24 May 2005

Voting is not enough

My companions at lunch the other day were several Khmers and a Greek woman who is now a naturalized American. Without much preamble, she turned to me and asked if I could tell everyone there what democracy was.

I wasn't very articulate, but said that the essence of democracy was that no one was inherently more important than anyone else. Making that happen, I said, involved majority rule, while preserving the basic rights of everyone, including all minorities. I also said that those rights included free speech, peaceful assembly, exercise of religion, and equal treatment under the law. (Sorry, Second Amendment folks — I just don't see an armed populace as being essential to democracy, or a guarantor of freedom. Compare and contrast the UK and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.)

"That's it?" they asked. I said there was lots more, like an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military, etc., but that they derived from the basics I'd already mentioned.

And then the Greek-American asked me, "What about speaking English? Is it essential to democracy?" I said of course it isn't, thinking how odd it was that she, of all people, asked that. After all, her ancestors started us towards democracy long before English existed.

It turned out that she asked so that a Khmer at the table could hear my answer. The Khmer teaches "democracy" in the provinces, and had been teaching them that you had to speak English to have a democracy.

Cambodia has many of the external forms of a democracy. There's a representative body and prime minister, chosen in fairly regular elections. The English-language papers, at least, are fairly free from prior restraint. In theory, at least, all the other elements I mentioned above also exist here.

But in practice things are very different. Opposition leaders die under mysterious circumstances, as did the labor leader Chea Vichea, who was assassinated. Some suspects were promptly arrested and convicted. But no one really believes that they did it, and all are sure that the ruling party was behind it. Other opponents are dealt with in other ways, like the leadership of the Sam Rainsy party, who had their parliamentary immunity from prosecution stripped from them and had to flee the country to avoid arrest.

If the newspapers step a little out of line, armed thugs show up at their offices. Most of the misdeeds of the rich and powerful get ignored, as in most places, but really egregious crimes, as when a close relative of the prime minister sprayed bullets into a crowd, are prosecuted. Said relative, though, is said to have served his time in a comfortable cell, with caterers, cell phones, and all the visitors he wanted.

Rural populations are bribed and threatened into voting for the ruling party.

There is freedom of religion at least, but that's a result of the big donors' insistence, combined with Buddhist tolerance. The missionaries here are notably unsuccessful at converting anyone.

So is this a democracy? No. It's a quintessential Asian "big man" form of government, with some democratic paint slapped on. And no amount of English classes is going to change that.

Just something to think about when told that the Iraq elections mean "Mission Accomplished".