After the Election is Before the Election: Cambodia’s Election and the Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

By Alexandra Amling

Justice has come a long way in Cambodia. Whether one is a victim of the Khmer Rouge, land grabbing, forced eviction or arbitrary detention and violence by police forces, it all lead’s to  Cambodia’s troubled past which resulted in the one-party rule of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which leaves no room for greater civil society participation and open discourse. His total disregard for the opposition’s complaints and frustration and his willingness to rule without consent has culminated in widespread violence in post-election Cambodia in the past couple of weeks.

In fact, Cambodia has all the ingredients for a toxic cocktail of instability and fragmentation: Capital flight, no middle class with purchasing power, fragmentation within its party, aid dependency, disenfranchised youth in desperate need of higher wages and job prospects, a growing number of HIV/AIDS orphans, land grabbing, a growing sex industry in which poverty feeds the human-trafficking machine, an ever-growing garment industry whose only incentive is to perpetuate cheap low-skilled labor, and international condemnation for post-election violence, corruption, and an apparent lack of support for the war crimes tribunal display the reciprocal relationship between direct and structural violence which has been a reality for Cambodian society for decades.

What is worrisome is that some aspects of the current situation are reminiscent of Cambodia’s violent past. Societal, economic, and political disenfranchisement was pivotal for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. This is not to downplay the role of the U.S. in Cambodia but to this day, power relations are defined along the lines of patron-client mechanisms, which has made nepotism a systemic problem and (again) allows for a small elite to rule and benefit from the economy. Cambodia has become entrapped in a vicious downward spiral of foreign aid dependency and labor market demands which ostensibly promote structural adjustments for the betterment of Cambodia but societal cohesion is limited to the extent that the government feels responsible for its citizens. The vertical fragmentation has gradually led to a horizontal fragmentation, eroding the base for a social equilibrium in which civil society can gain back public spaces. The social fabric has to succumb to a network of government officials and private capital affiliated with Hun Sen, who is determined to stay in power until he turns 74.

The narrow but common view of elections as an all-time remedy for post-war reconstruction neglects the fact that social injustice does not end with the end of physical violence. Conflicts of interests are still prevalent in modern Cambodia and the dominance and almighty power of Hun Sen and his entourage is proof of that. His gloomy evocation of a return to Khmer Rouge-like violence and civil war demonstrates ignorance of Cambodia’s economic hardship and problematic coming to terms with the past which he himself has tried to torpedo in the past. A chronically underfunded tribunal and elections alone will not bring justice to Cambodia.