Cambodia: New Problems, Old Problems


Milton Osborne

The prospect that, finally, a tribunal will come into being to try the remaining former Khmer Rouge leaders provides a basis for reflection on a range of Cambodia's problems, both new and old. Known officially as the 'Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia', the tribunal will probably begin its sittings before the end of 2006. Just as there were serious concerns until recently that the tribunal would ever come into being, there are now grounds for unease about the calibre of the Cambodian judges that have been nominated to sit on its bench. Some, at least, have close ties to Hun Sen's CPP, and one of these is widely seen as having presided over two trials last year in which his decisions were made for political rather than legal reasons.

But there are broader reasons for being concerned about the tribunal. Although there are sufficient funds for the trials to begin, there is still an estimated shortfall of US$9.6 million in its estimated costs, leaving the worry that the tribunal might have to be suspended at some future point. Then there is the difficulty posed by the age of the defendants, always presuming that the amnesties previously granted to Khieu Samphan (74) and Ieng Sary (76) will be revoked, and that the poor health of both these men and of Nuon Chea (78) does not, in the end, prevent their facing trial.

Possibly more important than all of the above concerns, is the issue of what the trials will mean to the Cambodian population. In the absence of reliable opinion polling this is a difficult area for judgment. Several facts appear clear, nevertheless. It is now 27 years since Pol Pot's regime was overthrown, so that the overwhelming majority of Cambodia's population has had no experience of that period - nearly 70 per cent of Cambodia's population is under 30 years of age. It is in these circumstances that there is considerable doubt and confusion about (a) what the tribunal is and what its powers are, and (b) what the true nature of the Pol Pot period actually involved. Extraordinary though it may appear to external observers, there are Cambodians, both living in the country and abroad, who are vigorous in their efforts to deny the human costs of the Pol Pot years, and the responsibilities for those costs incurred by others apart from the limited number of people who will stand trial at the tribunal.

It is against this background that it is important to dwell on some of the features of contemporary Cambodian society that can readily escape a short-term visitor. Without being able to provide an exact figure, there is a depressingly high rate of mental illness among those who did experience the Pol Pot period, often characterised by an inability to accept responsibility in any job requiring more than basic skills. As for the huge numbers of young Cambodians, many of whom are without work and who have little concept of what happened between 1975 and 1979, there has been a disturbing growth of violent youth gangs, both in the capital and in provincial centres.

Social problems of the kind just mentioned lie beneath the more obvious and newsworthy issues constituted by the continuing land grabs by wealthy developers and the fragility of the important garment industry. While members of Phnom Penh's elite gossip about the supposed unhappiness of the king, who is said to be longing for the anonymity he once enjoyed in Paris, and hope that the 'Ploughing of the Sacred Furrow' ceremony might, indeed, forecast good harvests, they appear to show little regard for those who live at or below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, Hun Sen continues to show that he is unchallenged as Cambodia's leader, holding out an olive branch to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least for the moment, and seeking to defuse the latest revelation of scandal in the administration of World Bank development projects. With Ranariddh effectively having removed himself from the political equation and Sam Rainsey having embarked on his new policy of seeking amity with Hun Sen, there seems little reason to expect major changes in Cambodia's domestic politics in the short term.

WATCHPOINT: Will Cambodia's underlying social problems lead to any change in the political scene that Hun Sen so effectively dominates?


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