Cambodia: Falling Behind --------

2001

Ian Wilson

Cambodia continues to perform below its potential and fails to meet the expectations of donors and would-be investors alike. In laying some of the foundations for an open civil society there has been far more progress than in neighbouring Laos or Vietnam, where press freedoms are almost unknown and autonomous non-government organisations have no prospects of survival. What has not been achieved in Cambodia is a local environment of peace and security in which free institutions might prosper and flourish. There remain grave doubts about the rule of law and the impartiality of the judiciary and until these are dispersed then the international donors and the UN will not give the Hun Sen government fulsome support.

It must not be forgotten that war damage to Cambodia’s physical and social fabric was on a massive scale and will take decades to repair. Hatred of the Vietnamese goes back much further, leaving a combined legacy of suspicion about the origins of the current government and a set of poisonous relations between Hun Sen and his former coalition partners, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his FUNCINPEC group. Relations with the Sam Rainsy opposition are no better and it is no surprise that both challengers to the government spend much time out of the country. Sporadic violence late last year and again in April 2001 only further undermined domestic and foreign confidence in Cambodian security.

The long delay in bringing clearly identified Khmer Rouge war criminals to justice has added to civil unease and international frustration. Some analysts have identified a ‘culture of impunity’ which protects former Khmer Rouge members, not only for their war crimes but for their blatant corruption and illegal dealings in logging, gem mining and development schemes which rely on displacement of whole communities to make way for golf courses and very suspect tourism projects. Underlying this problem are the depths to which war crimes tribunals might delve because one has to scratch only a few prominent Cambodians to discover a former Khmer Rouge soldier. To have crossed over to the side with the victorious Vietnamese forces in 1979 is not acceptable to strong nationalists within the population, some of whom continue to harass and even kill Vietnamese settlers and their supporters.

Cambodian nationalism has a long, proud and frequently violent tradition. Foreign intervention in imposing international rules or even requiring approval of a judiciary that might make up a tribunal is now taken as an insult to the pride and sovereignty of the state. China, which has shown no haste in uncovering those responsible for the massacres around Tienanmen Square in 1989, is lending support to Hun Sen in his campaign to exclude UN involvement in any trial process. This is perhaps the wrong course, because a quick trial of a few ringleaders of the 1975-1978 period, now mostly old and sick, would at least allow Cambodia to push ahead to heal the wounds of the past and repair the damages of war and flood, which hold back the nation.

WATCHPOINT: When will there be real movement on the tribunal?

 

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