I recently gave a seminar at The University of Auckland entitled ‘Value Chain Development – A Critique From Southeast Asia’. I was told afterwards that I should have read more on neo-liberalism in Cambodia. So I have and I am left feeling rather unsatisfied. Recent discussions with my peers have confirmed in my mind that neoliberalism, like globalisation and modernisation before it, is the new academic bogeyman. Neoliberalism is yet another catchall phrase that appears to say everything but nothing. It is shorthand for a particular type of institutional arrangement that seeks to relinquish economic control from the public sector to the private and as such it is perhaps a sufficient term to describe an overall ideological framework or policy mode of many western governments at a unique point in history. Yet as a lens of analysis or methodological framework it is insufficient to adequately uncover or understand the complexities of state society relations, especially at the micro level of people’s lives, their labours and livelihoods. It is a handy, off the rack, explanation that appears to be ‘one size fits all’. Although proponents of the term have sought to escape this criticism by arguing that neoliberalism, like globalisation before it, gives way to ‘local articulations’, I find this disclaimer somewhat disingenuous. With such excuses we are left with somewhat confusing terms like ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics’ or ‘neoliberalism with Cambodian characteristics’ (Springer 2009: 139).

And so I wonder, what on earth is neoliberalism with Cambodian characteristics?

Having grown up in the 1980s of New Zealand I am more than familiar with ‘neoliberalism’ and its discontents in a local context. In the 1980s, New Zealand became the most deregulated developed countries in the world as our democratically elected left-wing Labour Party decided to offload at wholesale prices most of New Zealand’s state-owned assets, often with deleterious or at least economically irrational outcomes. During my childhood, the railways were sold, power companies, telecommunications and state housing for the poor, to name but a few. I spent much of my undergraduate degree learning how transformative this period was in New Zealand’s history and to our economy. Meanwhile, students protested around campus about rising tuition fees and my less fortunate friends were forced to take out large student loans to pay for their education. We, the kiwi undergraduates of the early 1990s, knew exactly what to blame for the new ‘user pays’ education system….NEOLIBERALISM. Or rather we knew who to blame: more colloquially neoliberalism in its local form was dubbed ‘Rogernomics’ after the Finance Minister who implemented neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism was our bugbear, or bogeyman, that has haunted us ever since. It therefore came as no surprise to me when I returned to New Zealand to find that many New Zealand academics were now travelling overseas to less fortunate countries only to find neoliberalism pretty much everywhere they looked, including one of Southeast Asia’s most unlikely locations, Cambodia. Cambodia the home of Angkor Wat, which is firmly emblazoned across the national flag and stands perhaps as one of the world’s greatest testaments to the feats that can be achieved through, centralised tributary systems. Angkor Wat the world famous exemplar of what can be achieved through means other than economic (Wolf 1982). Yet despite its past heritage of oriental despotism imposed by Brahman and, later, Buddhist kings, by all appearances Cambodia today is now firmly pursuing its ‘development’ through decidedly economic means. In the five years prior to the Global Financial Crisis, Cambodia experienced economic growth rates of 10 per cent per year (CIA 2009). In 2004, the country became the 148th member of the World Trade Organisation. A number of significant donors in the country promote ‘post-Washington Consensus’ styled agendas, or what may be best described as neoliberalism with bells and whistles (good governance reforms).

Yet appearances can be deceiving.For all the imposition of the hegemonic frameworks of neoliberalism by western donors and for all its local articulations by and for the benefit of Cambodian elites (Springer 2010) several blaring contradictions stand in the way of interpreting Cambodia as falling under a neoliberal order.

The first is that the state is plainly everywhere in Cambodia. For those who have lived in Cambodia the unavoidable inconvenience is that the state permeates almost all forms of everyday life. Most village chiefs are Cambodian People Party (CPP) members and so are most villagers. Few dare speak up against the government which through a tributary system of patron-client relations links even the lowest members of society to the highest ranking members of the ruling party. This system is often militarily enforced with the ever-lingering threat of violent consequences should one choose not to conform to party dictates (Hughes 2006). This political structure and the culture of fear and retribution it inspires is now so firmly lodged in Cambodia that electoral tampering is barely needed. In the country’s most recent commune council elections of 2007, the CPP won 98 per cent of votes, a victory which while passed off by official observers as legitimate, was, as one commentator noted, second only to Sadam Hussein’s election result prior to American invasion (Colley 2007).

Yet those that are searching for neo-liberalism in every nook and cranny of the globe tend to label all of the above descriptions of Cambodia’s political landscape as part of the neoliberal agenda. Springer (2009: 146) argues, “to interpret neoliberalism as nothing more than an economic reform agenda overlooks a critical element of its strength. It is also a political order, whereby the depoliticization of policymaking that neoliberalism envisages is a specific conception of how power should operate and who should be exercising it.” Apparently, neoliberalism can now also mean an extension of the state.

The second issue is that Cambodia is a highly aid dependent nation. If Cambodia was truly under a neoliberal order governed primarily by the free market then why does it receive so much donor funding and mainly in the form of grants? If a neoliberal agenda is being pushed then why the ever-increasing aid pledges from donors who are far from unaware of the political situation in the country? This year, the Consultative Group (a group of Development Assistant Committee member donors of the OECD) pledged an unprecedented $US1 billion dollars worth of aid to Cambodia. In Cambodia, every year of unbridled economic growth is accompanied by another year of unbridled economic assistance. To me this defies the logic of a neoliberal agenda. But again Springer (2009) has this covered and argues that this too is a manifestation of neoliberalism. I am left scratching my head.

I spent three years living, working and researching in Cambodia from 2003 to 2006. I arrived on a small propeller plane and left on a jumbo jet. During that time I certainly witness the explosion of economic activity in the country and the “penetration of the global market” if you will. However, I also witnessed the failure of many private sector oriented agricultural projects despite numerous attempts by aid agencies, NGOs, and business development specialists to build new trade linkages. This was the subject of my PhD: how aid agencies construct and reconstruct new and existing commodity chains in the agricultural sector of Cambodia. The outcomes of these case studies were varied. In some cases markets were effectively established through the efforts of aid agencies and the government. In other cases the construction of markets were abject failures despite government proclamations of support. In another case, a project continued to be sustained through both the market and from donor funding. So, from the top-down neoliberalism may seem like an inevitable and unstoppable juggernaut unleashed from its regulatory masters of government, and conspiring against basic human rights. But from the bottom up, the construction of the private sector is laboured, uncertain and often failing.

Meanwhile the kleptocratic government elite of Cambodia further entrench their positions of power through more than simply economic means. The ‘shadow state’ that emerged under the UNTAC period has grown large and casts a very dark and foreboding shadow indeed (Hughes 2000). It is a state that operates under a very different logic to that of neoliberal economics and justifies many of its actions in entirely different terms. Jacobsen (2008) is one of the more recent in a long line of commentators who note that conceptions of power in Southeast Asia derive not from western preoccupations of military, economic or political power but from cosmological forces which must be appeased through correct traditions and rituals. Hughes (2006) documents how Cambodia’s politicians further fortify their political power through discursive gift giving practices to pro-government supporters. Throughout the Cambodian landscape one may find schools, hospitals, bridges and irrigation canals adorned with the gold insignia of the Prime Minister, Hun Sen. Such gifts, according to Hughes (2006) invoke the divine public works of Angkor kings, and as such render the giver with innate and unassailable spiritual power. Hughes (2006) argues that this type of giving disguises the extent to which modern forms of administration are relied upon, replacing them with nostalgic references to bygone days of glory and tributary empire. The gratitude that such gifts demand is then enforced through the thoroughly more worldly application of patron-client networks. Patron-client networks are embodied in the figure of bong thom (big brother) or the ‘strongman’, a figure who typically dominates such networks via personal links of protection and favour. Under these networks loyalty is demanded and enforced often through fear-inducing techniques. Refusal to accept gifts is tantamount to treason.

It is through this political structure that many Khmer elites have come to dominate many significant commodities and trade networks. For instance, a 2007 report by Global Witness (which resulted in its expulsion from the country) details how Cambodia’s natural forest resources are being systematically and criminally logged for the benefit of the ruling CPP elite, many of whom are related either by blood or marriage. The Cambodian political system has reached Foucauldian proportions that now “tie villagers across the territory more tightly to a more interventionist state” (Hughes 2006: 473). On any drive through the countryside one may note that villages proclaim their loyalty to the CPP with billboards at their gates, in much the same way that traditional scarecrows (ting mong) are used to protect against evil spirits, neak ta or should I say bogeymen?

So here’s the thing, there is a lot to be really scared of in Cambodia: from unexploded ordinances, maraudering bandits in the provinces, corrupt policemen who by most accounts are involved in the trafficking of women and children, a judicial system which is beholden to the executive branch of government, heinous car crashes and a general lack of road rules, motorbike muggers, gang rape, lack of hospitals, clean water and sanitation. With so much to be truly afraid of, why conjure the vague and largely imaginary spectre of neoliberalism? Compared to the very real terrors of Cambodia, neoliberalism sounds rather benign unless the aforementioned real terrors are all part of the neoliberal order also? Under a neoliberal lens Cambodia’s current political structure which draws on traditions which hark back to the empire of Angkor and draw on cosmological forces, its unwieldy police, dirty water, and plagues of malaria apparently can all be explained under the one unifying theory of neoliberalism.

Is this neoliberalism with a Cambodian character?

[Maylee Thavat is a Program Associate in the Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program at the Crawford School of Economics and Government and recently completed her PhD under the supervision of Andrew Walker. Her thesis is entitled “Aiding Trade: Case Studies in Agricultural Value Chain Development in Cambodia”. She is currently co-organising a panel with Dr Sarah Milne called “State Society Relations and Natural Resource Management in Cambodia” at the 2011 Asian Studies Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. Presentation proposals before the 30th of July are welcome as are offers of post-doctoral employment or travel funding for Maylee to go to Hawaii.]


CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), 2009. ‘Cambodia.’ The World Factbook. Viewed 20 August 2009 at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world- factbook/geos/cb.html

Colley, A., 2007. ‘Cambodia – An April Fool’s Democracy.’ Viewed 1 April 2007 at http://www.the-diplomat.com/article.aspx?aeid=2922#

Global Witness, 2007. ‘Cambodia’s Family Trees: Illegal Logging and the Stripping of Public Assets by Cambodia’s Elite.’ Washington DC: Global Witness.

Hughes, C., 2000. ‘Khmer Land, Khmer Soul: Sam Rainsy, Populism, and the Problem of Seeing Cambodia.’ South East Asian Research 9(1): 45-71. –––, 2006. ‘The Politics of Gifts: Tradition and Regimentation in Contemporary Cambodia.’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37(3): 469-89.

Jacobsen, T., 2008. Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Springer, S., 2009. ‘Violence, Democracy and the Neoliberal “Order”: The Contestation of Space in Posttransitional Cambodia.’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99 (1): 138 – 162.

Wolf, E., 1982. Europe and the People without a History. Berkley: University of California Press.