In 1997, I was living in Cambodia, working for the U.S. government to help solidify the country’s fragile democracy. The air was hopeful: Civic groups were preparing to monitor upcoming elections, political parties were selecting candidates and drafting platforms, and newspapers had popped up to feverishly report on it all.
At his Fourth of July party, however, the U.S. ambassador to Phnom Penh warned of storm clouds ahead. The very next day, Hun Sen—a former military commander who at the time was Cambodia’s co–prime minister—marshaled the army and carried out a military coup. I stood on the rooftop of Hotel Cambodiana, where expats and government officials had fled for safety, and watched Hun Sen’s goons round up members of Parliament and political opponents, escorting them down to the Mekong River. It is reported that many were killed. I feverishly took Polaroid photos of the Cambodian opposition leaders hiding in the hotel, so that the ambassador could issue them the safety of U.S. passports.
The die was cast on that day. I returned to Cambodia many times as a visitor in the years that followed, and lived there from 2008 until 2014, and as time went on, the democratic space shrank and Hun Sen’s grip tightened. Yet, although we do not hear their voices much, many Cambodians are still fighting for their democracy from both outside and inside their country.
They are among millions of democrats who live in dictatorships, who press on and push for freedom, even as they feel alienated from and neglected by the world. In my 25 years overseas, I’ve met many of them, in Myanmar, Georgia, and elsewhere.
President Joe Biden has spoken of a world divided between democracies and autocracies, one where the United States must stand with its friends, against its dictatorial enemies, and so for his Summit for Democracy in December, the Biden administration determined that participants should be leaders of democratic countries.
Organizers thus inadvertently became bouncers at the night club of democracy, a messy business into which inconsistencies and subjectivity seeped. The invitation list was not always in line with independent democratic assessments. The Democratic Republic of Congo, an authoritarian regime, was invited, while Bolivia, a mid-performing democracy, was not. Zambia, Niger, and Angola were asked to join, though they are arguably no better than Sri Lanka, Tunisia, or Sierra Leone, which were not. This relative arbitrariness resulted in uncomfortable spokespersons for democracy: Rodrigo Duterte—who has eroded checks and balances, justified extrajudicial killings, created a deadly environment for journalists, and encouraged a culture of misogyny—represented Philippine democracy, for example.
Importantly, the summit also shut the door on democrats and activists from civil society, opposition parties, and other sectors who are unluckily living in uninvited countries. Ignoring these democrats is a mistake. They should be front and center in our battle between democracy and autocracy. The tendency to revert to an iron curtain, dividing the world into clubs of nations, should be resisted. The only way we win this battle is by engaging and increasing support to democrats in autocracies.
In my experience, these folks are the most innovative defenders of democracy—they have to be!—from whom we could learn plenty. I worked with North Korean groups in Seoul that ingeniously smuggled flash drives into products crossing the border from China into North Korea and even attached messages to hot-air balloons to penetrate the North’s sealed information space. On the Thai border in the 1990s, I helped the then-exiled Burmese government organize and communicate with activists still in the country, surreptitiously meeting in the jungle, sending coded handwritten messages through tribal communities and launching radio programs.
The underlying point is that the struggle between democracy and autocracy is based not on geographic delineations but on values and ideas held by people everywhere. Differentiating between democracies and non-democracies is as effective as relying on borders to stop a pandemic from spreading. Democracies are threatened by autocrats from within, such as the far-right Alt-Info movement gaining steam in my previous home, the Caucasus country of Georgia. And autocracies have brave democrats fighting for change, such as the heroic Russian journalist who held a sign up on live TV exposing Vladimir Putin’s lies. Country labels, further, do not always predict geopolitical cooperation: Singapore, not a democracy, supported sanctioning Russia over the war in Ukraine, whereas India, our supposed democratic bulwark in Asia, abstained. Dividing the world into friendly and hostile blocs also impedes cooperation needed to tackle global crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
I have seen successful democratic advances against autocracy—including the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Saffron one in Myanmar—and they were due to the grit and stamina of civic and political actors within. Democratic work in closed spaces is fraught, and capacity to operate varies. In the 1990s, for example, I was in Malaysia at a time when democracy and human-rights organizations were unable to work legally, and opportunities to engage with political actors didn’t exist. So those of us at international democracy-promotion groups provided support to consumer-rights organizations instead. Advocating for safe food and products, after all, is a political process, engages citizens, and establishes a rights agenda.
Many countries and international organizations are doing this important, creative work, but governments need to prioritize and increase funding for these efforts. Democrats from Egypt, Cameroon, Venezuela, Central African Republic, and Belarus, to name a few, must be included in the global democracy coalition, and not relegated to capturing our attention through fleeting headlines. They desperately need alliances and solidarity, and can benefit from learning best practices and tactics from others.
They also show us that democracy is not a unitary or stable achievement. My experiences with besieged democrats abroad have held up a painful mirror to my own country, teaching me not to take freedom for granted.
Supporting them is not only the right thing to do; it is a matter of global security. Rising autocrats put our geopolitical order at risk, as we see tragically today with Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen is still in power, unfazed by cuts in U.S. and European Union assistance and canceled trade deals. He has called the American ambassador a “liar” for his condemnation. Why would he care? His pockets are lined with Chinese money, and he shows little concern about the welfare of his citizens. The thing he does fear is the democratic movement inside the country. This is why he must keep imprisoning, exiling, and even killing the democrats who are obstacles to his rule.
The real threat to autocracies everywhere is the democrats within. The key to a more stable global future is therefore in their hands. They must be in the club.