Reality and consequences of elite rule in Cambodia

The long rule of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party in Cambodia is occasionally in the international spotlight. Attention tends to be paid to the political situation, an arena well covered in Michael Sullivan’s Cambodia Votes, a study of electoral politics in Cambodia soon to be published by NIAS Press.

However, for a detailed description of the reality of elite rule in Cambodia and its consequences for ordinary people, Andrew Cock’s recently published account of the destruction of Cambodia’s once rich forestlands is superb. Here is an extract from the preface to Governing Cambodia’s Forests and a sample of some of the many colour maps and illustrations in the book.


Mapping spirit forest areas, Prey Lang Forest, northwestern Kratie Province, 2006. Chut Wutty, kneeling top right, was director of the NGO ‘Natural Resources Protection Group’. He led and encouraged communities to protest against logging and plantation schemes prior to his murder in 2012. (Photo: Eva Galabru)

For Cambodia, at the time of the signing of the [Paris peace accords] on 23 October 1991, forest areas were considered to be one of the most valuable resources available for exploitation so as to contribute to economic development. Since then, a significant proportion of Cambodia’s forest areas have been heavily degraded, depleted of much of their commercial timber and are no longer as rich a repository of wildlife and other types of forest products. They have become the targets for conversion to plantations such as rubber and eucalyptus, often by the same entities that bear much of the responsibility for the earlier period of rapacious logging.

Cambodia_1973   Cambodia_2014

Based on satellite images obtained from the United States Geological Survey, the book reproduces maps prepared by the Phnom Penh-based organization, Open Development Cambodia, that track Cambodia’s forest cover from 1973 to 2014. Here are the first and last maps. The 2004 map overstates Cambodia’s remaining natural forest cover as tree plantations (rubber, eucalyptus, etc.) are included in the category ‘mixed forests’.

Few Cambodians have benefited from the exploitation of forest resources. Indeed, for many, income from the sale of forest products has declined, access to and availability of forest resources has decreased, and intimidation or worse by armed guards working for logging and plantation companies has become a too frequent ordeal. Yet no consensus exists over how Cambodia’s forest resources and forested lands should be exploited and who should benefit from the exploitation. What constitutes the biggest threat to Cambodia’s forests: the logging and plantation companies granted concessions by the political elite, or villagers undertaking ‘slash and burn’ farming? Who should benefit from Cambodia’s forests: the government and through it the ‘nation’ as a whole, or those people living in and around forest areas? For more than two decades these questions have been debated.

This book is about the role of the ruling elite in the utilization of Cambodia’s forests, and in particular how the elite interacted with and harnessed the policy reform agenda promoted by Western aid donors. Released from the constraints of Vietnamese dominion, or exile along the Thai border or more distant countries, Cambodia’s competing elites weighed imperatives of party, faction, family and broader society against the influences of international pressures (as articulated through the programs and platforms of multilateral and bilateral donors and, to a lesser extent, NGOs). These included pressures associated with agendas for reform concerning how Cambodia’s forests should legitimately be used.

Public discussion, to the extent there was any, centred on issues such as how much of Cambodia should be set aside as protected areas, and whether forest concessions or community forests should be the dominant mode of forest exploitation. However, this discussion concealed patterns of governance set within an institutional framework that blurred the distinction between what was state property and what was private. There were no institutions – a functioning judiciary, independent state bureaucracy, autonomous legislature – capable of ensuring that laws against corruption and promoting the management of state property would be deployed so that state assets were used for public benefit. The inability of institutions to further some notion of the public good applied in the most acute sense to Cambodia’s forests and the lands on which they grew, which in the eyes of politicians, state officials, the police and the military were viewed as freely available for the cutting, clearing and selling.

The origin of this study was an interest in the reconstruction of states whose political and economic institutions had been corroded by civil and/or international conflict. In particular, I was interested in how norms of appropriate state practice spread throughout the international system. This concern led to a more focused investigation of how norms of appropriate forestry practice have been promoted in forest-rich developing countries and how these conceptions of appropriate practice meshed with the agendas of political elites. In particular, I was interested in examining how foreign aid might best be utilized as an instrument for the preservation of tropical forests. I came to believe that the examination of the use of foreign aid in the promotion of forestry reform in the Cambodian context might have some practical applicability for the promotion of forestry reform in other parts of the tropics.

However, the longer I spent in Cambodia and the more I gained access to the deliberations of the donor community and NGOs and observed their dialogue with the Cambodian government, the more I came to question the degree of leverage the donor community exerts over decision making by government officials. I also found myself puzzled as to the direction in which the dynamics of interaction between aid donors and government officials channels patterns of governance. Often there was a formal acceptance by the government of donor reform prescriptions but limited substantive change in practice. In the face of donor pressure on a particular forest related issue, state officials often seemed to seek out an alternative strategy to circumvent the blockage of a policy or practice that they, or their political masters, had already decided upon. Patterns of stone-walling, partial deflection and partial adoption that were manifestations of this external–internal interaction were broadly recognized by external actors. Indeed they seemed to be accounted for in the structuring of aid programs. At base, reform promoting external actors seemed to be primarily interested in ensuring that Cambodia’s integration into the regional and global economy was advanced, no matter how the politics of policy reform played out at any particular moment. As for the ruling elite, what seemed to concern them were signs of domestic dissent and particularly signs of unrest or dissatisfaction from rural communities. The reactions to these pressures were swifter and more substantive than the elite’s responses were to external pressures for reform. Internally directed responses ranged from instructions for policy change, and attempts to target community leaders to quell their activities, to the labelling of NGOs or vocal communities as ‘political’ – an accusation that in Cambodia implies an almost treasonous intent. With this in mind, the particular focus of this book is on how the elite interacted with the externally promoted policy reform agenda in the pursuit of their strategies of rule.

The ideas developed in the book were significantly influenced by my employment as a forestry policy advisor at the NGO Forum on Cambodia between 2000 and 2004. That position provided a very privileged vantage point from which to participate in and observe the actions of the Cambodian government, the internal discussions of the donor community, the dialogue between donors, NGOs and government, and the interaction between forest dependent communities and their government from the most senior level down to the level of village chiefs and commune officials. But in undertaking this inquiry, my employment as a forestry advisor has raised a number of difficulties. In particular, it brought to the forefront the question of how well the involvement of a researcher in a political process mixes with the analysis of that process. There are certainly both advantages and disadvantages. One of the key advantages is the deepened understanding that can come from being a participant rather than a more removed observer or periodic visitor to a country. The disadvantages include the mundane (rarely having time to organize information according to a neat research plan) and that involvement generates biases and interests that colour perceptions of issues and the way they are analysed. Observations risk becoming politicized in a way that clouds their objectivity and judgement.

Whenever sources have permitted, I have aspired to analyse the underlying dynamics of events through a reconstruction of debates over the use of Cambodia’s forests. I have also tried to keep within view the attempts by ordinary citizens to resist, in their own local areas, the forces driving the extraction of timber and the conversion of forest areas. It is these people on whom hope of tropical forest preservation overwhelmingly rests. The continued marginalization of these people will doom one of the earth’s most valuable natural resources.

The story is ongoing, with the external and internal drivers of agrarian change intensifying pressure on forest areas, and particularly the few remaining stands of old-growth forests. While a potential countervailing factor may be the emergent global interest in forest conservation as a means of mitigating climate change, it is likely that decisions related to the expansion of rubber plantations and other agro-industrial crops will lead to the permanent transformation of the forested landscape in which Khmer civilization first arose. Cambodia will be poorer culturally, socially and perhaps even economically due to the loss of its forest endowment and the dislocation of the forest dwelling communities that have for generations lived in these areas.

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