In Cambodia, a battle for democracy, inclusiveness

Earlier this month, when a municipal court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh found Opposition leader Kem Sokha guilty of treason and sentenced him to a 27-year prison sentence, the international community and rights groups were quick to condemn the move.

The U.S. said it was “deeply troubled” by the conviction of the “respected leader”. Terming the ruling “politically motivated”, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global rights watchdog, said it was based on “bogus charges”. Cambodia’s general elections are scheduled to be held in July this year. Incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will seek another term in the coming election, has remained in the position for nearly 40 years.

Vanishing space

In addition to democratic freedoms, inclusive development that speaks to people’s needs will be imperative for the country’s progress, local activists note. Reeling under the lingering impact of Pol Pot’s dictatorship, and the cycles of war which officially ended in 1991, the Southeast Asian country, home to over 17 million people, is struggling to elevate its economy from a lower-income status.

But the ruling establishment appears to regard democracy as dispensable, be it in governance or development, community leaders observe with concern. “It is just impossible to access credible data in the official records, there is no transparency. Journalists are afraid to take on the government or the Prime Minister, because of repression,” a senior journalist, who is also part of a professional free media network, said. In a move that drew much criticism from rights defenders last month, Mr. Hun Sen ordered the closure of ‘Voice of Democracy’, a prominent local radio station, for allegedly criticising his son in a story.

Under threat

If democracy is under threat, it is not as if the government’s development agenda is speaking to people’s immediate needs, according to locals. And in this context, the spotlight on Chinese investment in Cambodia is growing. The scenic coastal town of Sihanoukville is a clear case in point. A brand-new 187-km-long expressway, built with a Chinese investment of $2 billion, connects the port town with capital Phnom Penh, reducing travel time by more than half, to just about two hours. Part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the road was opened late last year.

Beginning 2017, the port town saw a casino boom, as authorities pushed investment to develop the area as a tourists’ hotspot. Chinese businessmen, in turn, saw huge potential for investment. Chinese money, and workers flowed in as online gambling picked up rapidly. In an abrupt policy shift in August 2019, the Cambodian government banned online gambling, amid growing reports of criminality and human trafficking. The ban left scores of Cambodians jobless.

Further north, in the city of Siem Reap, the second largest after the capital, tourism is seeing a revival after the pandemic. Visitors throng the iconic Angkor Wat temple complex, where India is currently involved in restoring its stunning 12th century sites. Locals, however, are preoccupied with the environmental impact of development around the Mekong River irrigating the region.

Along with its tributaries, the Mekong meets over 75 % of Cambodia’s protein requirements and irrigates the rice-eating country’s primary paddy cultivation belt. “With more hydropower dams coming up and developmental activity accelerating, we see a sharp drop in our fish catch. Crop yields are affected, because of frequent flooding, and the livelihoods of farmers and fisher folk are under serious threat,” said a community leader, working on livelihood support in the region.

The international gaze on Cambodia is centred on Chinese investment. Locals appear more concerned about unbridled development that is detached from people’s needs, than about who backs it. India, which is currently engaged mostly in technical training and livelihood support, could do more to support local entrepreneurship, a youth activist noted. “But more importantly, India must help promote democracy within Cambodia,” he said. “Without democratic freedoms, the government’s development initiatives cannot reach our people.”

(The writer was part of a recent study tour to Cambodia organised by the The East–West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Citing frequent crackdowns, local activists requested that their names be withheld.)