It is early evening and Phnom Penh’s open-air riverside bars are filled with well-heeled tourists, sharply-dressed business types and trendy proponents of the city’s newly minted middle class. The vista from their terraces is soothing: small freighters and fishing boats chugging gently upriver, or drifting silently downstream, and saffron-clad monks or young lovers strolling the banks of the Mekong.
But this tranquil, prosperous atmosphere is deceiving. The United Nations’ sponsored experiment with an imposed democracy in the 1990s has proven a dismal failure, instead Cambodia has reverted to a kleptocratic oligarchy whose ambitions threaten catastrophe, in a country all too familiar with the premise.
“Before we had the Khmer Rouge, now we have the Khmer Riche,” says Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst who has advocated representative government for 30 years. A small, quietly spoken man, his candour is unusual in a country shrouded by fear, where a reference to politics can stop a conversation in its tracks.