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Cambodia - an April Fool's democracy

By Alanta Colley - posted Wednesday, 30 May 2007

In Cambodia, the eve of the election is quietly known as “the night of the barking dogs”. The “dogs”; politicians and their henchmen; make their rounds, dispensing gifts and threats, winning votes through fear and favour.

This year, the night before Cambodia’s April Fool’s Day elections, the dogs barked in unison for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). As the polling booths shut, so did Cambodia’s chance to rid itself of this ex-Khmer Rouge military dictator. Hun Sen and his faction marched to victory with 98 per cent of the vote. The only other “democracy” recorded receiving such compelling voter support for a single party was Iraq, under Saddam Hussein.

The rise and rise of Hun Sen’s Empire marks the fall of the great democratic experiment in Cambodia. The country remains a democracy in name only; a thin shell hiding the power and corruption of the CPP beneath its surface.


Democracy arrived in Cambodia in a blaze of glory in 1992, when 20,000 international soldiers and civilians, under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), descended upon the small Asian country.

The mission was to be an international symbol of the new world order. The Cold War had ended; America's democracy had won over Soviet communism. Cambodia was the lucky recipient of exported democracy - a poultice to assuage the wounds received from years under the bloody Khmer Rouge.

The 1993 election went smoothly and FUNCINPEC (Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant, Neutre, Pacifique, et Coopératif, which translates to "National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia") under Prince Norodom Ranariddh was victorious, receiving over 45 per cent of the vote. The UN, in a celebratory mood packed up and went home, declaring the whole event a great success.

However, under Khmer law, no party could rule with less than a two-thirds majority. Hun Sen’s CPP, which received less than 38 per cent of the vote, threatened a secession of the eastern provinces of Cambodia if Ranariddh did not share the victory. From the days of the Khmer Rouge a faction in the military and many other friends in influential positions in Cambodian society backed Hun Sen. His threats had clout.

FUNCINPEC submitted to a coalition government with the CPP. Cambodia became the only country which could boast not only one, but two prime ministers: First Prime Minister Ranariddh, and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen was later asked to reflect on what UNTAC had brought through their good efforts in Cambodia. He replied simply, “AIDS”. Hun Sen paid no thanks to the UN for their efforts to install democracy in Cambodia.


Since that first election the CPP has tightened its grip on Cambodia. Hun Sen has consolidated his coterie of thugs and villains. Cambodia’s standing army grew and became the largest per capita in the world. Compulsory conscription was introduced for Cambodian men between 18 and 30, and military spending consumed almost half the annual budget. Hun Sen’s faction became an unassailable force inside and outside of Parliament.

With this power, a decade later, Hun Sen set about ironing out the last wrinkles of opposition to his empire.

In 2005 opposition leader Sam Rainsy spoke up in parliament about the CPP’s attempts to assassinate him. The CPP quickly responded by passing a bill retroactively revoking Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity. Hun Sen then issued a $5 million defamation suit against him. Sam Rainsy fled the country, and two of his ministers were imprisoned.

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First published in The Diplomat on May 28, 2007.

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About the Author

Alanta has worked for the past 7 years in community development in Africa, South East Asia and with Aboriginal communities in Australia. Her training is in Public Health and disease prevention, and is particularly focused on gender equality through health. She's dug latrines, inspected mosquito nets, and surprised men's meetings with family planning education. She is simultaneously easily disgruntled and incurably optimistic.

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