Cambodia: Softly, Softly...


Tony Kevin

Cambodia is working to demonstrate its loyalty to ASEAN. It is showing special respect to ASEAN elder brother Indonesia. Cambodians were flattered that Abdurrahman Wahid included Phnom Penh in his whistlestop ASEAN tour soon after becoming Indonesia's President. Hun Sen commented that the biggest threat to ASEAN members these days lies in separatist tendencies within ASEAN states supported by international forces, and he made clear his lack of enthusiasm for the new Timorese state joining ASEAN.

Hun Sen certainly sees parallels between the international condemnation of Indonesia over the Timor tragedy and the continuing human rights-based international suspicion of his own government. If the international community challenges the behaviour of an ASEAN country, his instinct will be to line up in solidarity against external criticism. That attitude will win him friends in ASEAN. It will also further marginalise his opponent Sam Rainsy as a protege of Western human rights lobbies, striking chords especially with Malaysia and Singapore which have their own equivalent dissidents supported by international human rights lobbies.

There is still no compromise in the vexed issue of UN support for Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia. When Hun Sen met Kofi Annan in New York in September, Annan's ultimatum was simple: there will be no UN help unless the UN fully controls the process, because the consensus of the international law and human rights community is that Cambodia is not competent to conduct these trials.

Not entirely coincidentally, in September Kofi Annan floated in UNGA his controversial doctrine of limited national sovereignty, that is, if a community of like-minded states agree that a particular state is violating the human rights of its citizens according to internationally agreed norms of behaviour, they may correct that transgressor state's conduct by force. This doctrine resonated badly in Cambodia as in other weak Third World states that lack the military wherewithal or powerful allies to defend themselves against what they saw as this latest version of nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy.

Commendably, the US State Department in October proposed a diplomatic compromise to the Khmer Rouge trials issue, which Hun Sen quickly accepted: that Cambodia should provide a majority of judges (3 out of 5), but that a majority of 4 out of 5 judges be required for verdicts - thereby effectively giving the international community a strong voice in the process. Six weeks later, the UN has yet to respond. Human Rights Watch International however urged Annan to reject the proposal. They argued that nothing less that complete international control of these trials will be acceptable.

The Cambodian Government feels it has done all it can and is now proceeding to set up national trials in early 2000, with some support from individual international jurists who do not toe the current UN line. Such national trials will inevitably be discredited by the international human rights groups. But certainly most ASEAN observers would see that the Cambodian Government has - short of declaring itself juridically incompetent - done all it can to accommodate international human rights pressures.

The publication by the Paris newsmagazine 'L'Express' of alleged secret handwritten diaries of the murdered film actress Piseth Piklica, referring to her alleged affair with Hun Sen, is still the main topic of political gossip in Phnom Penh. The glamorous Piklica was understood to have been romantically involved with several powerful Cambodian men, and thereby incurred the enmity of their wives. Who ordered her contract killing a few months ago is still not known. The diaries, which may be forged, refer explicitly to a passionate affair with Hun Sen which was ended by Hun Sen under pressure from his wife Bun Rany. Sam Rainsy is implicated in the production of the story in L'Express. It is a tawdry story, and one that does not seem to have great political significance at this stage.

WATCHPOINT: The problems of international legitimation that still beset Cambodia show no sign of going away. The Cambodian Government, though increasingly acceptable within ASEAN, still has powerful enemies further afield.


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