Cambodia: A New Chapter Opens


Tony Kevin

Early in December, the editor of the Phnom Penh Post wrote that Cambodia was on the verge of having an internationally-recognised government, with no significant competing ideologies, no major armed conflict among factions, the near-complete dissolution of the Khmer Rouge as a threat to national security, and no interference by regional or international powers.

Well, on the verge. Cambodia does have an internal political settlement. The Khmer Rouge is finished. And Cambodia has regained its seat at the UN.

But ASEAN has not yet accepted Cambodia as a member. At least three member countries - Thailand, Philippines and Singapore - signal they want to see the last component of the agreed internal political settlement, the setting up of a Senate completed first - with displaced former President of the National Assembly, Cambodian People's Party (CPP) elder statesman Chea Sim, at its head. Cambodia's entry to ASEAN was fudged at the December ASEAN summit (which Hun Sen attended). ASEAN is still not firmly committed to any date for Cambodia's entry.

Chea Sim surrendered the Presidency to Prince Ranariddh as part of the compromise deal in mid-November - three and a half months after the 26 July election. In the deal Funcinpec secured half the ministerial portfolios, Ranariddh got the prestigious Assembly Presidency which is at least nominally independent of Hun Sen's authority, and Rainsy's party of 15 MPs was recognised as the parliamentary opposition.

But setting up the new Senate is proving problematical. Much of the constitution will have to be re-written. Issues of the Senate's composition, election and powers have yet to be resolved. And a debate is emerging in Phnom Penh whether Cambodia really needs or can afford this expensive additional parliamentary chamber. Some are suggesting that it would be better to put Chea Sim in charge of a strengthened Constitutional Council (which already exists), thereby achieving the same end of maintaining an important role for Chea Sim as a political counterweight in CPP to Hun Sen and as an acting Head of State when the King is absent from Cambodia. Few in Cambodia would want to see Prince Ranariddh acting as Head of State by default.

Hence a solution to the Senate issue must be found. But it may not be found quickly; and some in ASEAN may use this as a pretext for continued delay in admitting Cambodia.

Finally there is the bedrock question of US attitudes to the new government. The old prejudices against Hun Sen and CPP are still evident in Washington. The Rohrbacher/Helms resolution to declare Hun Sen a war criminal, passed by Congress in October, is listed for Senate committee consideration in January. The Department of State said little to welcome the peace settlement, and has yet to put forward a new Ambassadorial nomination after their last nominee (Kent Weidermann) was rejected by the Senate as 'not tough enough' to deal with Hun Sen. Washington's message is that Hun Sen and his party are still very much on probation. But the World Bank and the aid agencies are planning for renewed development programs in Cambodia. A World Bank Consultative Group meeting is planned for early in 1999. That meeting will mobilise donors to rebuild their programs. The need is urgent - three precious years have been lost.

Hun Sen has promised donors that he will deliver better governance with greater attention to problems like corruption, pollution, and stripping of forests. Rainsy's party will certainly provide a vocal and protected parliamentary Opposition. On balance, the settlement is - however hesitantly - a new beginning for Cambodia. But the extent of international legitimation of the Hun Sen-led government will govern how quickly foreign aid and private investment are fully restored, which will in turn determine the economic climate.

WATCHPOINT: The key markers over the next few weeks will be: timing of Cambodia's accession to ASEAN membership; how the US Senate handles the Helms/Rohrbacher resolution; and the selection process for a new US Ambassador to Cambodia.


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