Imagine the household. Your protective father warns every day that there are murderers and thieves at the gates, the sort of people who want to do your family serious harm. Your community used to be dangerous, for sure, but that was decades ago. Yet your father continues to erect vast fences and closed-circuit TV cameras.
He says it’s not safe for you to leave the house for too long, certainly not at night. You want to go and see friends; you want to be allowed to roam, to enjoy some time by yourself. But each day, he says, he has caught one of those criminals and fought them off, yet they keep on coming. No amount of force seems to be able to deter them.
And now you’re 30 years old and still, your father says it’s not safe for you to leave home, that you must praise his vigilance even if that means you’re still sleeping in your childhood bed, denied a partner and an adult life.
How might you respond? Perhaps you’d accept your father’s warnings and, like him, start to see threats everywhere you look. Perhaps you’re appreciative of his sacrifices for your security.
Or, maybe, a sneaking feeling creeps in that your father isn’t all that good at security. It has been more than three decades, he has turned your home into a jail for your family inside, but still (he says) the criminals keep on coming.
Maybe you begin to think that he’s lying. Or your desire to leave home and live your own adult life, you think, is worth the risk of venturing out into an unsafe world.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is that father. Give up your individual liberty for the promise of security, he says.
Hun Sen looks out and sees traitors and color revolutionists everywhere. The threat may be from foreigners: the Chinese in the 1980s; now Westerners. His power-sharing partners in the 1990s were plotting against him, he said, and Sam Rainsy had to be forced into exile to protect the Cambodian people from him. Kem Sokha, who has been under house arrest for years, had to be sentenced to another 27 years of house detention.
All the while, Hun Sen says the house he has built since 1985 remains vulnerable. A Facebook comment necessitates decades in jail. An individual activist mustn’t be allowed to meet with fellow thinkers. A trade union cannot protest. An independent newspaper risks the security of a regime that is 44 years old. Any real competition at an election risks dragging Cambodia back to the barbarism of the 1970s, Hun Sen states.
Give ear to Sim Vireak, a fairly eloquent voice in defense of his government but someone with a knack for quickly wrapping himself up in contradictions.
Writing this week in Asia Times, he argued thusly: “Cambodia does not opt for agitating, abrupt, violent and selfish democracy in which individual freedom is cherished and sanctified more than peace, stability, and social harmony.”
He went on: “What does democracy mean for countries fallen into wars that see no end? The right to life is the most sacred human right of all.”
Naturally, he seeks to compare his homeland with countries in the West. He reminds us, for instance, that in December 2022 Germany suppressed a “coup” that was being plotted by a few right-wing cranks. He might have also mentioned the Trumpist insurrection in Washington a year earlier.
And he quotes Singapore’s late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who once put it that “American society is the richest and most prosperous in the world, but it is hardly safe and peaceful.”
It is true that liberal democracies are not immune to disorder; their openness and pluralism make them vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of that freedom. The lesson of the Weimar Republic was that fascist forces within could dismantle democracy using democratic means. However, liberal democracy has never claimed to put security above liberty; it never says it is the most orderly system.
But, Sim Vireak suggests, regimes like Cambodia’s do. Yet the Hun Sen government (and its claquers) don’t appear to think it’s doing all that good at security. It wields all that power and still, it says, it’s under constant threat. After 44 years, an ever-greater multitude of forces, it contends, are amassing to tear down the regime.
When has Hun Sen ever claimed to have actually consolidated peace and security? He consistently warns that Cambodia is on the verge of repeating its civil war and genocides of the past.
Pay heed to his words and Cambodia is only one unpunished activist away from chaos. If the implicit appeal from the Cambodian People’s Party is that ordinary people must give up some freedoms for security, the party has done a woeful job at keeping its end of the bargain.
If, as Sim Vireak believes, Cambodian “democracy” cherishes “peace, stability, and social harmony,” it seems to do a good job at creating instability and disharmony.
Hun Sen offers up a Hobbesian view. According to him, Cambodians are instinctively anarchic and barbaric; they’re too childlike in trusting people who want to instigate chaos. And they’re only a hair-width away from descending back into the terror of the Khmer Rouge era. But, he adds, only his regime protects the Cambodian people from their own apparent worst instincts.
That does the utmost disrespect to the honor of the Cambodian people. In fact, the consistent will of ordinary Cambodians to believe they can create a truly competitive democracy, where individual liberty isn’t crushed by appeals to security and order, shows (in the words of Saul Bellow’s Augie March) their “universal eligibility to be noble.”
“Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” Benjamin Franklin once said. It might be better phrased that those prepared to give up their liberty for the promise of security end up with neither.
David Hutt is a political journalist. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.