By BOB BROWN A tragic echo of the Vietnam War was the genocide of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in neighboring Cambodia, four years immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, where an estimated 1.7 million people, or about 20 percent of the country's population, were killed. Cambodia's tragic history has made its journey toward democracy a long one.
On a recent trip to Cambodia, I was invited by a U.S. Agency for International Development-sponsored program to make the case for democracy in a country that has traveled a rough road to achieve it.
I spoke to approximately 50 members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, as well as the top leadership of two smaller "royalist" parties, both with ties to the family of Cambodia's aging "King Father," Norodom Sihanouk.
King Sihanouk was a personal friend of Vietnam-era Sen. Mike Mansfield. I know from personal experience that the Mansfield name is still magic in much of Asia, and although I was unable to present them to him directly, the king thankfully accepted gifts I brought for him from the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana.
He responded to me in writing, characterizing Mansfield as "a very great statesman I greatly admire, and a great and true friend to our country and our people (who) with his usual humility and patience worked hard to stop the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia."
Democracy and peaceful change
I took Sen. Mansfield's efforts in the region 35 years ago as inspiration while preparing for my democracy lectures. With co-presenter John Willis of the International Republican Institute, I gave the Cambodian political party leaders an overview of the democratic options open to them, particularly after a long history of authoritarian rule.
I reminded the party leaders that change is ongoing and constant. I told them that democracy is the only system of government that makes peaceful change possible. I told them that if peaceful change is impossible then violent change becomes inevitable.
I pointed out that the instability caused when governments are violently and unpredictably overthrown makes planning for a positive future impossible. Countries that are democracies are good places to live, I explained, because the stability made possible by peaceful change creates the environment for economic growth and a higher standard of living.
I emphasized that a free and independent press and open and honest elections are as essential to making democracy work as democracy is to stability. And I concluded that an independent judiciary is necessary to the protection of human rights, which are fundamental to citizen participation within the democracy.
Taking steps toward openness
I doubt that Cambodia will become a textbook example of a stable democracy any time very soon, but I think we succeeded in planting a seed that may in time grow. The Cambodian political parties, including the CPP, are taking steps toward allowing more openness and decentralization of decision-making within their organizations.
Cambodian civilization extends much further back in time than ours. They have been governed by monarchs, French colonialists and communists. They have no tradition of government by the consent of the governed. Democracy will come to them, in a way that fits them. Democratization of political parties is not "Western-style" democratic government characterized by competition between open and free political parties, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
In the continuum of history, the participation and stability that "party democracy" might enable is dramatic progress from the "Killing Fields" of Pol Pot just three decades ago. I hope to have had a small part in Cambodia's journey toward democracy.
Bob Brown, is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula. He formerly served as a Montana legislator and secretary of state.
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