The political economy of contestation over land resources in Cambodia
AffiliationSchool of Social and Political Sciences
Melbourne School of Government
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2021-06-19.
© 2016 Dr. Sokphea Young
In the social movement literature, scholars have proposed that the success or failure of social movements is shaped by several factors, including: social movement strategies and organisational arrangements; cost-benefit calculations informing government responses to social movement demands; the openness of political opportunity structures; and capacity of social movements to mobilise resources and access transnational networks to support their demands. Influenced predominantly by the experiences of social movements in the global North, the propositions of these scholars fail to adequately account for the performance of social movements operating within certain political regime types prevalent in the global South. As a contribution to bridging this gap, this thesis explains why some movements of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Cambodia fail while others succeed, within a context of struggle for political survival by the neo-patrimonial patron of the regime. The thesis focuses on CSO movements engaged in contesting economic land concessions granted to foreign companies in Cambodia and, in so doing, substantiates new empirical and theoretical links between social movements and the political survival of varying regime types. The study employed a qualitative process-tracing method to examine two cases of CSO movements targeting subordinate government institutions (e.g. provincial offices and ministries) and foreign companies investing in agro-industrial land. The CSOs in the two cases demanded remedy for similar adverse social, economic and environmental impacts caused by large-scale land acquisition for agro-industries. However, they achieved substantially different degrees of success and failure. The thesis argues that a primary factor explaining this variation is the choice of ‘balancing strategies’ employed by the regime’s patron to secure its own political survival by manoeuvring between concessive and repressive responses. To survive politically, the patron tends, on the one hand, to employ repressive measures to deal with opposition, including CSOs that challenge the members of the winning coalitions (influential supporters of the regime’s patron); on the other, it deploys concessive measures to co-opt and circumvent opposition. These strategies illuminate the patron’s calculation of risks and rewards, embodied as the maintenance of political support from the winning coalitions’ members and the placating of aggrieved communities through the relative use of concessive or repressive responses. The way in which the patron calculates risks and rewards is contingent upon their perception of whether or not the movements put the regime and its winning coalitions at risk. The main reference point in making such calculations of risk is the regime’s survival. These strategies to cope with different CSO movements are adopted not only by the central patron, but also by its subordinate institutions. In one case involving a land concession held by a senator who is also known as a sugar baron, although the CSO movements employed strong strategies, such as: an escalation from domestic to international strategies; the creation of a formal organisational arrangement; external networking; and the adoption of a stance aligned with some political elites, they failed to achieve most of their demands. They were relatively unsuccessful because the subordinate institutions, especially the provincial office, chose to repress the CSO movements due to influence from the sugar baron, a member of the winning coalitions. In contrast, CSO movements targeting a European company employed relatively weak strategies (i.e. weak networking, an informal organisational set-up and the seeking of support from institutions within the government), but they achieved most of their demands. They were relatively successful because the subordinate institutions conceded to regulate the European company to address most of the CSOs’ demands. Due to the European company’s lack of connection to the patron of the regime, the subordinate institutions held strong autonomy and thus could concede to the CSOs. The interactions explained in these case studies suggest that the relative success or failure of CSO movements is not contingent primarily upon their strategies, but rather upon the concessive or repressive measures of the central patron. These measures, adopted as they are for the political survival of the regime’s patron, shape the responses of the subordinate institutions. In essence, CSO movements are more likely to fail when they pose a high risk to the survival of the regime’s patron. The thesis concludes that, while the strategies orchestrated by the CSO movements are important in explaining the dynamics of their movements and outcomes, these strategies are not primary factors in determining the degrees of success or failure. Thus, scholars in this field should take into account the survival strategies adopted by political leaders in the particular regime type within which a social movement operates.
Keywordspolitical economy; social movements; political survival; success or failure; land resources; civil society organisations; activism; concession; repression, Cambodia
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