After 60 years, Malaysia got its first change of leadership when voters at the weekend booted out the ruling Barisan Nasional party and premier Najib Razak.
Supporters of the Pakatan Harapan party, headed by second-term Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, celebrated in the streets after the shock but convincing victory. Mahathir was once an ally of Najib, and at 92 isn’t getting any younger. But the important point is that our fellow Asean member-state has seen a peaceful transition of power, that Malaysians have determined their future through the ballot box and not the barrel of a gun. Najib himself accepted the will of the people, quelling anxiety on this point.
The ousted leader must now face up to the reasons why he was handed such a resounding defeat, notable among which are a massive corruption scandal and his “anti-fake news” law that most deemed as a veiled attempt to muzzle political opponents ahead of the election and a desperate bid to stave off dealing with the consequences of the scandal.
According to a US Justice Department investigation, Najib and his associates allegedly looted $4.5 billion from the 1MDB sovereign investment fund between 2009 and 2014 – including $700 million that landed in one of Najib’s bank accounts, according to Al Jazeera.
Malaysian authorities have banned Najib from travelling, fearing he would flee, as they investigate the scandal.
But it is undeniable that Malaysia held a free, fair and peaceful election that resulted for the first time in a change of power.
The contrast in Cambodia couldn’t be more stark. On Monday, the National Election Committee (NEC) ended the registration period for political parties, announcing that 20 outfits have registered to compete in the upcoming sixth national elections. But the list of contenders lacked one crucial player, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was the largest and only viable opposition party until its dissolution last year.
The absence of the CNRP is a sign of a deeper rift in Cambodia, one that reeks of a dishonest process. Many in the international community have said they will not recognise an election result if the CNRP is sidelined. Prime Minister Hun Sen has shrugged off those concerns.
On the other hand, the cut in aid from the EU and US to the NEC and other Cambodian programmes and institutions is not the answer, since the government is least affected by the cuts, which instead dramatically affect the poor.
What we should instead be the focus is monitoring of the implementation of the Paris Peace Accord of October 23, 1991.
The mandate of the global community, especially the signatories to the accord, did not end after the establishing of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), arranging an election, setting up a parliament and helping draft our constitution.
The signatories still have an obligation to ensure that Cambodia and its government adhere to the letter and the spirit of the agreement, by monitoring the kingdom’s human rights record and its rule of law commitment under the constitution. So the question is, do the recent amendments to the charter passed by the ruling party, and the dissolution of its chief political rival, violate the Paris Peace Accord or not? This is what the signatories need to scrutinise.
Peace did not come easily and it can vanish even quicker if Cambodians and the international community do not remain vigilant. And if it ever appears that Cambodia is heading towards another civil war, at what point if ever should the international community step in? It is a tough question to ask and answer. Thus it’s important the kingdom never descends to that point. An important step to avoiding the unthinkable is through a process of reconciliation between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the CNRP, monitored by a neutral actor, perhaps Japan, with the goal of allowing the CNRP to participate in July’s elections.
The process of peace building in Cambodia has stalled and in its place fragmentation has slowly taken hold again, endangering the nation. We can point with hope to Korea, where the North and South split after World War II and who have been technically at war ever since. Recently, the leaders of the two countries have been shaking hands and preparing a peace treaty to bring their war to an official end.
It is time to end the traditional pattern of the Cambodian government of waiting for election results and then releasing its critics from prison. Instead, it is essential we allow all political parties to participate in the electoral process, and to make that process fair and open and free from violence. Cambodia can follow Malaysia’s example, if the political will is there.