What are the lessons of Gambia for Cambodia?

Op-Ed: The Phnom Penh Post

What are the lessons of Gambia for Cambodia?

Senegalese soldiers of ECOWAS’s forces arrive in Banjul, Gambia, as they drive to secure the Statehouse on Sunday. Carlos de souza/AFP

Senegalese soldiers of ECOWAS’s forces arrive in Banjul, Gambia, as they drive to secure the Statehouse on Sunday. Carlos de Souza/AFP

The recent peaceful transfer of power in Gambia, where former president Yahya Jammeh ceded power to the newly elected leader Adama Barrow without bloodshed, has caught people’s attention around the world, especially at a time when good news is in short supply. Cambodian political observers should pay particular notice.

With the next parliamentary elections only 18 months away, Cambodia can learn vital lessons from the Gambia crisis, especially given that the potential electoral imperative to transfer power has overshadowed elections past and future.

In particular, Cambodia needs to avoid what Dr Solomon Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African affairs, calls “the curse of an authoritarian electoral defeat”. This is a curse that plagues any country with long authoritarian rule, where questions about the fate of the outgoing leader and about the transition from authoritarian to democratic politics remain unresolved.

There are of course some major differences between the two countries: It is almost inconceivable that Thailand or Vietnam, China or the US would militarily intervene in Cambodia in the event of a severe political crisis or stalemate. Those days would seem to be long gone in Southeast Asia. Indeed, what the Gambia situation indubitably shows is that concerted and coordinated regional action – backed up by real military muscle – reaps significant dividends in terms of peace, security and democracy. Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) played its hand brilliantly and is a lesson to regional bodies all over the world.

Unfortunately, with so few democracies to its name, ASEAN suffers hugely by comparison with ECOWAS, which adopted a proactive, principled and resolute stance in the Gambia crisis. ASEAN would appear years away from such progressive action. Internal measures are therefore of particular importance.

First and foremost, Cambodia needs to do something unprecedented: Both parties should meet in advance of the elections to discuss and negotiate the terms of a potential transfer of power in the event of a CNRP victory in 2018.

What might such terms entail? Former president Jammeh’s eventual decision to cede power, after intense negotiations with ECOWAS and the opposition, shows that incumbent leaders respond well to three vital assurances that a responsible political opposition should make in good faith: (1) that there will be no reprisals legal or otherwise against them following a transfer of power; (2) that their assets will be left unmolested; and (3) that they will receive a secure retirement with full benefits as appropriate to their position as citizen, party leader and former head of state.

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