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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Destroying the village

Destroying the village

The Editor,

"You are not leaving us...are you?" I was asked this question repeatedly

by eyes filled with fear and anxiety.

When the shelling started on July 5, I was in the Phnom Penh office of the Legal

Aid of Cambodia (LAC) making preparations for the annual board meeting. At midmorning,

there were reports of intense fighting by the airport. By early afternoon, it was

clear that the fighting had spread to the city. As troops filed past the gates brandishing

shiny new automatic weapons and two armored personnel carriers took position on the

street 50 yards from the office, I was filled with alternating feelings of anger

and sadness: anger over the absence of any real leadership in the country or a vision

for its future, and sadness over the fate of the long-suffering Cambodian people.

Sunday, July 6 was the day of heaviest fighting, with sounds of rockets and small

arms fired in the air. From my hotel roof, pillars of smoke could be seen rising

from various locations around the capital. In the midst of all this chaos and destruction,

I contemplated what if anything could be salvaged from my legal work in Cambodia.

What would happen to Legal Aid of Cambodia, a Khmer NGO providing legal representation

to Cambodia's poor? What would happen to the numerous projects underway at the University

of Michigan Law School's Program for Cambodian Law & Development, which had undertaken

substantial work preparing a draft national election law and was planning a November

conference on child protection issues?

The correct course of action became clear. A consensus decision was made by the LAC

Board and Management that the organization's effort to build a rule of law in Cambodia

was more important now than ever. In carrying out this mandate, LAC adopted an aggressive

policy to keep each of its eight provincial offices open and to continue operations

- visiting our clients in prison and representing defendants in court. LAC was and

would remain open for business. At this moment of crisis, the last thing in the world

we could afford to do was to question our own right to exist. By the same token,

it was clear that the work of Michigan's Program for Cambodian Law & and Development

had a continuing role to play. The need for legal assistance on questions of child

abuse and neglect, land tenure, the environment and democratization remained, as

did the need to continue training a cadre of legal professionals who could provide

real leadership skills for the future and who could help lay the foundation for an

authentic democracy.

Fortunately, LAC and the Program for Cambodian Law & Development have an advantage

that many other aid programs do not - neither project is the recipient of any USAID

funds. LAC is funded by the Dutch international development agency, NOVIB, and the

Program for Cambodian Law & Development is a free-standing initiative of Michigan

Law School.

While LAC's efforts were underway to fortify operations and continue service to Cambodia's

poor and imprisoned, other aid programs were busy shutting down their operations

and preparing for the evacuation of all US personnel. The order had come not from

Hun Sen or the Cambodian People's Party, but rather from Washington. All USAID programs

($40 million worth of projects) were suspended for 30 days and all non-Cambodian

staff were required to leave the country by July 20. Officially, the suspension of

aid is temporary and a decision is being made by USAID concerning which programs

will continue. "Humanitarian" aid will likely be spared. It is unclear

whether legal aid, legal education and other law and democracy initiatives will be

saved. Some congressional quarters favor a categorical termination of all Cambodian

aid programs.

Ending foreign aid and assistance to the Cambodian people is the exact wrong stance

to take. There is a legitimate need to protest Hun Sen's raw seizure of power. Moreover,

political and economic pressure should be exerted to return Cambodia to a path of

peace and democracy. The issue is not one of ends, but one of means. A policy curtailing

aid is the wrong means because it hurts the most vulnerable of Cambodia's population

- war widows, street children, political prisoners - not people who can influence

policy or politics. Moreover, the various USAID rule of law projects underway, such

as the Cambodian Defenders Project run by the International Human Rights Law Group,

the legal education programs run by the University of San Francisco Law School and

the American Bar Association's assistance to the Cambodian Bar Council, are essential

if Cambodia is going to cultivate an environment where real democracy can ultimately

take root.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, US military experts mastered an Orwellian logic capable

of justifying the destruction of a village in a misguided effort to save it. The

folly of this reasoning is obvious in the military context. Unfortunately, the same

tragic error will be repeated if humanitarian and legal assistance is suspended in

the name of saving democracy in Cambodia. Curtailing these programs will have the

first order effect of hurting vulnerable constituents and undermining the creation

of the very institutions required to establish meaningful democracy rule.

At some level "the policy" must come face-to-face with the "the personal".

Well-intentioned decisions based on defensible principles can adversely affect identifiable

individuals. As policy decisions are being made by USAID officials and members of

Congress, I wish they could look into the eyes of the Cambodian people and be faced

with the same question that was repeatedly put to me. "You are not leaving us...are

you?"

- Peter J. Hammer, President of the Board of Directors, Legal Aid of Cambodia.

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