.
Son Chhay is blunt: the ruling CPP are not committed to promoting democracy and the UN and foreign countries are not being honest about the situation as regional stability takes precedence over Cambodian democracy.
“Progress has been slow, not because of society, but because of the resistance of the ruling party to move forward,” says Son Chhay, adding that the changes that have occurred were the result of pressure from the opposition, international donors and the country’s membership in regional groupings.
Real reform is not on the CPP’s government agenda, and the same is true of some in the international community who are willing to overlook the corrupt forces at work in Cambodia.
Institutionalized corruption is not only wrong in a poverty stricken country where some 36 percent of the population live on an income equal to less than $1 per day, but its continuation propagates the ruling party’s power base and its ability to dole out gifts at election time, Son Chhay says.
Yet there is a sinister silence from international organizations regarding this situation, he says.
“Before [international organization staff] are appointed, they should have a moral understanding of their jobs,” says Son Chhay. He accuses well-heeled aid workers of thinking more about self comfort than honesty.
Speaking on national radio last month, Hun Sen said certain aspects of the fight against poverty were not yet “satisfactory” but the government’s record on constructing schools, Buddhist pagodas and roads was, so far, acceptable.
Hun Sen also said that his critics should not compare Cambodia to other countries but to the state of the country in 1979 after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I wonder why they say that Cambodia acts for so long [but] keeps getting poorer and poorer,” Hun Sen said.
“If they compare with other countries, that is one thing. But not if they compare with 1979. There was nothing poorer than 1979,” Hun Sen said.
If Cambodia was still poorer than 1979, then even the critics would be dead, Hun Sen said.
Outspoken Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara says it is easy to compare progress with 1979 because “it is very easy to make progress starting from zero.”
Progress, or the lack of progress, in more recent years is what the government should be judged on, says the princess, who characterizes Cambodia as a facade of democracy.
“[Donors] give more and more money without saying what is wrong in the country,” she said, adding “Sure, there is progress compared to 1979. But I notice that the poor are poorer and a very small group are richer and richer. You call that progress?”
“I try to tell the international community that there is not progress, only for the people connected to the ruling CPP,” she says.
Though the international community may have accepted the CPP as a political fait accompli in Cambodia, the princess said that if Hun Sen’s party loses power, diplomats and donors must ensure a peaceful transition.
“I hope the international community keeps and eye on this and tries to do their best to ensure we have no trouble with the CPP,” the princess said.
As the election draws nearer and criticism intensifies, Hun Sen has also told his supporters this week to ignore the “insulting season” and for the military to follow orders even if he is not re-elected.
But Hun Sen may have nothing to worry about.
Research findings released last month reported that optimism and confidence in the country’s leadership is at an all time high among Cambodians.
“The vast majority of Cambodians say the country is headed in the right direction and optimism has spread since 2000,” The Asian Foundation said in a report launched last month following interviews with 1,008 voting-age Cambodians in 24 provinces.
When people were asked in a 2000 survey if they were happy with the direction the country was taking, 72 percent answered yes.
That figure rose to 81 percent in the latest survey.
“The principal reasons for this optimism are development and economic recovery,” the report states.
Probably unsurprisingly to some, the survey also found that the majority of Cambodians surveyed continue to have very limited notions about democracy, how a democracy functions or what it offers them.
According to the The Asia Foundation survey, “voters still view their vote primarily as currency for political patronage.”
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)