Cambodia: Does Anything Change?

2000

Milton Osborne

The November has been a busy month in Cambodia, but it is an open question as to whether or not anything has changed, at least so far as the disposition of political power is concerned. Hun Sen remains firmly in charge without any obvious challenger. Prince Ranarridh has given no indication of a wish to depart from his second-string position as President of the National Assembly. And Sam Rainsy maintains his role as the visible face of opposition, without being able to influence either day-to-day, or long-term political decisions.

All this said, there have been some interesting developments in a month that followed King Norodom Sihanouk’s celebrating his 78th birthday on 31 October. Probably the most notable was the visit to Phnom and later the Angkor temples by China’s President, Jiang Zemin, on 13 and 14 November. This was the first visit to Cambodia by a senior Chinese figure since 1963 and was a clear indication of China’s push to expand its political and economic influence in the region. During Jiang’s visit he signed seven agreements with Cambodia covering trade, agriculture and crime.

Jiang Zemin pointedly avoided any discussion of past Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge, an issue that was raised in advance of the visit by Cambodian human rights groups. He was undoubtedly aware that the question of a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders remains unresolved within Cambodia. While the Cambodian government has concluded a memorandum of understanding about the tribunal with the United Nations, the full details of that MoU have not been made public and changes to the government’s draft law to establish a tribunal have also remained secret, including from the National Assembly’s legislative commission charged with considering arrangements for the tribunal. A cynical but widespread view is that Hun Sen will be happy to delay moving forward to establish a tribunal for some time to come.

An event of notable importance was the decision by UNHCR to withdraw its personnel from Cambodia by the end of December, so ending the long association of the agency with the country that began after the large exodus of refugees in the period after the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime.

During late October and early November Cambodia suffered severe flooding as the result of unusually heavy rains. In the event, however, the effects of the floods were less severe than was feared.

WATCHPOINT: A change of policy that leads to the Khmer Rouge tribunal being established.

 

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