Cambodia: Approaching Normality?


Dr Milton Osborne

In the absence of any dramatic developments and with the apparent readiness of Prince Ranariddh to work with Hun Sen, Cambodian politics over the past several months have taken on an air of stability quite different from the turbulence of 1997 and the uncertainties of 1998. Even Sam Rainsy, though still not ready to abandon his gadfly role, seems to be working within a political framework that accepts the fact that, for the moment, the Hun Sen government is beyond challenge.

There has been some international recognition of this changed set of circumstances, with external commentators including the Asian Wall Street Journal ready to conclude that 'Cambodia is on the mend'. Tellingly, there has been improvement in the economic field with inflation forecast to drop to half its present annual figure of 12.5 percent, and some progress being made towards controlling illegal logging. This latter is of great importance since the institution of proper control of logging has been taken as a touchstone by the IMF for the renewal of its operations in Cambodia.

Normality is, of course, a flexible concept and the changed political climate still leaves many of Cambodia's problems unresolved. At the time of writing there was till no agreement for a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders, with several of the most senior continuing to live with impunity in the Pailin region of western Cambodia.

Corruption remains endemic, as exemplified by the string of revelations of illegal behaviour associated with Cambodia Mine Action Centre. Reform of the armed forces proceeds only slowly, and the problem of payments made to 'ghost soldiers' remains. Violent criminality continues to plague the capital.

So Cambodia remains a society in which social problems exist on an awesome scale, and not just in the obvious ways outlined above. Reliable estimates put the rate of HIV infections at a steady new 100 cases every day. Meanwhile, old tensions between lowland Cambodians and hill people have once again come into prominence. In short, normality to the extent it exists is a fragile concept.

WATCHPOINT: A falling out between Hun Sen and Ranarridh, which currently seems an unlikely possibility.


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