Political Development and the Re-Emergence of Civil Society in Cambodia

By Downie, Sue; Kingsbury, Damien | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2001 | Go to article overview
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Political Development and the Re-Emergence of Civil Society in Cambodia

Downie, Sue, Kingsbury, Damien, Contemporary Southeast Asia

Since the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia organized multi-party elections in 1993, there had been a gradual shift away from various authoritarian forms of government towards limited political development. Setbacks in this political development included the Cambodian People's Party asserting itself in government between 1993 and 1998 despite holding fewer seats than FUNCINPEC. Secondly, the government demonstrated it had not separated powers nor embraced respect for human rights, and continued to use violence or military rather than civil means for conflict resolution. This last point was illustrated by the March 1997 grenade attack and the July 1997 fighting between the two parties. However, the 1998 multi-party elections and the growth of civil society indicate that there has been noticeable political development in Cambodia.


It has been more than seven years since the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) ended the single-party political system in Cambodia, beginning what was then hoped would be a democratic process. The People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), renamed the State of Cambodia (SOC) in 1989, had been run by the communist-inspired Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and its "conventional" communist predecessor since the "radical" communist Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979. The May 1993 UNTAC-organized elections were contested by twenty political parties, of which the royalist FUNCINPEC party won 45 per cent of the vote but, as required under the Constitution, shared power with the CPP (which secured 38 per cent of the vote) to form the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC).

During the RGC, Cambodia took the first steps down the long road to becoming a representative democracy, with the re-emergence of civil society contributing significantly to this. However, politically-inspired violence, the lack of respect for human rights and for differences of opinion, and the arbitrary exercise of power, particularly the continued culture of impunity, remained key challenges to Cambodia's political development.

Advances in political development in Cambodia can be illustrated by two anecdotes. At a good governance conference in Phnom Penh in 2000, when the Defence Ministry spokesman made what was regarded by some as a meaningless speech, a woman from the audience stood up and said: "What you just said is rubbish. I saw the car you drove up here in. Where did you get the money for that?" Five years ago, "good governance" was barely on the agenda, conferences where people spoke critically rather than in support were rare, and it was unheard of for a woman to stand up to a military general in front of 250 people. The second illustration came from Kao Kim Hourn, Director of the Cambodian Institute for Co-operation and Peace (CICP), which organized a series of roundtable seminars on good governance with 60-70 participants. He has observed: "When we started the roundtables no one would ask questions or make comments; now everyone wants to talk and they get angry when they don't have an opportunity." [1]

Since 1993, Cambodia has undergone radical changes by moving from war to peace, from single- to multi-party elections, from a repressive to an open society, and from economic underdevelopment to the beginnings of economic development. There has also been notable progress in political development, especially the re-emergence of civil society, which began in a meaningful way during the UNTAC period (1992-93), and by 2000 had gained considerable strength. Several factors contributed to this, including UNTAC itself, the 1993 Constitution, external assistance, and the end of the fighting. This article will assess the extent of political development in Cambodia, primarily since 1993, and identify factors that have limited that process.

When considering the extent of political development, one has to initially consider what sort of political society Cambodia had prior to 1993, and what its major influences were.

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