Around the World (June 15, 2013)

UK: The Dizzying Euro-Spiral of the Tories

As expected, David Cameron’s ultimatum regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Union – reform or (a kind of) exit – has put him and his party in an unnecessarily difficult position, creating an either/or situation that perhaps was not called for. Within the party, it opened a Pandora’s Box, amplifying and providing a platform for the Euro-skeptics, while forcing the pro-Europeans to take a vocal stand as well; in other words, dividing the party on a key issue. The results are apparent: there has been a flurry of newer and older leadership figures making appearances in the media, taking one or the other side on the issue. The Tory backbenchers spoke out as well, when half of them voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, in which they deplored the omission of any reference to the planned 2017 referendum on the EU. This was a symbolic gesture, but a highly unusual act of censure nevertheless, and its echoes reverberated throughout the political sphere (even if the amendment was defeated, as expected, through the combined vote of the other half of the Tories, and of the Labour and LibDem MPs). It might be the first time since 1946 that members of a governing party voted against the Queen’s Speech, which in fact is the government’s statement on its political program for the next period.

To add fuel to the fire, in recent local elections UKIP – a party whose very raison d’être is opposition to everything EU – fared very well (shockingly well, for a two-and-half party system like England’s), benefiting from a protest vote that gave them 20 times (!) the number of local council seats they had won in 2009. Moreover, the opinion polls show UKIP enjoying the support of 20% of the population, with Labour at 37%, the  Conservatives  at 27%, and the Liberal Democrats at 7%. Of course, given the first-past-the-post British electoral system, this still means that they would not get any seats in the next Parliament. However, it does represent an added pressure on the Tories, which will necessarily sharpen – and shape – the  debate within the party, and will by no means make Cameron’s life easier. There have already been rumors of a split within the party (to UKIP’s benefit).

At this point, therefore, under fire from within and from without, David Cameron’s party looks like a ship uncertain of its direction, populated by a partially mutinous crew. While Ed Milliband’s leadership of the Labour Party and the LibDem’s results in the polls are equally unimpressive, they are at least able to put up a (mostly) united front, opposing Cameron’s EU plans (and the opposition includes Cameron’s governing partner, Nick Clegg). The positives though for Cameron are that, as tortuous as his positions are, they do reflect the complicated relationship of the British public with the European idea, and also that opposing the EU referendum would not be a popular position (it would be like another one of those EU-related decisions taken over the heads of the citizens). At the same time, UKIP’s rise in the polls, the very vocal squabbles within the party, and the improbability of the European partners agreeing to a radical reform like the one he demanded, might eventually force Cameron in a corner in which he does not want to find himself: of being the Prime Minister who leads Britain in an unfortunate sort of exit from the EU. And that surely would not be a happy outcome for Britain, economically and politically.

Canada: Troubled Times for Toronto’s Mayor

He was elected in 2010 by a majority formed mostly of suburbanites, small business-owners and ethnic minorities, to the chagrin of the left-leaning elites of downtown Toronto. He rode in on a populist platform, promising to fix a municipal government that had been characterized by mismanagement and waste. He made his name by constructing an image of being a “man of the people”, and by cultivating a close relationship with, and responsiveness to, his constituency. It has always been his habit to give out the personal cell number, and to respond in person to the citizen’s complaints, going out on the field. Because of his colorful, nonconformist image, he had attracted comparisons with London Mayor Boris Johnson; because of the recent developments, the (in)famous name of former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry has been brought up repeatedly.

A few weeks ago, the news exploded that the US gossip website Gawker and the Canadian daily The Toronto Star had both been offered video footage of Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack cocaine in the company of dubious characters. The footage was offered for sale at the price of $200,000. Since none of these outlets were able to come up with that money, what resulted were written testimonies from Toronto Star journalists and Gawker writers, and an effort by the latter to collect the money from readers (the Rob Ford Crackstarter). A couple of weeks later, both outlets made it public that they lost contact with the people who originally offered the tape, and that it is very probable that the footage is no longer retrievable.

Where does this leave Rob Ford? After the news broke, it took him several days to come out with an official declaration, in which he denied the charges. His – and his supporters’ – main defense is that these are fabricated accusations coming from ideological adversaries, mainly the liberal-leaning Toronto Star. To his misfortune, such troubles seem consistent with previous controversies in which he had been embroiled: accusations that he was intoxicated while at a public event, that he groped a female colleague, that he was seen reading while driving. At the same time, it is equally true that his election (which he won decisively, with 47.1%) has shocked, and his personality (some say genuine, some say outrageous) has continued to appall, the Toronto establishment. In fact, the latest “scandal”, before the cocaine allegations, had him accused of putting small advertising magnets on people’s cars, and thus campaigning for his causes; which seems more amusing than scandalous. Yet he is not a stranger to scandal, which is why the recent news stories have hit pretty hard; several of his key collaborators, both at City Hall and from his political circle, have resigned or have declared that they will not continue to work for him, until these issues are resolved. Furthermore, the recent allegation come in what was, from a governance perspective, a difficult situation already.

The City of Toronto (fifth largest municipal unit in Northern America, disposing of a budget of about 10 billion dollars) is governed by a City Council, which contains 44 members elected from individual wards, and a Mayor elected by the entire city. Besides being a member of the Council, the Mayor also acts as a CEO; but he can not make major changes in policy, without having the support of a majority in the Council (details). In the last period, however, Rob Ford has proven himself less than adept at building and sustaining such coalitions and, in consequence, has been handed several stinging defeats in the Council. In response to this, as a true populist, he decided to appeal directly to his base – the so called “Ford Nation” that voted him in office, and in general the citizens of TO – through a weekly radio show (thus bypassing “the establishment”).  His brother, Doug Ford, himself a city councilor, is Rob’s main partner in this endeavor – and, more generally, in his political career. But the next mayoral elections are not far away, being scheduled to take place in October 2014. Will the embattled mayor manage to repair and salvage his public image? More importantly, will he manage to create the coalitions in the City Council  (which depend on his public image), which will allow him to implement some of his ambitious policy projects? This last question is probably the one that will decide his political fate, because the voters will surely evaluate him first and foremost based on fulfilling his key electoral promise, of ending the “Gravy Train” – the financial waste, mismanagement and corruption that had characterized the City of Toronto government before his arrival. The Conservative Party, with which Rob Ford is affiliated (and which is currently in power at national level), can only hope that, just like in the case of Boris Johnson, a center-right politician will manage to remain in power and run successfully what is usually considered a fiefdom of the other parties (of the left), which had suffered from severe mismanagement. Of course, for this to happen, Rob Ford (twitter; portrait) will have to not mismanage his own life, first of all.

Sweden: Youth Riots in Stockholm’s Suburbs

Such news always come across as shocking – for the outside observers, maybe even for the given society writ large. A few years ago, before the economic crisis, it was the Greek youth; before that, the young French people of the banlieues; a year or so ago,  pictures of senseless violence were coming out of London and other parts of England; and now, news and images of young rioters from the suburbs of Stockholm in Sweden (photos; video). It started in Husby, a suburb of concrete housing near Stockholm, and it continued for a few days, spreading to other areas as well, with hundreds of young people in their teens or 20s setting fire to businesses, destroying cars, and clashing with the police.  The initial reaction is always: “Why?” The immediate answer usually brings up race, religion, class. The truth, however, is that one common factor in all these apparently senseless events – which do not have any specific goals, but have a direction: against society, authorities, surroundings, “them” – is that they arise from a context of deep hopelessness, from a culture of gratuitous violence, and from a life lived without a promising horizon. According to data published by various news sources, unemployment in the suburb of Husby is two to three times higher (6-9%) than in Stockholm (around 3%), and is much higher among the youth (20%). Culturally, many of these young people do not feel integrated in the society at large, both because of the immigrant background of their families, their social standing, and their immediate environment; not being in school or employed, their main channel of socialization is through the peer groups on the streets. Since the problems seem easily describable in broad social terms, surely what is needed is more social programs; indeed, the Swedish authorities were quick to promise better, ampler programs for this population. Yet these suburbs already have cultural centers and social programs, and a good 12% of the inhabitants are beneficiaries of financial support. The Swedish police, while intervening when needed (with trepidation, given the unusual character of such violence in a fairly homogeneous, peaceful society like the Swedish one), expressed their hope that the local “community”, the civil society, will themselves step up to address the root causes of these acts. Yet it is clear that these young people are no longer contained by their own families; the local residents themselves (many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds) have expressed shock and incomprehension at the possible motivations of these youths; and many of them have put the blame squarely on these young persons’  irresponsibility. But what comes across, again and again, is the depressing, hopeless outlook on life – especially for young persons – in these drab suburbs of concrete; and this is why a better understanding of the situation might arise from materials like this investigative piece on the life of youngsters in these suburbs.

[Note: for those of us whose Swedish is less than perfect, Google Translate can be a helpful tool.]

Burma: Ethnic Conflict Flares Up

Before the advent of multiparty politics in Burma and the slow but seemingly steady transition to democracy, it was not extraordinary to see in the West a car donning the bumper sticker, “Free Burma!”. And now, as Burma is indeed transitioning to democracy, old questions arise again about what is behind that name, “Burma”. Is there such a thing as “a” Burma? Well, the reality is that this country is one of the most ethno-culturally diverse ones in the world; its population of over 55 million comprises some 135 ethnocultural groups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects  (report). In fact, Burma was not meant to be a unitary state; after gaining independence from British rule, the original plan was to build a federal system. But this was not mean to be, and successive regimes have tried to create a unitary state through force and propaganda, defining and imposing a “national identity” mostly designed around Buddhism. Of course, this was met with limited success; although most of the news in the past two decades have revolved around the conflict between the military junta and the political opposition (embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi), the deep(er) and (more) lasting divisions in the country, the ones that have continued to cause armed conflict and bloodshed in these 65 years of independence, and have not ceased to fester, are those along ethno-cultural lines. But the years of national and nationalist propaganda have not passed without leaving marks; just like in former Yugoslavia, where ethnic identity is based as much on religion as on language and region, Buddhism has become instrumentalized and enveloped by a much stronger, more prevalent identity – by a virulent national ideology.

Thus, the recent, brutal violence in Lashio and Meiktila have taken place along religiously-defined communal lines, but have not been “religious”, but typical examples of ethno-nationalist conflict. Unfortunately, just as typically, these recent conflicts have been appalling in their violence: besides the widespread devastation of property, tens of people have been killed (overwhelmingly Muslim, and among them many young), and thousands have been displaced.

[Warning: Graphic images!]

Because of the said incorporation of Buddhism in decades of nationalistic rhetoric, one of the prominent players is the so-called “969” movement and its instigator, Buddhist monk U Wirathu; and Buddhist monks have taken an active part in the recent violence, shoulder to shoulder with other men, women, youth. (This would only be shocking if one would hold to the naive assumption that “Buddhist monks” is an abstract, unitary, universally pacifist category; the reality is that “Buddhist monks” are part of the given society, and partake in its mores; see the role of the Buddhist monasteries in the power struggles of medieval Japan.)

What is the Burmese government doing? While the security forces stood by or even assisted in these violent events, its judiciary arrested and condemned only a few Muslims. Ethnic- and racially-infused nationalism seems to be alive and well as a guiding modus operandi, within the institutions of the state. On other fronts of the interethnic conflicts in Burma, however, the government has been very active and quite successful, making significant progress toward agreeing with the military groups associated with some of the larger ethnic groups (like the Kachin and the Shan).

But the multiethnic and multi-religious nature of the Burmese society is such an inescapable datum of the Burmese state, that there is simply no way to go forward, without addressing this in a decisive and coherent manner. This is especially true in a period as vulnerable as the transition from an authoritarian regime (which, through its strong institutions, has held these potential conflicts in check) to a yet undefined democratic arrangement; in such moments, the only thing known for sure is that the old checks are gone, and the institutions that would define the new order do not exist as yet – and thus there is the potential for disorder.  But in order for Burma to survive and even prosper as a state, substantial solutions will have to be found; perhaps through a redefinition of the state along federal lines, perhaps through a re-construction of a national narrative along civic, political or historical lines – but away from the inherently divisive, ethnic or religious lines. This, of course, is easier said than done, and might sound like the idealistic imaginings of remote theoreticians; however, the nearby example of Indonesia and of the the solutions it has found in a similarly diverse and conflict-ridden context might prove quite useful.

Unrest in Turkey

At the end of May, a group of about 100 people gathered in Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest a planned redevelopment that would affect one of the few remaining green areas in the city. This small manifestation soon developed into marathon demonstrations that spread to the nearby Taksim Square and to other 48 cities in Turkey, sparked at first by the brutal intervention of the police against the initial group of protesters, but fueled for weeks by a deeper resentment toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party  (AK – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). But why would there be such enmity among these demonstrators towards Erdogan? This is the Prime Minister that eliminated the heavy hand of the military from Turkish politics and public life, after 50 years during which the  military has dominated the state, even putting it through several coups d’état. This is the head of the executive under whose leadership Turkey has experienced a period of continued economic growth, for the first time in a long time, while the rest of the world was undergoing a major crisis. At his initiative, the Constitution of the republic was reformed in the direction of strengthening civilian rule and the representative institutions; and these reforms were supported by a strong majority of the population, and were hailed by the EU as decisive steps toward democracy. Erdogan even managed to reach a ceasefire agreement in the longstanding, bloody conflict of the Turkish state with the armed factions of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). It is unsurprising, then, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first Prime Minister in Turkish history who managed to win three successive elections (’02, ’07, ’11), obtaining for his party 50% of the popular vote in the last elections. Then why these protests?

There are a few characteristics common to these protesters.  Most of them are not politically affiliated, and for many this is the first act of political participation; a large number are educated, middle class; many belong to the generation of  social media & individualism. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of these protesters are united by their distaste towards what they perceive as Erdogan’s government’s attempt to redirect Turkey (notwithstanding the obvious economic and democratic advances) toward a non-secular course, more in line with the Islamist inspiration of the ruling AK party. They cite in this regard laws such as the banning of the sale of alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am; and actions that they perceive as coming from authoritarian tendencies: plans to ban kissing in public, attempted laws against abortion and adultery etc. Similarly,  the brutal intervention of the police played into a deeper irritation with the generally abrasive, confrontational style of the Prime Minister, underlining the accusations that his policies and politics have divided the country. And indeed, during most of these troubled weeks, Erdogan did little to consciously shed this abrasive image: he called the protesters “extremists” and “looters” (names which they wore with pride); he accused them of being organized by shady foreign economic interest (a fairly risible accusation, given the participation of far left groups, among others);  has continued to direct the police to intervene with unnecessary brutality, instead of trying to meet and reach a compromise (thus, as a result of violence from both sides, five people have died and thousands – protesters and policemen – have been injured). An added problem, however, is that the demonstrators could not  – and still can not – speak with a united voice, true to the fact that they do not constitute a coherent mass: there are those who manifested against the redevelopment of Gezi Park; there are extreme left wingers; there are nationalists; there are many of the middle-class, who came out in solidarity or just against Erdogan. Furthermore, none of the parties of the parliamentary opposition can claim to represent them either: they are either nationalistic forces or they belong to the recent Turkish past, one that was military-dominated and economically-underdeveloped; a past for which these protesters have no fondness.

What is the current situation? After weeks of protest, Erdogan’s government agreed to meet with representatives of  the demonstrators, and also agreed to hold off the proposed developments, letting the courts decide on the matter, and even putting the decision to a popular vote.  This seems to have effected a calming down of the situation, except for a few hardline groups. But what are the deeper conclusions to be drawn from these events? On the one hand, they confirmed the adage that, when politics fails, the only remaining option is violence. In other words, they confirmed the goodness of (democratic) politics, of having institutions that would mediate the conflicts inherent in any society, through agreed rules of debate and decision-making. When these political institutions fail, or when they fail to transmit and process these inherent societal conflicts, the only other way to solve it is  – on the streets. Secondarily, they illustrate a deeper problem, related to the philosophical or ideological foundations of democratic politics. Both “sides” in this crisis (if we can talk of “two sides”) are, by and large, supporters of Turkey’s democratization; as mentioned, Erdogan has done more than anyone in recent history in this direction. Yet their assumptions differ. Erdogan and AK are grounded in, and imagine a Turkey founded on, an Islamic society and culture (and nobody can deny that Turkey has always been, as a society, Islamic). The protesters, however, have been shaped by decades in which the official ideology was that of laicity: a secular state whose secularism is understood not as non-intervention in religious affairs (as in the American conception), but as an exclusion of religion from the state and the public sphere (as in the French Revolution-inspired laïcité). Moreover, some of these protesters base their ideas about democracy on vague notions of Western (European) liberal democracy; while others are motivated by left wing or radical ideologies; and others by nationalism. Moving from a military-dominated, illiberal democracy to a democratic (and prosperous!) state is not a simple path, especially when the society is clearly divided as to the fundamental assumptions that should guide their lives – and perhaps the state as well.

In Brief

In June Central Europe was hit by massive floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers and their tributaries; in Germany (photo; video of Passau; reportage), the Czech Republic (photovideo of Prague), Hungary (video; photo), Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, the historical levels of the waters forced thousands to leave their homes and left over 20 people dead; yet these numbers would have been much higher, were it not for the measures implemented after the floods of 2002. The deep involvement and strong leadership demonstrated by an Angela Merkel or Viktor Orbán will probably also have a positive effect on how they will be judged in the soon-to-come elections.

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In Syria, the documented death toll of the civil war has reached 93,000, of which over 6,000 are children. Meanwhile, one of the leaders on foreign affairs in American politics, Senator John McCain, sneaked into the country to meet with opposition groups. In an act of defiance of the West’s efforts, Russia delivered anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime; in response, the Obama administration announced that it decided to expand the support it gives to the rebel groups, to include arms as well; while the European Union decided to lifts the arms embargo, thus allowing the member countries to pursue their own individual policies in this regard. Currently the Assad regime seems to have gained the upper hand on the battlefield, with support from Hezbollah and probably Iran. Within the rebel groups and organizations, besides those that have been recognized as legitimate conversation partners by the West (like FSA, partially SNC), there are also Islamist factions that have perpetrated vicious acts of violence against the members of other religious minorities. In fact, it seems that a “rebel victory”, given the problematic ideological profile of some of the opposition groups, will have devastating consequences for the Syrian Christians, who had previously enjoyed a protected status.

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The African Union celebrated its 50 years’ anniversary, a period that has seen incontrovertible economic and social development on the continent, but also the failures of the AU to take charge of the problems facing it – whether because of a lack of political will, of cumbersome decision-making procedures, or a dearth of resources.

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In a shocking decision in February, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove one of the most ancient sports – wrestling – from the list of Olympic disciplines.  Behind the surprising decision is the intention to force the governing structures of the sport to finally address a host of issues that have been brought to their attention repeatedly, to no avail: women’s representation in its organizations, a streamlining of its cumbersome rules (which suffered many changes, yet remained obscure and unappealing to the public) etc. The shock had its effect, and one of the first acts was to elect a new president of FILA (the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) in the person of Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who immediately engaged in an intense program of sport diplomacy (besides implemented the required internal changes). Among these  efforts were a highly mediatized public competition between wrestlers of USA, Iran and Russia at the Grand Central train station in New York; press conferences at the UN; apparitions on popular talk shows etc. There are of course popular initiatives as well in support of the sport, a sport whose greatest tournament is actually the Olympics (unlike soccer, for example, where the World Cup is much more important). A first victory has already been already obtained, with the recent decision of the IOC Executive Board to include wrestling on the short list of sports (together with baseball/softball and squash) on which the general assembly of the International Olympic Committee will vote in September, for the one spot available for the 2020 Olympics.

Rumble on the Rails: USA vs. Iran vs. Russia, at the Grand Central Terminal in New York

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Norodom Sihanouk

Norodom Sihanouk

Norodom Sihanouk

One of the prominent political figures of the twentieth century, especially for Asia’s twentieth century, Norodom Sihanouk, has died. On and off, he was the actual ruler, or one of the leaders, of Cambodia, and a key player in Southeast Asian politics. Shrewd politician as well as prolific filmmaker, “father of the country” and singer who made several LPs, he was a larger than life figure, present both in the political decision rooms and in the salons of the world for over half a century. Like his ancestors, over the course of his life he had dozens of concubines and fathered a total of 14 children. Finally, for most of the lifetime of the people living today in Cambodia, he was the determining national figure, whether they liked him, or not.

But where and what is Cambodia?

Cambodia

Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia, situated between Laos (to the north), Vietnam (east) and Thailand (west), and enjoying a long oceanic coastline to the southwest.

Today its population is of about 14 million people, mostly of Khmer ethnicity, but there are also Vietnamese and Chinese minority groups. The main religion of the population is Theravada Buddhism. Its current capital is Pnomh Penh.

The first organized political units in the area, that are mentioned in historical sources (mainly Chinese), date between the first and fifth centuries. They were already influenced by Indian culture, both in terms of social structures and of religion (Hinduism & Buddhism).

However, the golden age of Cambodian history takes place between the 9th and the 13th century. This is the period of political (territorial) expansion, and of building some of its most remarkable monuments – like Angkor Vatt. After the fourteenth century there follows a period of decline and of ongoing conflicts with the neighboring Thai, Siamese and Vietnamese powers.

By the 19th century, tired of this continued struggle with its neighbors, Cambodia appeals to the colonial power of France for help, and becomes a protectorate in 1864. For nearly a century thereafter, France will control the area (including parts of today’s Vietnam, Laos etc. – what was known as Indochina) politically and economically.  However, since the French were mostly interested in extracting resources, and less in running the country, they left the monarchy and the social arrangements largely undisturbed, which actually dampened the possible anti-colonial feelings.

(There are several good resources on Cambodia’s older and more recent history, and they are well-worth exploring and using.)

Norodom Sihanouk: Beginnings & Golden Age

Norodom Sihanouk enters the stage in 1941, as part of a long blood line of Cambodian monarchs, by being installed in power by the French, while he was only 18 years old. Although the goal was to have a more easily controllable local ruler, through deft maneuvering Norodom will play a central part after the war in the (relatively peaceful and untroubled) decolonization of his country. The French leave in 1953, but two years later Norodom Sihanouk abdicates (as monarch) in favor of his father (whom he initially replaced), in order to be able to get involved in the actual political life of the country. Correspondingly, soon after he becomes prime minister – until 1960, when his father dies, and he will have to go back to occupy the position of head of state.

During the 1950s and 1960s Norodom Sihanouk tried to walk a fine line, both with regards to the conflicts raging in the region, as well as in relation to the two ideological-military blocks during the Cold War, even  joining as a founder the non-aligned movement. This period represents Norodom Sihanouk’s golden age – he rules autocratically, according to his own original blend  of Buddhism and socialism, and also devotes time and money to his extracurricular passions.  He edits magazines, directs films, conducts jazz bands, and croons songs of his own composition (see links to his works on the right side of his personal website).

However, in 1965 he drifts from the middle line from which he and the country had benefited, and breaks off relations with the US, as a result of their bombing guerrilla groups within his country, and throws his support behind the North Vietnamese guerrillas. Meanwhile, the country itself is caught between rival political forces of the right and of the far left, and these tensions that will come to a head in 1970 when, after years of declining economic conditions, Sihanouk is removed from power through a US-supported coup led by army leaders (the right wing faction). The ideological motivation of these forces contained, among others, a strong nationalistic streak, being motivated by an anti-Vietnamese feeling that has a long tradition in Cambodian history. Sihanouk seeks refuge in China, where he will start to build ever closer relations with the leaders of a communist group called the Khmer Rouge (“red Khmers”).

The Khmer Rouge

Between 1970-1975, the Khmer Rouge troops increase their  power and the aggressiveness of their operations within Cambodia, fighting the military-led regime with Vietnamese and Chinese support. Through a gradual grinding down of the power of the regime, they manage to enter and occupy the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. During these years the Khmer Rouge had earned themselves a fierce and terrible reputation,  becoming known for their extreme ideology, for their strident and aggressive rhetoric (they had a public kill list), and for the mass atrocities they committed programatically in the areas they conquered. This reputation did not fail to confirm itself immediately after they took power. All city dwellers (for example, all 2,5 million inhabitants of Phnom Penh, including the sick and dying) were forced to move to the countryside, in an ideological effort (not unlike the Great Leap Forward) to create a societal and cultural blank slate on which to build a new, pure, utterly rural society. The Khmer Rouge called this moment, the “Year Zero.”

In the following years there followed one of the most gruesome experiments in mass reeducation and societal re-formation, which resulted in of the greatest genocides of the twentieth century. The main targets of these policies were the middle-class and the educated people – but there was no excuse or escape for any sort of person or group. Religion was banned, normal education ceased, all basic freedoms were abolished. During this period, 1975-1978, thus during only three-four years, it is estimated that about 1,7 million people (in other words, one-fifths of the population) died as a result of executions, torture, forced labor or starvation.

The de facto leader of this newly established  “Democratic Kampuchea” and of the Khmer Rouge forces was Pol Pot. Although Norodom Sihanouk initially entered the country with the Khmer Rouge, and during the first year was the nominal head of state, he spent the next years of Khmer Rouge rule under house arrest, in the royal palace, afterwards stating that he was not aware of the details of what was going on. Five of Sihanouk’s children and a large number of other members of his family lost their lives during this period.

The Khmer Rouge regime‘s bellicose policy was not however restricted to the “internal front”. As a result of a previous disenchantment with the Vietnamese Communist forces, and of reignited – historical – territorial ambitions, and certainly of a pervasive ethno-nationalism, the Khmer Rouge initiated attacks along the borders with Thailand and Laos, and especially against Vietnam. The conflict intensified, leading to the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, with the help of internal Cambodian political forces and with the backing of émigré Cambodian leaders (including, by this time, prince Sihanouk, who had left the country).

The 1980s: Isolation and Strife

The Khmer Rouge were removed from power in 1979, and were replaced by a sort of coalition government, that was dependent militarily and economically on Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge forces did not disappear, however; therefore the next decade was defined in Cambodia by economic and physical insecurity, with continued (occasionally brutal) internal conflict,; externally, the position of the country was uncertain as well, given that the Western powers (and especially the US) could not back a Vietnam-propped regime, nor (of course) could they support their enemies, the Khmer Rouge.

During the ’80s Norodom Sihanouk lives mostly abroad, with bases in China and North Korea, while being also very much in the favor of the Western powers, as one of the leading figures of the anti-Vietnamese opposition in exile. This broad support sponsored a lavish lifestyle, Norodom continuing to be present in Western capitals at lavish parties, and to indulge in his pleasures.

With the Cold War coming to an end, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Block in Europe, and with the Vietnamese withdrawing in 1989, the regime crumbled, leading in 1991 to multi-party talks. These negotiations – at which Norodom proved against what a skille dpolitrician he was – ended with the Paris Peace Agreements in which the signatories (including the four major political  groups  of Cambodia, 18 other countries such as USA, China, Australia, Russia, countries of Southeast Asia, as well as representatives of the UN) established a pathway to a return to stable government and to free elections in Cambodia.

A New Cambodia: Norodom Sihanouk, Continued

Following the peace agreements, Sihanouk is again at the center of the political negotiations aiming to form a new government, and he becomes president within the new political arrangement. In 1993 national elections take place, in which over 4 million Cambodians (or 90% of the voting population ) participates. Corresponding to the results of the election, a coalition government is formed, containing  FUNCINPEC (the party emerging from the anti-Vietnamese coalition of the 1980s, lead by Sihanouk’s son), the Cambodian People’s Party – CPP (lead by Hun Sen, who used to be prime minister in the Vietnamese-backed regime of the 1980s) and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party – BLDP. Soon after, a democratic constitution is proclaimed that establishes a a multiparty liberal democracy with guaranteed human rights, in the framework of a constitutional monarchy; Norodom Sihanouk is proclaimed king (again).

The 1990s consolidate Cambodia’s internal and external situation, notwithstanding a fractious, disputed, and not always clean (to make an understatement) national political arena. The peculiar political arrangements of the period include a period with two prime-ministers (representing the two main warring factions of the 1990), one of them being Norodom’s son (Ranaridh Sihanouk) and the other being Hun Sen. A frail but necessary arrangement, in order to transition from more than two decades of civil war, to a more stable society; yet not an unproblematic one, with political and even physical  conflict erupting at times, but with no return to the civil war situation.  Another key development of the 1990s is the gradual disassembling and eventual crumbling of the Khmer Rouge forces (eg. Pol Pot is assassinated by his won circle in 1998), and the beginning of the official judicial efforts to bring them to justice (see the Khmer Rouge Tribunal).

The next democratic elections take place in 1998, but these are troubled elections, being preceded by (coup d’etat-like) power fights between CPP and FUNCINPEC, and being accompanied by numerous irregularities and local instances of violence. However, following the election, and being constrained by the results, the two major rival parties reach a coalition agreement and a power-sharing arrangement. In the end, notwithstanding the many problems, the population demonstrated that they have a will, and are intent on showing and imposing it. In the following year, 1999, as a result of the same coalition agreements, and upper house (Senate) is created. In 2003, new elections take place, won by CPP and Hun Sen, who becomes prime minister (again). The 2008 elections, the most regular of all, reinforce and solidify CPP’s domination over the country.

During the 1990s and the early 2000s Norodom Sihanouk (by now, the King Father) is often out of the country, as a result of a prolonged struggle with cancer. Nevertheless, he remained a towering figure in Cambodia throughout, one very involved with the citizens’ lives. He was in fact the first leader in the area to have a personal website.

With an increasingly deteriorating health, Norodom abdicates in 2004, in favor of his son, the little-known ballet dancer Norodom Sihamoni. This does not mean, however, that he will reduce his participation in the Cambodian public sphere; in fact, he will remain a central figure in the life of the country.

Norodom Sihanouk dies on October 15, 2012, in a hospital in Beijing . With him half a century of Southeast Asian politics, including de-colonization, Cold War struggles for influence, ideology-fueled local guerrillas and a changing of the very meaning of the term, “Third World”, seems to be gone.

At the same time, his passing seems to also signal the end of an era of autocratic and eccentric rulers, with lavish resources at their disposal, governing over fascinating, exotic, yet impoverished countries, with much suffering within. (In its obituary, the Telegraph paints a colorful portrait of Sihanouk.) We see fewer and fewer of these rich, Western-supported autocratic rulers going to and fro through the salons of Europe and North America. Politics at its less picturesque – but perhaps for the better. At the same time, the ruling families of the Middle East and the oligarchs of Russia still do their best to spread their wealth, publicly and with emphasis. But perhaps it is only in the context of a Norodom Sihanouk and of other similar leaders, that the figure of a Silvio Berlusconi suddenly starts to make sense: successful, crafty politicians, able to grab or stay around power for decades, while also pursuing a wide range of extracurricular activities (such as writing and singing an entire album of love songs).

Cambodia: Current Political System

The head of state of Cambodia is the monarch, while the head of government is the Prime Minister. The upper house of the legislature is the Senate, which has 59 members (57 elected by Commune Councillors, two by the lower house National Assembly, and two appointed by the King) who enjoy 6-year terms. The 123 members of the lower house, the National Assembly (Radhsphea Ney Preah Recheanachakr Kampuchea), are directly elected through proportional representation (closed party lists) from each of the country’s 21 provinces.