What Cambodia Needs is a Thriving Democracy

The Khmer Times, 29 May 2017

For Cambodia, democracy was hard-earned. Democracy, which is now thriving, is the happy ending after decades of civil war and armed conflict.
Cambodians from all walks of life are fully aware of the value of democracy.
With a collective, genuine political will to end conflict and tremendous international support to build peace through democracy, Cambodia was able to organise a general election in 1993 with the participation of all political parties except the Khmer Rouge faction.
Since then elections have been held regularly, with the participation of many political parties and support from the international community. The local elections, commonly known as the commune council elections, were held for the first time in 2002.
There is no such a thing as a perfect democratic system, even in the United States.
Democratisation is a journey that requires participation from all stakeholders. Cambodian society, after more than two decades of experimenting with democracy, has embraced democratic values.
Notwithstanding a volatile political environment, Cambodia’s democracy has proven resilient and is potentially a role model of democracy in the Mekong region if it can gradually consolidate its democratic institutions.
Cambodia has the youngest population in Southeast Asia – more than 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30.
These young people are demanding better governance, better respect of democracy and human rights and better livelihoods. Their values and expectations are different from their parents’ generations.
Based on this demographic factor, Cambodian democracy will prevail. No force is strong enough to destroy such intrinsic democratic values, which is now deeply integrated into Cambodia’s social and political system.
Although there have been some missteps and backsliding, democratisation in Cambodia has been evolving in a positive way. Compared with other countries in the region, democratic actors such as political parties, civil society and the media in Cambodia are quite vibrant.
These political actors will prevent the country from falling back into the darkest part of its recent history. Power checks and balances are improving, although there are remaining obstacles and structural constraints.
Institution building and the leadership of political parties have been strengthened. The political playing field has been gradually equalised, at least at the grassroots level.
The political parties share the common vision that is to sustain peace and development, they need to strengthen the democratic institutions.
Another political actor is civil society organisations. Thousands of local and international NGOs are actively working on a wide range of issues from human rights and democracy to climate change and local community development.
Both traditional and non-traditional media have markedly contributed to political debates, helped keep the power of the government in check and pressured political leaders to be more accountable.
The main issue facing Cambodian democracy, however, is its enduring political distrust, which leads to misunderstandings and, sometimes, violence.
To build political trust, the political parties must convene dialogue at all levels. They must learn to accept criticism and opposing views and agree to disagree, which is all part of building a healthy culture in a democratic system.
Win-win cooperation between the two main political parties – the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – is essential.
They must put national interests above an interest groups.
The political and social polarisation, which is unfortunately taking place, is another potential threat to the foundations of democracy. The media – both traditional and new media – has a key, responsible role to assuage social and political differences and tensions.
If the current generation of leadership from both political parties cannot build trust, the future generation of leadership has the responsibility to do so given there is no better alternative to maintaining peace and stability besides forging political reconciliation and national unity.
Reducing the elite-grassroots divide is critical to safeguarding and consolidating democracy.
Grassroots democracy, a democracy driven by grassroots communities, and elitist democracy, a democracy that is driven by elites, need to go hand in hand.
Now it seems the former has outpaced the latter.

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