Monday, July 21, 2014

Advancing Democracy Through Release, Reform, and Resolution

The Cambodia Herald - 20-Jul-14 09:05AM | By William E. Todd

Almost one year ago today millions of Cambodian voters showed their commitment to advancing democracy by going to the polls. The majority of voters, whether they cast ballots for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), voted for change and progress, which includes an end to corruption, a fair application of the rule of law, and greater transparency. Unfortunately, the events over the past week have been a serious setback for the advancement of democracy and a visible reminder of the frustration felt in both political parties and the citizens of Cambodia. Reflecting the frustration of many Cambodians a reader wrote, “In light of the recent arrests of opposition lawmakers, are you still hopeful that after a year-long stalemate we can achieve a political resolution that brings real, positive change to the lives of ordinary Cambodians?” 

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president who led the country from apartheid to democracy, would have celebrated his 95th birthday last Friday. A symbol of reconciliation, his words should resonate with Cambodians today:“Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” As Mandela recognized, charting a course forward in the best interests of all Cambodians will require focusing on release, reform, and resolution. The first step in bringing representatives of the CNRP and the CPP together, as Mandela would have understood,should begin with the release of the detained CNRP officials. Creating an environment where both sides can overcome the obstacles to political resolution is critical, but arresting, or threatening to arrest, political rivals will have the opposite effect. 
Release of the CNRP lawmakers does not mean condoning or sanctioning violence. The actual perpetrators of last week’s violence – like those responsible for the September 2013 and January 2014 unrest, violence, and killings– need to be identified. I encourage the government to hold all people who violate the laws of Cambodia accountable but only after conducting a thorough investigation and applying the rule of law in a fair and consistent manner.

The Cambodian citizens I speak to regularly – from tuk tuk drivers to business and government leaders –tell me that the next step on the path towards advancing democracy requires moving ahead with two basic areas of reform: electoral reform, which includes many things like reforming the National Election Committee and National Assembly, and broad government reform, which aims to improve the daily lives of the Cambodian people by reducing poverty, improving education, and eliminating corruption. Meaningful reform that would benefit all Cambodian citizens should be the highest priority of both political parties. Although the journey towards reform will take time and not be easy, it begins with both parties coming together in a spirit of national unity. Prime Minister Hun Sen has already called reform “the top priority for Cambodia,” and followed up with the appointment of new ministers, including Senior Minister and Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports Hang Chuon Naron, and Minister of Environment Say Sam Al. The efforts of these Ministers to improve efficiency and stamp out corruption are encouraging and should be expanded.

Many Cambodian citizens tell me that they want a return to peaceful dialogue, which would require creating an environment of trust, compromise, and mutual respect. As the year-long political impasse drags on, the CPP and CNRP need to set aside their differences for the greater good of the country’s citizens. Moving past the recent violence will require releasing the CNRP officials, ratcheting down the rhetoric, and listening to the public’s plea for dialogue. Last July when they went to the polls, Cambodian voters expressed a strong faith in democracy.Although a year has passed without decisive action, it is not too late for the two political parties to live up to the voters’ faith in the political process by working together to deliver the progress that all Cambodian citizens want and need. Peaceful and constructive dialogue can and will overcome the current impasse, but it will take a willingness on both sides. As a Founding Father of the United States, Thomas Paine, once said, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”Once again, I urge the leaders of Cambodia’s two main political parties to work together in good faith toward a productive outcome that supports the aspirations of the Cambodian people. 

Thank you very much for reading my column this week. If you would like me to answer your question, please e-mail me at

William E. Todd is U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia

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