Power and Political Culture in Cambodia

TitlePower and Political Culture in Cambodia
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsJacobsen T, Stuart-Fox M
Secondary TitleAsia Research Institute
Key themesCivilSociety-Donors

ABSTRACTED FROM THE OPENING PARAGRAPHS: In this paper we examine the Cambodian conception of power in order to shed light on the nature and functioning of Khmer political culture. This is not to make the point that the Cambodian language has a number of words for different aspects of power (as does English), but rather to explicate how Cambodians understand the personal basis of social power, how social power obligates individuals, and how this understanding translates into political power through the influence it has on individual (and group) behaviour towards holders of power. We set this understanding of power within the context of an evolutionary account of cultural change, and show how it facilitates the persistence of core elements of the patrimonialism that lies at the heart of Khmer politics. We begin, however, by backgrounding the events to be explained.


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Document Type

Working Paper


Overall relevance: 

This article offers a cultural and historical explanation of why Cambodian society continues to replicate traditional power structures based on patronage, despite millions of dollars in international aid spent on promoting good governance. While cognisant of not presenting an essentialised Khmer political culture, the authors explores Cambodian understandings of the personal basis of social power and how it translates into political power. After identifying the various elements perceived to contribute to Cambodian conceptions of power, the authors argue that Cambodian’s view of power is in many ways oppositional to western ideals of democratic power.

Key Themes: 
  • Dispute resolution and access to justice - There is a general reluctance amongst Cambodians to pursue legal recourse, and they are often met with violent responses from state actors when they do. The article claims there are less visible, culturally-embedded reasons why Cambodians often see challenging power as not only futile, but somehow socially unacceptable. This has significant implications when considering the efficacy of the legal system, and how laws and legal institutions are supported by international donors. The article suggests the legal system itself lacks cultural coherence for the people it is intended to serve. Ultimately, the authors argue that if Cambodians have a fatalistic understanding of hierarchical power they will be unable to see their own agency as an effective means to challenge power, and will therefore be easily deterred from seeking legal recourse. Further, laws and legal institutions in Cambodia act more as a ‘facade’ of protection, than an avenue for seeking legitimate recourse. Since the courts are perceived to be controlled by powerful actors, citizens who find themselves dispossessed of their land do not see the legal system as a means of protecting their rights.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - In Cambodia, networks of patronage are the fundamental relations that keep wealthy elites and state actors in positions of power, often at the expense of marginalised and less powerful groups and individuals. In Cambodia, those who are revered as powerful and influential are almost all men. This is perceived as part of the ‘natural’ hierarchy, and women will frequently accept that men are more powerful because they hold the majority of powerful positions. This culturally embedded understanding of dominance can be self-perpetuating.
  • Land policy and land law - The article implies the need for a fundamental reorientation in how legal concepts which are central to understandings of democratic governance such as rule of law, transparency and accountability, fit with Cambodian political economies and power structures. In particular, it questions prevailing assumptions about a linear transition from authoritarian to democratic, from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ law and ‘informal’ to ‘formal’ norms.
Research basis: 

The article is based on 87 ethnographic interviews, as well as surveys, carried out as part of research conducted for a book publication on the subject of power and gender, which included extensive historical research on power dimensions in Cambodia dating back to c. 230 C.E.