But this tranquil, prosperous atmosphere is deceiving. The United Nations’ sponsored experiment with an imposed democracy in the 1990s has proven a dismal failure, instead Cambodia has reverted to a kleptocratic oligarchy whose ambitions threaten catastrophe, in a country all too familiar with the premise. “Before we had the Khmer Rouge, now we have the Khmer Riche,” says Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst who has advocated representative government for 30 years. A small, quietly spoken man, his candour is unusual in a country shrouded by fear, where a reference to politics can stop a conversation in its tracks.
“Our institutions are a facade – the parliament, the legal system, the administration – a charade,” he says. “They are controlled by the prime minister and his cronies, and their hubris will bring disaster again to this country.”