A tale of two democracies: How Mongolia has outshone Cambodia
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A tale of two democracies: How Mongolia has outshone Cambodia

Mongolia appeared on the global radar in 2009, when news of its massive copper deposits and untapped mineral wealth attracted international investors in droves.  The country suddenly went from being a remote adventure destination to one described as “the next Qatar,” worthy of multi-million dollar deals.

Real estate boomed and inflation became epic at 20 percent.  In 2011, two years after President Elbegdorj, signed the ink on the Oyu Tolgoi mining contract, which has been described one of the largest copper deposits globally, Mongolia earned the moniker of the fastest growing economy in the world.  This was followed by the less glamorous rating of Ulaanbaatar being rated the second most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organization. Let’s not forget Mongolia’s status of having one of the highest rates of alcoholism internationally, while being known as the “coldest capital in the world”.  In short, Mongolia is not an easy country to live in and perhaps it is for these reasons and more that the country was given the honor of hosting the Community of Democracies (CoD) from 2011 to 2013.

While the main conference wrapped up on Monday, April 29, there was a small closing event Tuesday with the parliament and civil society members getting some coveted face time with democracy heroine and Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.  “We want to know how she manages to look so good at 68,” confided Member of Parliament and leader of the Women’s Caucus L. Erdenechimeg.

Putting aside its recent democracy honor, how is Mongolia really doing?

The Brookings Institute published a doubtful analysis by Nyamosor Tuya, former foreign minister of Mongolia, on the country’s democratic evolution.  She cited entrenched poverty consistently hovering at 30 percent, in spite of the strong growth in the economy, as an indicator of inequality.  Tuya wrote, “It should be noted that the latest poverty figure shows a decrease ― 29 percent in 2011 versus 39 percent in 2010 ― but it is yet to be determined if this is attributable to government’s untargeted cash handouts of the past three years, or whether it points to a trend”.  The Mongolian government implemented a broad-based cash handout scheme of 21,000 MNT (about US$15) to each citizen every month, which ended in 2012.   Though seemingly small, this sum is significant in light of the 20 percent of its 3 million citizens who survive on US$1.25 a day.

In contrast to Tuya’s dark assessment, Julian Dierkes of the Institute of Asian Research praised Mongolia’s democracy as a non-violent phenomenon that began shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one that outshone its other Central Asian neighbors. Dierkes sees Mongolia’s late access to foreign investment as a benefit that allowed the political framework of democracy to establish itself more firmly before mining wealth altered its course.

Democracy expert Larry Diamond said in his keynote speech for the April 28 CoD afternoon session that democracy must come from within, or it is likely to fail.  He explained the duty of democratic countries was not to impose the ideology on transitioning countries but rather to support them in their unique efforts towards it.  Though he did not specifically mention Mongolia, in this context the former Soviet satellite country seems to make the grade as its elections came about by popular consensus in 1992, just two years of the Soviet Union’s collapse.


From right, Nobel Laureate and Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Mongolian Foreign Minister Bold Luvsanvandan and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin at the Community of Democracies conference on Monday. Pic: AP.

Diamond then went on call out Cambodia as an example of a non-viable democracy.  Cambodia happens to parallel Mongolia as 20-year-old democracy, as its elections began in 1993, though installed by UNTAC rather than being brought about by Cambodians.  For 2012, the Economic Intelligence Unit listed Cambodia as a “hybrid regime,” occupying the space above “authoritarian,” while Mongolia ranked as a “flawed democracy.”

When questioned in private about Cambodia’s democracy failures, Diamond said this stemmed from “the international community letting [Prime Minister] Hun Sen get away with murder—they didn’t stand up to him.” Diamond explained that donors tend to go for stability and cited “donor fatigue.”

According to German research group GTZ, Cambodia previously received the bulk of its GDP from international aid but in recent years foreign direct investment (FDI) surpassed aid, a situation that gives donors even less bargaining power.

Mongolia was also known as a high foreign aid recipient, according to a local researcher, but has been transitioning as well.  U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Piper Anne Wind Campbell said though the U.S. had contributed half a billion USD in development aid to the country in its first 25 years of diplomatic relations, the relationship was now based on “trade ties” rather than assistance, according to local media.

While the analysis of what makes a democracy viable or not appears to be open to debate, debate itself was clearly accepted in Ulaanbaatar during the CoD event.  A protest broke out in front of the Government House in support of former president and leader of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Enkhbayar, imprisoned on corruption charges, which merely drew unarmed police to monitor the crowd.  Yet when Phnom Penh hosted the ASEAN Summit in November of 2012, housing rights protestors were swiftly arrested and civil society meetings were blocked.

About the author
Michelle Tolson has contributed to Inter Press Service (IPS), the Global Post, Women’s Media Center, Women’s International Perspective,  Women’s News Network, the UB Post of Mongol News Group and the Phnom Penh Post.  She has also worked on research projects in New York City and Cambodia.