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Introduction: Cambodia's constitutional challenge

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Dylan Hendrickson, Jeremy Armon and Laura Gibbons introduce the Cambodia issue of Accord, summarising key developments and issues since the 1991 peace settlement.

Dylan Hendrickson, Jeremy Armon and Laura Gibbons introduce the Cambodia issue of Accord. Summarising events since the 1991 peace settlement, they show that violence and intimidation persist, democratisation has been undermined, and the international community has sent mixed messages in support of democracy and constitutionalism.

Introduction: Cambodia's constitutional challenge

Facilitating the transformation of relations between warring parties into a stable institutional framework is perhaps the most difficult aspect of peace interventions. Given the acute differences often outstanding between former enemies, the long-term challenge is to build sustainable political mechanisms which allow rivalry and possible renewed tensions to be channelled in a non-violent manner. This critical process of state- and peacebuilding is one prone to violent setbacks as Cambodia's case illustrates, if adequate external safeguards are not envisaged to keep the process of reconciliation on track.

A kind of democracy

Seven years on from the 1991 political settlement between Cambodia's four warring factions, the country stands at an important crossroads. Recent setbacks in the internationally-inspired peace process, which hinged precariously on the success of its fragile democratic transition, have placed an enormous burden on Cambodians themselves to bring to a close a tragic chapter in their history.

As the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia in the late 1960s, the politically-divided country was launched into a thirty-year period of war and social upheaval during which its people endured genocide, foreign occupation and a series of destructive interventions by the superpowers. Only with the ending of the Cold War were conditions finally ripe for the settlement of the Cambodian conflict. Under intense pressure from their foreign sponsors, Cambodia's four warring factions signed a peace agreement in 1991 which was implemented by an 18-month United Nations peacekeeping mission. Though beset by numerous setbacks, including the 1992 withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge from the peace process, the UN successfully organised elections in 1993 which held open the promise of a return to a semblance of normality for Cambodia.

This was not to be. Cambodians could only stand by as the international community allowed the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to force its way into a power-sharing arrangement with election winners FUNCINPEC, with complete disregard for the spirit of the Paris agreements. Despite early indications that the political arrangement might work, the contradictions of power-sharing in the absence of genuine reconciliation and functioning democratic institutions soon became apparent. By 1997, with the prospect of upcoming elections (scheduled for the following year) and the break-up of the Khmer Rouge rebel movement portending dramatic changes in the balance of power, the coalition began to founder. Tensions erupted violently in July 1997, resulting in the overthrow of Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh (FUNCINPEC) by co-Premier Hun Sen.

International pressure was quickly brought to bear on Hun Sen, facilitating Ranariddh's participation in the July 1998 elections. By then, however, Hun Sen had effectively consolidated almost complete control over the state and the electoral machinery, a situation which did not bode well for a fair result. Despite financing the electoral exercise, the international community failed to establish clear benchmarks against which to assess the credibility of the polling process. Carried out under the shadow of widespread allegations of intimidation and fraud, the elections look set, in line with the 1993 experience, to return a government in which the distribution of power does not reflect the expressed will of the voters.

Although the official results gave Hun Sen and the CPP a relative majority of 41 per cent of the votes, the joint results of the two main opposition parties FUNCINPEC (31 per cent) and the Sam Rainsy Party (14 per cent) were superior to the CPP. But a controversial change in the formula for allocating seats in the National Assembly gave the CPP a majority of 64 seats out of 122. By the end of October 1998, the opposition leaders were still holding out for a role in a future coalition which would reflect the dominant position they believed their parties had earned in the National Assembly. The chances of this being realised looked slim given Hun Sen's control over the government and the Constitutional Council which was officially charged with ruling on the outcome of the elections.

In the absence of strong and autonomous political institutions as called for by the Paris agreements, Cambodians must today face the harsh reality that their peace remains vested in the hands of a small number of political elites. With few legal constraints on their use of power, violence and intimidation have become common currency in the resolution of disputes. Not only has the human cost on an already war-weary nation been huge, but the delicate process of democratisation, ultimately necessary for longer-term peace in Cambodia, has also been seriously undermined.

Building institutional safeguards

The challenge of vesting peace in Cambodia's fledgling democratic political institutions and the obstacles posed by the country's particularly virulent brand of 'winner-take-all' politics form the focus of this issue of Accord. Concentrating primarily on the 1993-98 period, the articles draw upon a wide range of insights from both Cambodians and international commentators alike, the majority of whom have themselves been closely involved in the peace process.

From the start, giving substance to the formal political institutions provided for in both the 1991 Paris agreements and the 1993 Cambodian Constitution was destined to be difficult. Reflecting on the tremendous influence of Cambodia's history and culture on its contemporary political landscape, David Chandler's Cambodia's historical legacy highlights how the disregard for constitutional constraints on the exercise of their power puts some of Cambodia's present leaders in line with many of the country's past rulers. Similarly, the absence of a popular inclination to challenge Cambodia's strict patterns of hierarchy and personalised rule militates against a deepening of political accountability in the near future.

Despite this historical legacy, huge expectations were created by UNTAC's arrival in Cambodia in 1991. David Ashley's Between war and peace highlights that behind the façade of democracy erected with international support, real power remains in the hands of Cambodia's political elites. The unique political compromise which emerged from the 1993 elections provided for the two co-Prime Ministers to divide power 'equally' between them, though this did not so much foster national reconciliation as a division of the state between two competing power bases. Cambodia's political stability after 1993 was thus hostage to a political process which neither encouraged debate nor compromise and which became the inevitable victim of its own weak democratic foundations.

In Cambodia's agonising quest, Lao Mong Hay explores the dilemmas of translating the formal system of checks and balances provided for by Cambodia's Constitution into functioning institutions. Key bodies such as the Constitutional Council and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, designed to guarantee a formal separation of power and protect the independence of the judiciary, have never been effectively empowered. In the absence of a functioning rule of law, civil society initiatives have not been well-placed to check or discipline those wielding power.

Mixed messages

Without sustained international pressure after 1993, Cambodia's leadership felt little obligation to give the Constitutional arrangements 'teeth' to limit their own power. Having disengaged to a significant degree from Cambodia's political affairs, the international community was poorly placed to prevent tensions in the coalition from erupting violently in July 1997, much less to respond to them constructively. Although the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) took the lead in seeking to manage the political crisis, Sorpong Peou's Diplomatic pragmatism examines the regional grouping's weakness in light of its lack of political or economic leverage and its longstanding tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of either member or non-member states.

The international community continues to play an important part in determining Cambodia's fortunes, not least through support for the reconstruction process. However, Dylan Hendrickson's Institutions versus personalities suggests that the lack of consensus among international actors on peacebuilding priorities has inevitably strengthened the hand of the country's political personalities. Stability provided by a 'strongman' has become more important for the international community than the democratic character of Cambodia's government. The reluctance of donor countries to explore constructive ways of using the leverage offered by the Paris agreements and their own aid programmes has undermined the ability to influence the democratic transition, in the process undermining its legitimacy.

Given the serious limitations of international peace interventions, this highlights the need for peacebuilding to be better grounded in the local culture. In Steering the Middle Path, Yos Hut Khemacaro suggests that Buddhism's message of non-violence has immense potential to serve as a platform for constructive social and political change in Cambodia today. While Buddhism cuts across the deep political divisions separating Cambodians today, the challenges should not be underestimated. The tradition of peace activism in Cambodia is weak, and sustained support will be essential if local non-governmental capacities to safeguard the peace are to emerge as an important force.

"In a Cambodia that is not a state of law and not a fully-fledged democracy, I have no other choice than to advise the weak to choose a policy that avoids misfortune for the people, the motherland, and themselves". 

King Sihanouk urging the opposition parties to form a coalition government with Hun Sen, October 1998

Insights for peacebuilding

Cambodia's recent setbacks offer a number of lessons for future peacebuilding efforts, not least in relation to the design and follow up to the Paris agreements. The Cambodian experience implies that it would be misleading to interpret the current situation as simply an erosion of what was achieved in 1992/93, and hence overplay the accomplishments of UNTAC. The commentaries on the Paris agreements featured on pages 43-70 point to the failure to ensure an effective transition of power after elections or to identify the key ingredients needed to ensure implementation of the principles embodied in the accord. 

Complex realities

Certain shortcomings of recent interventions by the international community stem from the failure to come to terms with Cambodia's complex political culture. The partisan nature of past external involvement in Cambodia, which was shaped by Cold War politics, still leads to simplistic distinctions between 'communists' and 'democrats' which downplay the difficulties Cambodia's leaders of all political persuasions face in governing. This masks important enduring features of Cambodia's political culture such as the crucial role which structures of loyalty and patronage play in bolstering the personal power of political elites. This contributes to the ease with which self-seeking rulers are able to circumvent constitutional constraints on the abuse of power.

Realistic timeframes

Cambodia's experience challenges assumptions about the pace of institutional change in 'post'-conflict societies. History clearly 'matters' and habits die hard; in the context of the extreme uncertainty surrounding Cambodia's political landscape today, traditional political practices are not amenable to rapid change. The degree and complexity of change needed to 'institutionalise' peace was not sufficiently recognised in the Paris agreements. The emphasis on a short transition period increased the stakes and, ironically, exacerbated rather than mitigated the 'winner-take-all' approach which has long characterised the struggle between Cambodia's factions. The commentaries in this issue underline the need for a longer-term horizon for change and an institutional framework to accommodate it.

'Designing democracy'

Cambodia's experience with power-sharing highlights the danger of assuming that unresolved struggles for political power and dominance can be managed by constitutional design alone. What is the role of a guarantor in a reluctant coalition? Who should assume this role, and for how long? In the absence of a robust civil counterweight to the authority of the state, there is a greater reliance on a sustained international scrutiny and willingness to act where the democratic transition falters. It has been the task of enabling and strengthening its political institutions following the 1991 agreements, in the absence of adequate safeguards to guarantee its peace, which has proved to be Cambodia's most difficult challenge.

Consensus-based intervention

The experience of partisan intervention in Cambodia's war and peace processes illustrates that international support for peacebuilding cannot be effective in the absence of consensus. The country's present dilemma suggests that such consensus must be built around respect for international human rights standards and negotiated with due regard for the principles laid out in the Paris agreements and the 1993 Constitution. A clear message must be sent to transgressors. Democratic transitions are, moreover, long-term projects which take place within specific contexts and as such, require recognition and adaptation to cultural and historical realities. Together, these elements provide the basis of a framework for legitimate international involvement. 

Elections and democratic transition

As an international peacebuilding tool, elections and electoral systems have tremendous potential to effect positive change. Yet the key test of elections is what happens afterwards. International support for elections tends to be largely procedural in nature, not least in Cambodia's case. Ensuring that the results are respected requires a willingness to set clear benchmarks regarding not just the conduct of elections, but also how irregularities are addressed and, most importantly, how the transfer of power occurs. The legitimacy of the democratic process rests with the success of this transition.

The constitutional imperative

The greatest legacy of the international community was the hope for democracy and the knowledge of how it should work. Yet the 1998 elections seemed to show that the 'rules' of the democratic game, as set out in Cambodia's Constitution, were being altered even as Cambodia's new democratic movements were learning to play it. The opposition parties argued that any resolution of the post-election crisis depended on a legitimate adjudication of allegations of electoral fraud by the Constitutional Council as well as the formation of a coalition government in line with constitutional provisions. Yet not only was the international community unwilling to take a strong stand in support of investigations of electoral fraud, but many countries placed immense pressure on the opposition leaders to form a government with Hun Sen.

This presented a real dilemma for Cambodians: at what point does one accept that a constitutional political system is not working and, in the interests of compromise and ending political deadlock, bow down before those wielding power? While critics were quick to attribute the intransigence of Cambodia's opposition parties to their own quest for power and wealth, it seems clear that it is only by challenging breaches of the Constitution that the rule of law can hold sway. This is the first step in attenuating Cambodia's destructive brand of power politics and forming a government which can claim real democratic legitimacy.