Cambodia: Signs Of Good Intentions?


Dr Milton Osborne

The arrest on 22 May of Sam Bith, the former Khmer Rouge (KR) commander in connection with the murder of three western backpackers in 1994, including the Australian David Wilson, has been one of the few events in Cambodia over recent weeks to command international attention. A warrant for Bith's arrest was issued more than two years ago, but he has continued to live an untroubled existence until now. Some local observers have suggested that the government's decision to act was taken in preparation for the June Cambodian donors' meeting. It is also thought to be a signal to the United Nations that the government is prepared to act against former KR personalities, even if there is still no agreement over a Khmer Rouge tribunal and much more senior KR leaders remain free.

As Hun Sen continues as the unchallenged leader of his country, FUNCINPEC is once again experiencing internal difficulties. Following the party's lamentable performance in the February elections, the party's leaders promised to restore its stability and credibility. But this promise has been undermined by internal frictions involving You Hokry, the Minister of the Interior, who has been accused of corruption and nepotism by his fellow FUNCINPEC party members. At the same time, Prince Norodom Chakrapong's announcement of his intention to form a new political party, the Khmer Spirit Party, appears to have the potential to draw support from individuals currently linked to FUNCINPEC.

On the economic front, the government has made clear that it hopes to join the World Trade Organisation in 2003. If this is to take place, Cambodia will have to address the consequences of membership, most particularly the loss of trade privileges such as clothing quotas in the United States. Against this background there is at least a stated recognition of the need to move away from heavy reliance on low-cost garment production towards the commercial agricultural sector, particularly value-added exports such as packaged foods and cereals. Meanwhile, discussion has been increasing of the problems associated with continuing corruption and an out-of-date legal system, both of which discourage direct foreign investment. Direct foreign investment fell to US$120 million in 2001, continuing a slide that has being going on for several years. Illegal timber deals, facilitated by corrupt practices, continue to be a major problem despite the Phnom Penh government's apparent recognition that this is an issue that must be solved.

In the latest move to exploit Cambodia's tourist potential, the government has signed a memorandum of understanding with a Las Vegas consortium for a feasibility study for resorts on two islands in the Gulf of Thailand, immediately west of Sihanoukville. While stating that there is no commitment from the consortium to establish a casino in a future resort, the Minister of Commerce, Cham Prasidh, acknowledged that this was a possibility.

From the beginning of July, Cambodia assumes the ASEAN chairmanship.

WATCHPOINT: Will there ever be a Khmer Rouge Tribunal?


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