Cambodia: Time for Transformation?
A strong showing for Cambodia's opposition in Sunday's election suggests a rekindling of democratic hopes in the country. Commentators have suggested that increasing numbers of young voters - a networked and Facebooked post-war generation - have swung the vote away from the authoritarian Cambodian People's Party for the first time in a decade.
However, the CPP has never enjoyed the overwhelming majorities that governments in neighboring Malaysia or Singapore are used to. It is the CPP's landslide win in the 2008 election - at the height of a boom, against a divided opposition, and with a border dispute with Thailand threatening to break into warfare - that was unusual. Aside from that election, the voters have always been fairly evenly split between pro- and anti-CPP blocs.
The reason for this is that the postwar settlement in Cambodia, ushered in by a United Nations peacekeeping mission, has divided Cambodia into a nation of haves and have-nots. The country's economic reconstruction has been achieved through wholesale privatization of land, water, forests and fisheries, minerals, beaches and other resources. Since the free-market reforms that preceded the UN peacekeeping mission, the majority of the population, which engages in labor intensive and low-tech forms of rice farming for survival, has seen their access to resources such as water, timber, fish and fertilizer sharply restricted.
At the same time, a series of land laws has not resulted in security of land tenure for many Cambodians. Land disputes remain a major source of social discontent, especially in border areas where military units sustain claims to large areas of land previously used for bases or maneuvers, and in urban areas where rapidly increasing property values have led to violent evictions of urban poor communities.
At the same time, inadequate health services prompt the poor to sell land to pay for medical care, and a corrupt judiciary invariably finds for the richer party in land disputes. Because of these factors, inequality in landholdings, negligible in the late 1980s when Cambodia emerged from a socialist regime, has become one of the most skewed in Asia.
As in the former Soviet Union, free market reforms in Cambodia have produced a class of wealthy and politically influential Cambodian tycoons. Many of the most powerful initially made their fortunes from state-awarded monopolies over import and export of goods such as petrol, pharmaceuticals and luxury liquor brands. They currently benefit from a development strategy that has seen millions of hectares of land awarded to developers for establishing plantations, displacing local people and ignoring customary rights to resources.
In return, wealthy businessmen sponsored ruling party campaigns. In the 1990s, this included military campaigns against the insurgent Khmer Rouge and against the royalist party that won the UN-organized election but whose leader was ousted by a coup in 1997. More recently, tycoons have sponsored development drives in which CPP assistance for local development projects - roads, irrigation schemes and schools - is awarded in return for voter support at the polls. These development drives involve regular visits by members of the CPP party hierarchy to Cambodian village to spend time with village leaders and notables, and formal ceremonies in which villagers are expected to come and show their gratitude for the party's generosity.
This development strategy has been very effective in producing a climate of surveillance and co-optation in villages, where nobody wants to be branded a rebel for fear of losing access to the goods on offer. In impoverished communities, loss of support from village leaders and exclusion from the benefits of development can be a matter of life and death. Discussion of the source of this wealth - in the mass privatization of resources previously freely accessed by the poor - is strictly taboo.
Yet Cambodians have continued to protest whenever they are able. They protest against evictions, corruption, dispossessions and abuse of power. In 2012, 232 people were arrested for protesting over land rights in Cambodia, and one environmental activist was murdered. In the garment factories, which employ 300,000 young women for some of the lowest wages in Asia, and produce Cambodia's major manufactured export, unions organize in the face of continued discrimination and abuse, and strikes are frequent.
And in national elections, a hard core of support has continued to vote for an opposition whose leaders have been repeatedly vilified in pro-CPP media, prosecuted, intimidated and exiled.
The question for Cambodia, however, is whether votes for the opposition can produce change. The state apparatus and military are all staunchly CPP. The opposition coalition is led by one former Finance Minister who in his brief spell in office attempted genuinely but unsuccessfully to combat corruption, and a former human rights activist. Perhaps these two can muster sufficient political influence to inspire Cambodia's weak anti-corruption regime and prompt some improvement in Cambodia's weak and politicized judiciary.
But it is hard to gauge from opposition party pronouncements how they might produce a development strategy for Cambodia that would significantly differ from that over which the CPP has presided. In terms of development, Cambodia has simply followed its more advanced South East Asian neighbors in pursuing a strategy of asset stripping the countryside and soaking up the dispossessed rural poor into low-wage manufacturing and services employment in the towns.
Aside from cleaning up law enforcement and improving health and education somewhat, neither the opposition nor any of Cambodia's international donors are advocating anything much different. Chinese demand for commodities combined with the interest of Western pension funds in investing in primary sectors such as rubber and mining in the recent commodities boom entail that inward investment is oriented towards big extractive industries, rather than small scale alternatives.
Regional investment has followed suit, combined with some investment in low-wage manufacturing for brands such as Gap and Disney. This suits the Cambodian tycoons, no matter who runs the government.
The opposition's healthy showing in this election suggests that many Cambodians continue to look for change: but it is not clear that either the Cambodian elite or the outside world will offer them a significant opportunity to achieve it.
(Caroline Hughes is a Professor of Conflict Resolution and Peace at the University of Bradford in the UK)