Cambodia: Signs Of Spring?


Ian Wilson

Cambodia suffered grievously during the years of the Indochinese Wars but, whereas for Vietnam and Laos peace meant an end to major conflict, for Cambodia it brought four years of murderous rule under Pol Pot and, in 1978-79, invasion from Vietnam. Chinaís retaliatory foray into Vietnamís border region was at least swift and allowed reconstruction to proceed again. For the Cambodians it was not until late in 1999 that the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered and the civil war could be declared over. Largely starved of aid until 1989, the result of shared US and Chinese animosity towards her Vietnamese allies and their army, Cambodia remains desperately poor, is the least educated nation in the region, and has probably the worst physical and social scarring. In the older age bracket there are only 75 men per 100 women and the psychological trauma of losing about 2 million to execution, torture and starvation is not diminished by being difficult to measure.

Yet in 1993 and 1998, genuinely competitive national elections were conducted, generally quite fairly, there is now a vocal political opposition, the press is free and makes up in courage what it sometimes loses in terms of ability to publish everything it may want all of the time. The stark contrasts with conservative and barely reformed communist one-party rule in Vietnam and Laos could not be clearer. Most significantly, foreigners can easily identify and cooperate with lively non-government organisations, surveying, debating and publishing on such issues as the development of Cambodian democracy, strategies for economic development, violence in the home, improving the lot of women, how best to demobilise most of the Army, a national education policy and what contribution Buddhism and the clergy can make to national self-definition and a democratic culture. All this from the local telephone directory and a few questions. These groups are mostly autonomous, self-funding and know how to tap into international NGOs for help. We can see a small, vibrant and sometimes embattled civil society emerging and taking actions which would bring gaol or worse in Vietnam and Laos.

Before being carried away by all this, it is important to recognise the pressures these young green shoots must survive before they can take firm root. Political corruption is rife and costly in terms of output and the ability to attract investment and aid. Cambodia lacks resources upon which to build a stable export economy and needs an administrative system to channel any earnings into public coffers and away from predatory officials and politicians. The level of social violence remains high and the failure to bring to justice even the most obvious Khmer Rouge leaders has led to a culture of impunity which does nothing to deter crime. It can be seen that many of these problems lie close to the top of the political leadership. Drug addiction and AIDS gnaw away at the human resources, and unexploded wartime ordnance constitutes another hazard in rural recovery.

Assisting Cambodia towards recovery and self-sustaining growth requires commitment and tact on the part of outside donors and the international community. Independence is close to the heart of Cambodian self respect, so direct intervention must be avoided. At the same time, the political leadership must be prevented from undermining the freedoms that have emerged since the elections. Real and lasting civil society must come from within, and here the local NGOs are central to the exercise. Without support they could easily succumb to suppression by those in the ruling coalition who are embarrassed by publicity directed at their misdeeds and scandalous behaviour. Hun Senís commitment to democracy is welcome but remains well short of the obsessional and his inaction over Khmer Rouge crimes simply perpetuates the culture of impunity. ASEAN as a body is totally ineffective against authoritarian practices, not least because it embraces their perpetuation within its membership. The UNís moral authority is still considerable and international donors and investors also have influence. Cambodiaís NGOs need some support and security if they are to repair from below their fractured communities, and work with the national assembly and other social groupings to rebuild trust, respect for human rights and grassroots democracy. The political alternatives are close at hand in the immediate neighbourhood and have been tried before.

WATCHPOINT: Can the UN assert its right to be represented on the judgesí panel to try those Khmer Rouge leaders charged with murder, violations of human rights and genocide? At least four other ASEAN members would find such a precedent a real threat to their own positions.


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