Cambodia: Ever Present 'Alarums and Excursions'


Milton Osborne

It might be beyond the talents even of a Shakespeare, whose stage directions lead this article, to concoct the plots that make up the ebb and flow of Cambodia's everyday political life. With a striking, on occasion dubious, cast of principal characters, remarkable allegations of malfeasance, and a bit part played by no less a figure than Jacques Vergès, the radical French lawyer who defended Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal, it would all seem grist for a tabloid newspaper if it were not a reflection on the deep problems that continue to trouble the country.

Without doubt the most newsworthy development over the last few weeks was the flight from Cambodia in July of the former Phnom Penh Chief of Police and Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior, Heng Pov, after a falling out with senior figures in the regime. In his absence Heng Pov was relieved of his duties and an International Warrant was issued for his arrest. In response, Heng Pov hit back with a wide-ranging series of charges against Prime Minister Hun Sen and his administration claiming, among other things, Hun Sen's involvement, either directly or by association, in the March 1997 grenade attack on the protest march led by Sam Rainsy and the prime minister's readiness to disregard a range of criminal activities among his closest collaborators.

Not surprisingly, all of Heng Pov's claims have been denied. After the former police chief was located in Singapore he was reported to have been expelled from there to Malaysia in early September. At the time of writing his actual location is unknown. It is unlikely that any of his claims about regime corruption will ever be sustained, but there is no doubt that the detailed picture of corruption and criminality that he has provided will be taken by many in Cambodian political circles to represent an insight into hidden aspects of the governing regime's behaviour.

Meanwhile, the preliminary work of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC) grinds on with the expectation that it will not be until some time in 2007 that any defendants will be brought to trial. Doubts remain as to the competence and independence of some of the Cambodian judges, and as to whom the defendants will be. Will, for instance, leading former Khmer Rouge figure, Ieng Sary, who currently enjoys freedom following an amnesty granted years ago be brought to trial? Khieu Samphan, who held the position of chief of state during the Pol Pot regime and is also at large, continues to protest his innocence of any involvement in the murderous purges of that period and seems set to be defended by Jacques Vergès should he be brought to trial. Apparently the two met in Paris while Khieu Samphan was studying there in the 1950s. On his past record, Vergès can be expected to seek to question the basis on which the ECCC has been constituted and its legitimacy should he appear before it.

Given the seriousness of issues such as the capacity of the ECCC to carry out its duties in a proper fashion, the continuing decline in Prince Ranariddh's fortunes as leader of FUNCINPEC seem almost a matter for comic opera. This comparison has been made more appropriate by his recently highly publicised marital troubles, publicity to which he has contributed by his frequent appearances with his mistress and which has made him an object for mockery by Hun Sen.

Developments of the kind just reviewed have little meaning for the problems being faced by the squatters who have been forcibly removed from various locations in Phnom Penh over the past few months. Long established squatter camps on prime land near the Bassac River have been successively cleared to make way for commercial development, with the evicted squatters relocated to undeveloped rural sites up to 40 kilometres from the capital. Despite numerous protests by civil society groups, the evictions continue.

Against this generally sombre background, two positive economic developments deserve mention. First, and most important, is the discovery of up to 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in six Cambodian offshore blocs in the Gulf of Thailand. Chevron has already been granted rights for exploratory drilling at one of the blocs, and there have been unconfirmed reports that Chinese interests have been granted rights to another. Secondly, and largely unheralded, China has been engaged in upgrading the important road (former Colonial Route 13) running through northeastern Cambodia to the Lao border. This upgrading includes building a bridge across the San River (also referred to as the Sekong) at Stung Treng. With major road works already having been undertaken in Laos, there will soon be a 1,900 kilometre all-weather road running from Kunming in Yunnan Province to Cambodia's deepwater port at Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. There is speculation that China will, eventually, look to use this road to import Middle Eastern oil into its southwestern provinces.

WATCHPOINT: The possible, but probably unlikely, damaging fall-out from Heng Pov's accusations; and, the extent to which the Khmer Rouge Tribunal can carry out a convincing legal process.


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