Anti-Democratic Politics: Book Review

Posted by: | Posted on: February 28, 2009

Book Review

By Sophan Seng

Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? By Sorpong Peou. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, Hardcover: 573pp.

Recent studies of Cambodia have extensively focused on democracy building including its challenges as a post-conflict country. In 23 October 1991 is considered the significant turning point and it is the renaissance for Cambodia to develop democracy. This date is the Paris Peace Agreement collectively signed. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was appointed as the central body to implement all tasks stipulated by the Paris Peace Agreement. Among those key goals is to neutralize Cambodia’s politics that have been divisive among different political factions and ideologies. Building the capacity for democracy in Cambodia after the Paris Peace Agreement is the main focus written by Sorpong. In order to reflect the reality of democracy development in Cambodia, Sorpong has turned 90 degrees arguments to draw attention by contrasting many different approaches of his thesis. His work is engrossed and erudite through the combination of the topical, analytical, chronological and descriptive approaches. He put effort to justify his book as not substantially based on quantitative or statistic research, but his approach is academically prevalent. He used democracy development as the independent variable and he precisely included Cambodia’s political anti-democratic behavior, internal political structures, and external intervention as the based dependent variables to secure his debate[1].

Sorpong Peou presently is the Associate Professor of Political Science at Sophia University in Japan. He received his PhD in York University from Ontario, Canada. His researches interest is International relations in the Pacific Asia, comparative politics of East Asia, collective human security. His written books focusing on Cambodia potentially reflects his academic background in this area and his nationality as a Cambodian-born Canadian accredits his comprehension on Cambodia issues very well. This book is worthy to read for those who seek to read the academic works from Cambodian scholar writing about Cambodia. Sorpong has numerously written many books about Cambodia such as “Cambodia – The 1989 Paris Peace Conference : Background Analysis and Documents” in 1991, “Conflict Neutralization in the Cambodia War: from Battlefield to Ballot-Box” in 1997, “Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy?” in 2000, “Cambodia: Change and Continuity in Contemporary Politics” in 2001, “International Democracy Assistance for Peacebuilding: Cambodia and Beyond” in 2007, “Human Security in East Asia: Challenges for Collaborative Action” in 2008 and other numerous published articles relating Cambodia. So we can agree that Sorpong has well illustrated his expertise on Cambodia.

The book divides into three important chapters: the analyzing on different political structures and the nature of anti-democracy by reflecting with different political regime changes and political upheavals of Cambodia, the external intervention to changes in Cambodia from different international political players particularly the United Nations, and the future democratic development in Cambodia through different political myths and premise especially the ongoing trial of few Khmer Rouge leaders. But what I have found is that the author repeatedly narrated the anti-democratic regime of different Cambodian leaders within different political governments. The book sheds light to comprehend the pre-French colonial administration that Cambodia recognized as the oldest country in the region which had experienced its continuity of paternalistic monarchy system. This system was suit well in that period to building the Great Empire. It was totally erupted by the new stronger emerging countries such as Siam and Vietnam. These two countries can dominate Cambodia through their patronage to different Cambodia’s internal royalist rivalries. However, the book didn’t elaborate the administrative structures, the strength and the weakness in this pre-French empire of Cambodia. The author also used other literatures to reflect the influence of French that left disadvantage legacy to easily democratize Cambodia.

Exactly, French didn’t bring any initiative and gut to grant Cambodia the norms of regulatory state. I do agree with the author in this point that French took different approaches comparing with other colonials such as Dutch, England or Japan. These colonial countries didn’t solely bring modernization to their cliental states but they also facilitate legal norms or laws to implement inside those states, according to many literatures. Cambodia is very different; the result from French is just the legacy of cultural survival and nationalism that French tried to embed in Cambodian society. Ultimately, Cambodia can proclaim its status as a nation-state again because of French. But Cambodia has been unluckily absorbed the ideology of nationalism finally led to utra-nationalism like the regime of Pol Pot. French left the legacy of Vietnamese hegemon over Cambodia that has produced endless national sentiment in decades later. The author initially pointed out that the French initiated the plan of farms for industrial rubber plantation, but French employed all Vietnamese workers. Particularly French had no concern to train Cambodian personnel to know the bureaucratic and administrative works beside of allowing many Vietnamese staffs to oversee major administrative bureaucrats.

This French’s legacy should be an essential premise to foresee the latter anti-democratic behaviors of Cambodian political leaders respectively. The authors didn’t directly articulate the prospect of French colony to the democratic shortcoming of latter Cambodia politics, but I am really concerned with the legacy inherited in many post-colonial countries particularly in case of Cambodia. The author has well defined the different political structures of different regimes in Cambodia in the prospect of anti-democratic principles. He calls the regime under King Sihanouk leadership between 1955-1969 as “paternalistic authoritarianism”, the regime under Lon Not leadership between 1970-1975 as the “republican authoritarianism”, the regime under Pol Pot leadership between 1975-1979 as the “revolutionary totalitarianism”, the Vietnam intervention regime under Hun Sen leadership between 1979-1990[2] as the “socialist dictatorship”. The author continues elaborate the regime after the intervention of the United Nations as the “pseudo-democracy”[3] or “neo-authoritarianism” or “Asian-style democracy”. According to the author “pseudo-democracy” is identified with the following factors: the leadership’s claim to be “democratic”, de facto if not one-party domination, regular election-holding, little competition, and mass intimidation (author, pp. 5).

Topically, the author prioritized his central argument in the debate on “power equilibrium” or he likely preferred to call “hurting balance of power” engaged by analysis of different regimes, different political structural approaches, different socio-economic approaches, and different foreign interventions. His concept of Cambodia as a “violence-prone society” caused by “centric-state leadership” and international competition of the cold-war politics arena is exotic, but it is likely scarce of the analysis on the consequences of colonialism. The analytical approach of qualitative study rather than quantitative one of the author is not a mater. Twain’s original dictum “there are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics” (Sophal, Book Review 2007)[4]. In reality, statistics or qualitative study itself cannot ensure its margin of truth. Without literature review, narrative, or qualitative generalization, there would be no quantitative credit. I have no wonder on the author’s effort disclosed many aspects of different regimes in Cambodia which is not prone to democratic development.

But what I am interested to further study in more different approach from the author is to analysis and articulate the post-colonial political legacy of French in Cambodia. The interaction between state and society in Cambodia is anti-democratic inclination. Many leaders in post-colonial Cambodia have copied their leadership styles from generation to generation. Cambodia should not be embedded in the “ingrained culture” of using violence to tackle the problems. But the evidences studied from the Sihanouk leadership, Cambodian first leader after independence, he was tending to use violence anytime to neutralize his political administration through political purging and indulging in self-proclaimed father of the universe. This political leadership has frequently fallen into violence and encouraged Cambodian people to depend their destiny on others. They have been easily embedded to become a patron to the top leaders. Through Sihanouk, to Lon Nol, Pol Pot and incumbent Hun Sen, the political leadership and political behavior has firmly been ingrained in the same characteristic.

Of course, all these constraints, I tend not to criticize any Cambodian political leaders. They are just the inheritance of colonialism. French colonial didn’t pave the foundation for the rule of law and education of modern political knowledge for Cambodians. King Sihanouk himself jumped to play politics by the patronage of French; and he was purely childish/immature politician when he was crowned.

“His confidence in his own ability to rule no doubt came from his traditional belief that he was King, whose word was the law of the land and whose command automatically enjoyed obedience from his subject” (author, pp.80)

French didn’t concern to create proper rules and proper goal helpful for his power management. French nominated him to be a political leader to serve their interest only, and French didn’t structure the sound system for King Sihanouk to lead the country in a strong bureaucratic state manner. It is just the political game to play in a de facto weak management state of Cambodia.


[1] The author just mentioned foreign intervention as an independent variable, but the whole themes of the book should possibly include anti-democratic behavior and internal political structure as independent variables.

[2] I prefer to put this date because in 1991, the Paris Peace Agreement was signed and in 1993 the UNTAC was presented in Cambodia. This date is not dictated by the author.

[3] The author didn’t mention this directly, this is my own assumption after reading the book.