In the Shadow of the Constitution: Quotidian Constitutional Contestation in Cambodia

Written during an internationalised peace process, Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution is ostensibly guided by principles of liberal democracy and rule of law. With recent practice in Cambodia characterised by increasing autocratisation, however, constitutional contestation in Cambodia is often assumed to be “muted,” with the Constitution a mere “sham.” An ethnographic look at everyday practice, which necessarily sees beyond the courts, instead finds that constitutional contestations are rife. Drawing on two years of fieldwork, this paper argues that not only formal political actors, but also Buddhist monks, NGOs, community leaders, artists and other lay actors frequently mobilise constitutional ideas and reshape constitutional meaning “from below.” Acknowledging the socio-cultural significance of constitutions, I suggest, brings to light otherwise overshadowed stories in which they are translated into practice by a diverse array of actors who are rarely attributed constitutional agency.