Cambodia Update -1990

By David Wurfel | 1990-10-01 12:00:00

This visitor to Cambodia in early July detected a growing mood ofdespair. in Phnom Penh fear of the advancing Khmer Rouge rem tensifled. In the countryside nearly 100,000 peasants were internal refugees, victims of the expanded fighting.

Anxiety about the economy was reflected in a declining blaclunarket rate for the riel. Most everyone expected the disappearance ofsoviet and East European atdby the end of next year and few saw what would replace it.

By the end of the same month visitors would have sensed a less pessimistic mood. A switch in U.S. policy very late in the game, to be sure is crucial for eventual peace in Cambodia, but, alas, may not bring it quickly. The Khmer Rouge, now itself fearful of abandonment by foreign backers, must redouble its efforts to prove its worth to Chinese and Thai military patrons. But the tide is turning against it.

U.S. policy most immediately removes from the Khmer Rouge the cloak of legitimacy which theirseat in the U.N., as a member of the coalition "government" (fighting against the Pbnom Penh regime), provided. The Americans were responding to pressure not only in the U.S. Congress, which was growing rapidly, but from the EEC, which had already announced its intention of voting against the Sihanouk-led coalition in the next U.N. credentials fight, and Japan, rumored to be considering the same move. Unless the U.S. fails to back-up its overt position in the quiet lobbying that precedes a U.N. vote, the Cambodian seat will probably be declared empty this fall.

Without lifting its embargo of aid, trade and investment for Vietnam and Cambodia, the U.S. has eased it, expanding the category of "humanitarian assistance." And any movement in this regard makes it easier for Japan and Western countries to inch toward even broader aid and investment. Some Japanese diplomats are already dropping hints that Tokyo expects to move rapidly toward full economic links next year. Even Canada has announced plans for bilateral assistance to Cambodia through NOOs this year, and to Vietnam next year. Thus there is a good prospect that the end o["East bloc" aid next year will not be the economic disaster that some had feared. Thus also the hardliners in both Vietnam and Cambodia, who have been making a comeback in the last year as a result of frustration over the fact that Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia had not produced the dividends that the West earlier promised, will face stiffer competition from the liberals, who are clearly the best conduit for increased contact with Western countnes.

But despite these gains for the peace process, it would appear that at least in the short run the Khmer Rouge fights on, even without realistic hope of victory. (Nevertheless, its capacity to cause pain and suffering should not be doubted.) Though dissatisfaction with corruption in the Hun Sen regime is growing, and some are suffering from the rapid growth in social inequality, revulsion at the thought of renewed Khmer Rouge rule is still very widespread, and very deep-seated. Furthermore, whatever the inequity that derives from the free enterprise-including private property in land most Cambodians are much, much better off than they were a few years ago.

What of peace? China still holds the key, since Sihanouk's diplomatic pyrotechnics-signing an agreement for ceasefire one day and denouncing it two weeks later-bear the mark of Beijing's fine hand, and the Khmer Rouge can only survive with Beijing's aid. There is, as yet, no evidence of Chinese flexibility, but overt American commitment to pressuring Beijing for a policy change is a step in the right direction. Some Thai generals, who profit from the timber and gems found in Khmer Rouge controlled territory, must also be moved but that is a problem which money could solve. Sihanouk needs also to be broken from his Beijing moorings. ASEAN (Association cf Southeast Asian Nations) is, of course, a potent influence on Indochina affairs, and its initial reaction to the change in U.S. policy was not positive. However, that reaction was largely a result of understandable irritation at not being consulted by Washington. The Thai and Indonesian government have themselves been trying to move in the same general direction as the new U.S. policy, and will probably continue to do so.

Though Phnom Penh jealously guards its independence, and does not dance to a Vietnamese tune, Hanoi is, of course, not without influence. Thus ifthe U.S. is willing to get serious about normalization with Hanoi, it may be able to squeeze more concessions about the shape of the peace out of Vietnam.

Only as recently as early July, diplomatic Cambodia watchers were as gloomy about the prospect of peace as were informed Cambodians. Now, However, some roadblocks appear moveable and an agreement involving a new coalition government in Phnom Penh, perhaps with symbolic (but not effective) Khmer Rouge participation, followed by a U.N.-supervised election, seems to be in the realm ofpossibility in the next twO years. (Reconnoitering by U.N. officials earlier this year made it clear to them that a much broader administranve role for the U.N. as some have suggested-in a country of 7 million with a difficult language and very inadequate communication and transportation, not to mention a very complex political situation, was simply not feasible.) There are, of course, many new roadblocks that could emerge, quickly and unexpectedly. But both Phnom Penh and Hanoi are weary of conflict and if the U.S. is now truly looking for a solution, it surely has the cooperation ofJapan and the Soviet Union. An improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations, encouraged by both superpowers, could help persuade the Chinese that a continued roleofspoiler in Cambodia is no longer in their interests.

In Cambodia the people deserve a respite from war, with time to till their land, rebuild their pagodas, and educate their children. Their leaders, and the world's leaders, who have so long manipulated ordinary Cambodians for their own ends, now owe these long-suffering people a time of peace.

David Wurfel is a professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1990

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1990, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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