The Tragedy of Cambodia Compounded: Facing New Dilemmas

By David Wurfel | 1997-09-01 12:00:00

No nation has suffered more than Cambodia in the last half of this century. The quiet, beautiful, neutral Cambodia that I first visited in the 1950s was later set upon by its neighbors, near and far. Different factions of the leadership sided with different foreign interlopers - Vietnam, the U.S., China, Thailand - until the country was torn apart and nearly a quarter of the population was killed by bombing, starvation, and the murderous hand of Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot was overthrown only by Vietnamese invasion in 1978-and was recently "condemned to life imprisonment" in the jungles of northern Cambodia by his own followers (though the meaning of this remains to be seen).

The U.N. intervention of 1991-93, following Vietnamese withdrawal in 1989, seemed a bright spot, a new chance to heal and rebuild, even though the Khmer Rouge forces refused to disband, or cooperate with the U.N.. The efforts of UNTAC (U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia) culminated in an election, surprisingly free and orderly given the previous conditions. And then the U.N. forces and civil administration left - much too soon from the standpoint of dealing with Cambodia's problems, but probably after as long as the U.N. and its most powerful members would tolerate or bankroll the mission. Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese head of UNTAC, decided to smooth the U.N.'s withdrawal in 1993 by agreeing to the demands of the Hun Sen regime (the Cambodian People's Party), the former puppets of Vietnam,for a sharing arrangement with the winners of the election, led by Prince Ranariddh, the son of King Sihanouk, who became the "first" of two prime ministers, serving side by side!

This power-sharing was surprisingly successful for the first two years, until it became clear that the effete, French-educated Prince was simply no match for the wily, battle-hardened Hun Sen, clearly an intelligent man who had at first made a good impression on many foreign representatives in Phnom Penh. Gradually Hun Sen, who had never lost control of a large share of the army and bureaucracy, began to push Ranariddh aside, becoming more and more hungry for power.

Ranariddh, in a desperate attempt to save his position as "First Prime Minister," tried to recruit allies from among Khmer Rouge defectors. On July 4th Ranariddh's representative signed a cooperation agreement with a major Khmer Rouge faction - and the following day Hun Sen launched a coup. Ranaridh fled to France. Several leading figures in the government from Prince Ranaridh's party, FUNCINPEC, have been captured and killed by Hun Sen; many more have fled the country. Many foreigners have also escaped from the chaos. Most provinces are controlled by Hun Sen, but some are still held by Ranariddh's forces and by the Khmer Rouge. Fighting continues.

Every Imaginable Bedfellow

What kind of country will Cambodia become? It is most unlikely, despite Hun Sen's promises - and barring unexpectedly successful foreign pressure that there will be any more free elections, or feisty opposition newspapers, or human rights organizations, as has been the case since 1993. (He has already killed several journalistic critics and human rights workers.) Unfortunately these good things, along with considerable economic recovery, had been accompanied by sharp new inequalities, by booming prostitution, crime and drug dealing, and by rampant corruption. Hun Sen, trained as a ruthless Communist, now combines these qualities with that of a freebooting capitalist. And he is capable of making deals with every imaginable type of bedfellow. He is even wooing some of Ranariddh's former followers - as long as they are willing to stay on Hun Sen's leash. So, in spite of efforts now beginning by ASEAN - southeast Asia's very active regional organization - and perhaps by the U.N. to restore the balance of power between Hun Sen and Ranariddh's party that existed in 1993, it looks as if we are in for years of a corrupt dictatorship-hardly a rarity in southeast Asia.

What are friends of the Cambodian people to do? Revulsion at what Hun Sen has done could easily lead us to protest by total withdrawal. "Out of sight, out of mind." It would not be the first time that the world allowed Cambodia to slip into oblivion. But since big powers and neighboring countries are largely responsible for the destruction of Cambodia in the 1970s, they have a continuing responsibility to try to repair the damage. The U.S. and Japan have already announced suspension of their aid programs, but multilateral donors are even more important, and have not yet been heard from. Ottawa has quietly suspended the very small amount of aid that goes directly to the government.

Aid suspension may be the wisest move at the moment. It allows donors to negotiate with Hun Sen about aid resumption. And he is very vulnerable to a coordinated approach by donors, since more than 50% of the national budget comes from foreign sources. The problem appears to be that there is as yet no consensus, either within or between key governments, about what to negotiate for. Imposing controls on the drug trade would certainly be a high priority, as it should be. Restoring Prince Ranariddh as First Prime Minister will be more difficult, both in terms of consensus among donors and securing on the ground. Some countries which support Ranaridh in principle find it very frustrating to deal with him. Even getting Hun Sen's agreement to return to a genuine coalition government without Ranariddh will likely prove difficult.

If Western donors achieve little or nothing by trying to negotiate with Hun Sen, should they convert a suspension of aid into a permanent cut off? It would be morally consistent, but it would also have unfortunate consequences. Insofar as aid was reaching the poor - and sometimes it does - the weakest members of Cambodian society would be punished. Leverage would also be lost by donor states attempting to encourage any such future policies as the protection of local human rights NGOs, or the holding of relatively fair elections and the acceptance of its results by the government of the day. Furthermore the withdrawal of Western and Japanese presence would mean an expansion of Chinese influence. Whatever other consequences there might be, this would surely mean encouraging a hard line by Hun Sen.

Western aid donors are not the only ones facing dilemmas. For ASEAN, Cambodia is a much more urgent, and perhaps insoluble, problem. The initial reaction of that organization-somewhat at odds with its approach to Burma-was to define internal political insecurity as a threat to the security of the region and ask for mediation between the feuding parties. Though he at first rejected this overture outright, Hun Sen has since-perhaps feeling more confident in his new power-softened his stand towards ASEAN. In any case, ASEAN's position on human rights and free elections is not likely to be very forceful, to say the least. Despite occasional rhetoric from southeast Asian capitals, ASEAN has no greater desire to see a China-dependent Cambodia than does the West, and in order to maintain some influence with Hun Sen, they will probably avoid making any heavy demands upon him.

Dilemmas for NGOs

Perhaps the dilemmas are sharpest for foreign NGOs working in Cambodia. They are pulled by the dictates of both head and heart-and not necessarily in the same direction. Many thousands of Cambodians, mostly poor, are dependent on foreign NGOs for medical assistance, for example, or for vocational training, land mine removal, or even basic livelihood. For NGOs to leave would break trust with their clients and abandon these unfortunates to the ravages of cut-throat capitalism, probably coupled with political repression. Yet can the Cambodian economy really improve without political stability, without Hun Sen's willingness to negotiate with his opponents, armed or unarmed, communists or Buddhist nationalists? Do NGOs really want to contribute, by continuing their humanitarian activities, to the legitimation of Hun Sen's increasingly oppressive regime? Those NGOs which began work in Cambodia even before the Vietnamese withdrawal in 1989, and thus have dealt with a Hun Sen regime for a long time, have already demonstrated the primacy of humanitarian need over calculation of the political consequences of their presence. There are also important differences among NGOs over philosophy and style of work. And NGOs from different countries will react differently to the various policies of their respective governments toward Hun Sen.

Thus divisions within and between NGOs and concerned governments will make a coordinated strategy almost impossible. Without such a strategy, aid suspension and negotiation are not likely to produce desired changes in the regime. The Hun Sen dictatorship can more easily manipulate divided NGOs and national donors.

But conditions in which aid workers carry on their endeavors are likely to degenerate: increased corruption, repression and possibly random violence - though it is ironic that under Hun Sen's firm control that particular danger has lessened. Eventually NGOs, as in some parts of Africa, may have to withdraw simply because the threats to life and limb of staff members are too great. Hun Sen, who would much rather have aid money come to his government than to local community organizations, would probably not mourn NGO withdrawal. Furthermore NGO workers have frequently asked embarrassing questions about the probity and efficiency of the Phnom Penh regime. Peacemakers everywhere must have tremendous respect for NGO leaders faced with these dilemmas, as well as others of even greater complexity that continue to unfold. Location of work within Cambodia, type of program, and other special considerations, beyond the broader issues, may lead some NGOs to stay and others to leave.

Reiterate Canada's Policy

It is time for the Canadian government to reiterate the principles of democracy and human rights which should undergird our policy; so far Ottawa has been embarrassingly quiet. But choices of action on the ground are also very difficult for Foreign Affairs and CIDA; there are no easy options. Continued CIDA support for NGO programs may be wise at this juncture.

The two powers most responsible for the suffering of Cambodia to date are China and the U.S., but one can hardly expect policy coordination between them. The Cambodian people continue to be pawns; the tragedy is indeed compounded. In such conflict and confusion well-intentioned people are likely to make different decisions. This we must accept. No course of action is without moral ambiguity or political consequences costly for Cambodians. The only thing that is unacceptable is a policy pursued without a careful prior assessment of the wishes and the welfare of the Cambodian people.

David Wurfel is Research Associate, Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, University of Toronto/York University. Senior editor of Southeast Asia in the New World Order (Macmillan, 1996), he most recently visited Cambodia in April.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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