Cambodia: Reconstruction Depends On Government Integrity


Lt Gen John Sanderson

Once again, the Consultative Group at its February Tokyo Meeting has pledged a sizeable commitment ($US470 million) to the future of Cambodia. It is encouraging to see the way in which the international community has maintained faith with the Cambodian people through their transition from the almost lawless conditions of agrarian revolution and post-revolutionary communism to an Asian form of market oriented democracy. The significant size of these commitments is all the more impressive given the demand for help in other undeveloped nations, and the turbulence of Cambodian politics since the UN supervised election of 1993.

The greatest spur for international donors has not been the assurances of government leaders of a commitment to reform, of which there have been many since 1991. Rather it has been the passionate desire of the Cambodian people for democracy and stability, made manifest in the numbers who have turned out to vote under the difficult conditions prevailing for both the 1993 and 1998 elections. The quality of their vote has demonstrated a maturity of thought about the balance of power inside Cambodia, and a degree of courageous resolution, which cannot be ignored by political leaders.

Cambodia has suffered proportionately less than other nations through the Asian economic downturn of the late 1990s, simply because it had less to lose. Its immature, dollar oriented economy was not subjected to the same speculative flight of money which produced the volatile erosion of the inflated boom economies of the rest of South East Asia. Even though it remains one of the world's poorest nations, Cambodia's relatively small population and abundant, well watered landscape make it a focus for optimism.

What has slowed investment and economic growth has been political instability following the mid-1997 coup, and the seemingly uncontrolled erosion of Cambodia's precious national assets, including its forests, fisheries and gems. Little of the benefit of this harvest has been returned to the people in the form of infrastructure, maintenance and education. Instead, much of it has gone into the pockets of the power elites who control the concessions, and to the maintenance of a poorly paid security apparatus, which has had little to do with the rights of the nation's poor, and much to do with crime in the countryside.

It is time for all that to be put behind Cambodia now. What is increasingly clear is that nations that do not generate stability and an educated workforce will be left behind in the 21st Century. You cannot have an educated population without also putting in place the liberal, consultative structures of government based on individual rights and the Law. This message should be clear and unequivocal from the donor communities and the Consultative Group for Cambodia.

WATCHPOINT: What the Cambodian leadership must be persuaded of in order to avoid the turmoil experienced elsewhere is that stability is simply not enough.


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