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Book Review: Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society


Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society. Edited by Joakim Öjendal and Mona Lilja. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2009.

Editors Joakim Öjendal and Mona Lilja present a critical view of democratisation as a linear process with the case of Cambodia in the aftermath of civil war, Vietnamese liberation/occupation and finally the reinstallation of democratic elections by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1991/3. The book features an introductory chapter questioning liberal theories of (forced) democratisation suggesting a mixed, or hybrid, state of governance may be emerging. Followed by eight thematic articles on Cambodian democratisation the volume is ended with a closing theoretical chapter proposing ways ahead for the country.

Caroline Hughes, in her chapter Reconstructing Legitimate Political Authority through Elections?, elaborates on the ruling party’s political legitimacy and whether this is actually won through contested elections or a mechanism to showcase efficient resource mobilisation and utilisation. Hughes also mentions the failure to create an ‘imagined community’ after the Khmer Rough and argues that this inability have been transferred to contemporary politics where politics of stability is emphasised as “legitimacy flows from organisational capacity, rather than primarily from an appeal to the conscience of the voter” (p. 53).

Kim Sedara and Joakim Öjendal suggests that although democratic progress has occurred, there is a “dialectic relation between ‘big’ democracy and ‘small’ democracy” (p. 129) and notes a hopeful tendency in local governments’ relative closeness to their constituencies. Such could prove key in limiting corruption and bringing about stronger accountability between local leaders and their populace and thereby provide a path to more deeply rooted democratic values. It is however also acknowledged that such processes serve consolidating for the regime’s power, much practiced through clientism. Hence, strengthened local governments bridges not only the gap between people and politicians at subnational levels, but also between the central power hub and village authorities, allowing the regime closer control throughout the country.

Sophal Ear, educated in France and the U.S. after having escaped the Khmer Rouge regime, critically points out the political and economic dependence on aid and the discrepancies between the macro and the micro levels by contrasting macroeconomic growth and an increasing recognition on the world stage with large in-country inequality gaps in terms of benefits from development progress. Malin Hasselskog continues with a focus on the local and the challenging new role of local authorities obliged to be more than just development actors (laying the ground for national regime legitimacy) but also service providers in a well-fare state sense (accountable to the local populace), which strengthens the dialectic point made by Sedara and Öjendal as well as the problematic development parallel pointed out by Ear.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of Cambodia’s contemporary path to democracy and critically reveal several of its problems and challenges as well as pointing to measures how these could, or perhaps ought to, be addressed. While only briefly touching upon the country’s vast historical heritage it does so by problematising the balancing act of (neo-)patrimonial social structures and flip-flopping foreign support and attached conditionality in support of state-building with a path-dependency approach. Simultaneously the Government’s search of external and internal legitimacy is brought forward as a factor illuminating what is suggested the state of democratic hybridity including elements of both patrimonial authoritarianism and emerging democratic accountability mechanisms. In such it is an awarding contribution to the debate on democratisation processes’ dependence on the population’s, as well as the elite’s, political habitus. Further, the chapters by Khmer scholars add to an optimistic outlook on future democratic processes and shows that scrutinising the current state of affairs is not reserved to non-Cambodians.

Although the articles in this volume are overall very well written, language and quality varies between chapters. Additional efforts to mainstream linguistics and chapter outline had served the volume well. Moreover, while some chapters make substantial contributions in linking empirical research and theory-building, others cultivate a very general stance, e.g. Chapter 5 on globalisation. Although arguing that democratic labelling may be insufficient, the volume misses to set out what real democracy is, and where the Cambodian hybridity falls on the (the suggested not always linear) spectra. The volume does however acknowledge the need for further research on the area and can as such motivate the lack of such involvement.

The book is a captivating contextual contribution as well as theoretical. First, the book provides not just a standard critique of the flaws of a not yet fully democratic system of governance, but also a relatively nuanced picture of the long-serving Cambodian Government’s quest for legitimacy, internal and external, recognising that important progress has been made, especially in terms of stability. Secondly, it challenges Huntington’s (1991) The Third Wave suggesting that a the process of democratisation is not necessarily linear nor that liberal theory have patent on solutions. Without invalidating the merits of liberal democracy, theoretical and empirical receptivity is necessary, a strength demonstrated in this volume.

Moreover, the two-sidedness of Cambodian democratisation is further illustrated with Laura McGrew’s chapter that contends the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s (Khmer Rouge tribunal) goal of national reconciliation, truth-seeking and bringing those responsible for the 1970s horrors to justice. Instead she argues its materialisation being one to appease the international community and thereby a mechanism of external legitimacy-seeking by the regime; a regime that once was part, at least to some degree, to the genocide, and only by violent co-optation of opposing forces brought stability today’s level of stability.

The 1991/3 UNTAC intervention capitalised on the world’s euphoria following the end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union at a time when the US-modelled liberal democracy was the path to success. Hence, in line with Fukuyama’s (1992) The End of History, and Wilsonian idealism, if only free and fair elections could be established under the framework of a liberal constitution guaranteeing civil rights, democracy would become, in Przeworski’s (1991) words “the only game in town”.

However, what may be forgotten by critics of the process in contemporary Cambodia is that these democratic role models, such as the ones found in Europe and North America, took hundreds of years, not to forget ample violence, before consolidating their current stable and liberal capacities; Cambodia’s democracy on the other hand is at the time of writing just over twenty years old. With this in mind and considering the pariah state nature the country was in when the Berlin Wall fell, and just having put a two-decade history of war behind, the “‘big bang’ insertion of democracy” (p. 102) may have been a too optimistic approach at the time. The UNTAC certainly underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand and perhaps that is still true for liberal democratisation advocates of today. Thereby not arguing it is not a state worth striving towards.

Today, elections in Cambodia are, relative the early 1990s, comparably free, fair and safe. Although serious allegations of irregularities remain (Licadho, 2013), there is a degree of competition for seats in the bicameral parliament expressed through political campaigns with much resemblance of its western role models. However, in Kheang Un’s chapter the country’s judicial system is served a critical assessment pointing to several areas where improvements are necessary to move the process of democratisation forward, e.g. separation of powers. Un suggest that the courts are all but independent from political pressure, impunity for the rich and powerful common and that the rule of law only pertains to those without political or financial influence.

Henceforth Öjendal and Lilja argues that, with the words of the book’s title, one have to go ‘beyond democracy’ in order to find the current state and direction of Cambodian politics. Although the UN intervention succeeded in putting electoral democratic processes in place, true consolidation of democratic principles are far from present, and that, the book argues, foreign intervention, rather than paving a straight way to full-fledged democracy, it created structures that enabled an authoritarian and neo-patrimonial regime’s legitimisation by staging free and fair elections and presenting results to the western conditions. Although real democracy is not yet in sight, and despite the regime playing the cards of the necessity of stability due to a violent path by appealing to memories of horror, the premier’s view of political legitimacy that “any state is better than a ‘failed state’” (p. 63) has been successful and borne significant progress looking back only twenty years.


Fukyama, F. (1992) The end of history and the last man. New York: The Free Press.

Licadho (2013) “Turned Away: Fraud, Irregularities, and Intimidation During the 2013 National Assembly Elections”. Cambodian League for the Promotion and defense of human rights (Licadho). Available from []. Accessed February 19, 2014.

Przeworski, A. (1991) Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Öjendal, J. and Lilja, M. (ed) (2009) Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict Society. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

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