THE United States has got itself into a tangle of divided opinions about Cambodia's
progress toward democracy and human rights.
A recent US General Accounting Office (GAO) report quotes sources saying that the
1998 general elections - if held at all - are unlikely to be peaceful, and that human
and political rights abuses in Cambodia are worsening.
This clashes with the generally positive diplomatic messages being given to Phnom
Penh leadership by the Departments of State and Defense and USAID.
State, Defense and USAID look to the progress Cambodia has made since the 1991 Paris
Accords. The GAO - the US government's public auditing watchdog - says that approach
is misleading because UNTAC was responsible for much of the progress between 1991
and 1993. Since UNTAC, the progress toward democratic governance and protecting human
rights has been "limited."
New US ambassador Kenneth Quinn will likely need some silky diplomacy to explain
to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen why the GAO says, for instance, that "fear
of violence and intimidation by CPP is a key concern for other parties", or
about concerns that the police "will be used [by CPP] to sponsor violence against
policital opponents, as they were in 1993."
One human rights lawyer said that US diplomats will try to soften the GAO's hard
line when they talk to Cambodian leaders."This is typical," he said. "The
US - like most other countries - just want stability here, and if Hun Sen can provide
that, then forget about niceties like human and political rights."
Quinn's predecessor Charles Twining was conciliatory towards Cambodia's democratic
problems to the point that he was told by one Washington chief to "remember
who you work for." Twining's own embassy staff privately complained that he
had spiked diplomatic cables that he thought were too critical of aspects of the
Cambodian government's performance.
US information Service (USIS) director Frank Huffman - a State Department employee
- agreed that the GAO's report could give the Cambodian leadership mixed signals
"because [the Cambodians] don't understand how complex, and with how many voices
the US government speaks.'
Huffman said US democracy was "very messy" and that mixed signals were
dealt with "all the time."
"That's how we come to decisions, with discussions and resolutions. There are
many conflicting opinions in the US [government]."
Huffman said he did not know how much significance or influence the GAO report would
have. "The GAO look at problems of resource wastage and abuse," he said.
"They look at how the taxpayers money is being spent, rather than commenting
"[The GAO] could indirectly affect policy if it persuades members [of the House
or Congress] that money is being wasted [in Cambodia]," Huffman said.
Huffman said he was not aware whether Cambodian leaders had questioned US diplomats
and officials in Phnom Penh about what "official" line they should acknowledge
as coming from the US. "To my knowledge that question has not been put. No,"
The GAO report is extremely grim about Cambodia's progress toward free elections,
human rights and land mine clearance.
Cambodia has done little to prepare for national elections, the GAO says, saying
some "US and other foreign officials" doubt that politicians and voters
will be secure against violent intimidation and retaliation if elections are held.
Progress toward human rights has been "limited", and toward political rights
"intolerant." The GAO says there has been a lack of progress toward mine
clearing due to leadership, planning and funding problems.
The Departments of State and Defense and USAID were asked to comment on the first
draft of the GAO report.
Defense said the GAO had ignored various political realities and nuances (including
that Hun Sen's CPP was "developing cleavages") "that should be factored
into the grim, realistic but one-dimensional picture" that the GAO depicted.
It wasn't "entirely outside the realm of the possible" for the Royal Government
to build an electoral framework by 1998 and, besides, "the Cambodian population
demonstrated once before how willing it was to take part in the expression of individual
political preference," the Defense Department said.
Defense said that messages from vocal critics like Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha "seem
to get through and gain currency in the countryside" and that they had a "slim
but salient chance" to influence politics.
Defense said that it was not correct for the GAO to say that the CPP controlled the
police and military.
It said: "It appears that the police are loyal to Sar Kheng and his associates,
representing a faction of the CPP. That loyalty has more to do with personal alliances
and support for the views espoused by the likes of Sin Song, who plotted the last
abortive coup, than it has to do with commitments to the party itself."
Defense also said that the military - though "disorganized, top heavy, beset
with budgetary problems, diminished morale and weak leadership" - was not under
the control of any one political party.
In evidence, Defense said: "Hun Sen has come to rely on a palace guard as his
protection force, largely because he was not inclined to count on the loyalty of
a military that has stood by the side of the government without choosing sides [during
the abortive coups]."
State said the GAO report was "highly selective" and "taken out of
Cambodia's history should be taken into account and understood to show that much
progress had been made, State said.
USAID said Cambodian leadership supported the elections, and that "a legacy
of long-term authoritarian rule cannot be unlearned overnight."
The GAO considered the arguments of Defense, the State and USAID - all of which said
that the Cambodian picture was more optimistic than the GAO suggested. In general
however, the GAO stood by its original - grim - findings.
The GAO said it recognized the devestating effects of the Khmer Rouge regime, but
the conditions of civil war and genocide that existed before 1991 were not the benchmarks
by which this present Government should be judged.
"We believe that the standards of behaviour set out in the Paris Peace Accords,
the various international conventions that Cambodia has signed, and the Cambodian
Constitution are appropriate standards against which to measure the current government's