in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 42 (3), 395-420
Scholarship on autocratisation has investigated the strategies of cooptation and repression that autocratic and autocratising regimes employ to maintain and enhance their power. However, it has barely explored how civil society reacts to these strategies. Concurrently, the existing research on civil society and social movements mostly suggests that civil society organisations (CSOs) will either resist autocratic repression or disband because of it, thereby often neglecting the possibility of CSOs’ adaptation to autocratic constraints. In this article, I seek to bridge these theoretical gaps with empirical evidence from Cambodia. I argue that for CSOs that operate in autocratic and autocratising regimes allowing themselves to become coopted by the regime can constitute a deliberate strategy to avoid repression, secure their survival, and exert social and political influence. However, while this strategy often seems to be effective in allowing CSOs to survive and escape large-scale repression, its success in enabling civil society to exert social and political influence remains limited, owing to structural limitations embedded in the autocratic context. Moreover, CSOs’ acceptance of cooptation often enhances divisions within civil society.