Cambodia: On The Cusp Of International Acceptability


Tony Kevin

A recent working visit to Cambodia left this writer with a strong impression that Cambodia is poised to escape at last from the international image problem that has dogged its government since the so-called Hun Sen coup of July 1997 and the reinstatement of the coalition in November 1998.

The main trends moving in Cambodia’s favour have been: . the acceptance by the World Bank – a chaired intergovernmental donors’ consultative meeting in Paris in April 2000 decided that the Cambodian government is doing its best to tackle intractable economic, social and environmental problems, and is making concrete progress; . the coming on board of influential environmental groups like Global Witness (now a consultant to the Cambodian government on forestry and national park management); . the recent passage (in January 2001) by Cambodia’s Assembly and Senate of the draft law that had been negotiated with the UN for a joint Cambodia-UN tribunal for crimes committed by Khmer Rouge leaders during their 1975-79 regime; . the effortless put-down in November 2000 of an amateurish attempted armed revolt by California-based opponents of the government.

There are important shadows on this picture of incremental normalisation. Mainly as a result of the floods last year, GDP growth forecasts for the current year have been downgraded from 7% to 4.5%. More seriously, foreign investment and new job creation remains disappointingly low. This partly reflects the Asian economic turndown and continuing problems of corruption in Cambodia, but all my interlocutors in Phnom Penh agreed that the deterrence of quality investment is being greatly exacerbated by Cambodia’s persisting negative international image.

Negative perceptions continue to be reinforced by influential international assessment groups like the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG, headed, paradoxically, by former Cambodian peacemaker Gareth Evans), and by Washington-based advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch International and the International Republican Institute (IRI), which still have their teeth firmly sunk into Cambodia. The IRI in December – citing an August 2000 ICG assessment - appealed to President Bush to abandon the Clinton administration’s alleged policies of accommodation to Hun Sen’s rogue regime. The IRI called on Bush to get tough on Cambodia, as an example of US resolve to build democracy worldwide.

While such appeals run counter to the hard-headed philosophy of the incoming US Secretary of State, there is still a slight risk that ideologues in Washington might succeed in persuading a Bush administration to make a special example of Cambodia – however manifestly unfair and counter-productive this would now be.

So Cambodia is poised on the cusp. The issue of its international re-legitimation will finally be settled, one suspects, in forthcoming months.

WATCHPOINT: Will King Sihanouk sign the Khmer Rouge trials bill into law without delay? Will incoming US State and Defence senior officials visit Cambodia as part of their Asian region familiarisation visits?


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