Is it colonialism?

Recently, the Cambodian National Assembly decided to expel 27 opposition members, which means not allowing them to participate in their duties, including debating and voting on new laws, and it also means denying these members their salaries. (article link)

The U.S. State Department responded to this action issuing a statement on June 8, 2013:

The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Permanent Committee of the Cambodian National Assembly, made up entirely of members of the ruling party, has expelled opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly. Such a decision starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process. 

We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field. Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia. Full participation of all elected representatives is essential to the democratic process.

We urge the National Assembly leadership to allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people.

As reported by The Cambodia Daily (article), a Cambodian lawmaker said in response to the U.S. statement: “Please rethink this. I don’t want them [the U.S. State Department] to have colonial ideas anymore, telling other countries to do things.” (my emphasis)

A follow-up article expands on this: “CPP-led Assembly Tells U.S. to Stop Meddling”

While I’m admittedly not an expert in international politics, I want to explore what I think is an important question:  Is this a “colonial” move by the U.S.?  My first reaction is:  Not in the slightest.  I was under the impression that having opinions and issuing statements about other countries’ actions is part of participating in the international community.

Colonialism generally refers to an actual administrative power in the governing of another country.  Hence, the French Protectorate would be a time of colonialism.  The Vietnamese occupation as well.  Neocolonialism is generally understand as the transition from the direct control by another country to establishment (or maintenance) of elites that hold favor with a country which is able to, through these people, control the country, continuing an exploitative relationship with its people.  Imperialism, probably the most relevant in the relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia, is the ability for a strong (usually economically strong) power to control another country through economic dependence which includes cultural imperialism.  This would include teaching or somehow spreading ideas that keep one country in power, internationally speaking.  Hence, selling the logic of neoliberal capitalism might be most beneficial for the U.S. or most beneficial for various transnational corporations and the executives of those.  Other values which benefit one country over others might also be considered imperialism.  For instance, valuing secularism over religion can politically mean vilifying religious (in the current rhetoric usually Islamic) violence and more importantly justifying secular violence (against the religious violence, for instance).  This, by the way, is the main thesis of Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence.

But let’s do a very quick and rudimentary analysis.  Is the U.S. State Department’s action colonial?  Since the U.S. is not directly in control of Cambodian government, perhaps we can ask a related question: Is it paternalistic?

To command a change in policy or else (for instance, the “or else” might be implementing economic sanctions or using military force or instituting some other form of “punishment”) seems more paternalistic and depending on what we mean by “colonial” seems to be easier to argue for.  Or for the U.S. to ignore what U.S. thinks is an unjust situation because the country is undeveloped and is unworthy of attention seems also to be paternalistic, politically ignoring the country (and perhaps working in covert ways) would also be on the scale of colonial to imperialistic.  But to issue a statement using the values a country (the U.S.) claims to hold (whether this is internally consistent is a whole different, more dubious question) and make a statement regarding others’ unjust actions seems to me to be the opposite of colonial.  Is making such a statement even imperialistic?  This would take a lot more analysis of what democracy means (which is an important exercise).  But on the surface, it seems difficult to argue it’s imperialistic.

This sort of statement necessarily made from the ethical framework of one country (here, the U.S.), which seems to encourage dialogue, an attempt to hold another (here, Cambodia) accountable to its own purported values (in this case, democracy), seems to be treating another as, well, more of an equal.  It doesn’t appear to be coercion, or indoctrination, or a way to reinforce exploitation which seem to be important in imperialism.

In the article Mr. Vun says, “We took an oath to protect democracy, and they [the U.S.] tell Cambodia to do this and do that. We cannot accept it. If we tell [the U.S. Congress] what to do, will they do it? If not, don’t tell our National Assembly what to do.”  I don’t know if this is a language issue, but it seems to me that it would be appropriate for other countries to call out the U.S. in double-talk or unjust practices.  I would hope that Cambodia would make statements about injustices that it sees in the U.S. policy, for instance toward Cambodia, or even unjust practices toward its own (American) people.  In fact, also in the article, Mr. Vun does call out the U.S. for its role in the 1970 coup d’etat which seems to be a normal (not colonial) thing to do.

So, philosophically, I think that such a statement by the U.S. State Department whether I agree with it or not, does not seem to be “colonial.”  I must admit that underneath such statements there may be a lot of other things going on.  Perhaps those practices are more “colonial.”  And perhaps my hope that other countries would call out the U.S. is unrealistic because of the actual imperialistic power that it holds.  If so, this, then, is a problem.

But as for the U.S. State Department’s statement, I so no colonialism.  What do you see?