Cambodia has built democratic institutions of which it can be proud. It needs to make sure that these institutions benefit all.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillion is set to begin his official visit to Cambodia tomorrow. During his two-day trip he is due to attend an event to mark the completion of the restoration of Baphuon Temple, in Siem Reap, and meet Prime Minister Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihamoni and King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In anticipation of his visit, the French PM answered questions emailed to him by The Phnom Penh Post in what is set to be his only interview with Cambodia’s local press.
What is the purpose of your visit to Cambodia?
My last visit to Cambodia, this country with which France has such close ties, dates back to 1994. At that time, Cambodia was only just starting to get back on its feet and France wanted to give the country its full support in this new phase in its history. I came as Minister for Higher Education and Research, among other things, to sign a cooperation agreement to officially reopen the French School of Asian Studies, the EFEO.
Seventeen years later, I am here to see just how far Cambodia has come, especially in terms of development: through its own endeavours, but also with the support of partners and friends such as France. Following 15 years of joint restoration work by Cambodia and France, the ceremony presided over by His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni for the official opening of Baphuon, one of the main temples of Angkor, will be highly symbolic from this point of view.
What are France’s aims in South-East Asia, especially in terms of political and trade links?
We see South-East Asia as a major growth centre in Asia, just like China and India. History has given us a particularly close friendship with certain countries in the region, first and foremost Cambodia. Yet we hope to develop our political dialogue and our economic relations with all the countries in the region. That is precisely the purpose of the strategic partnership agreement with Indonesia adopted in Jakarta on July 1.
In addition, France’s action is inextricably linked with the European Union’s action, especially in trade. With our European partners and the European Commission, we are supporting the move to gear up ASEAN, especially in its political and regional mediation role.
We are also hoping to develop economic partnership agreements with ASEAN and its members.
France historically has an important cultural influence in Cambodia. How can France maintain and strengthen its cultural bonds with Cambodia as the country is modernising?
Cambodia is a culturally rich country. Angkor is probably the most well-known example of this. France will continue to help Cambodia to safeguard and restore its heritage, as it has with Baphuon. The country also has a deep-rooted culture and popular traditions.
France has been helping Cambodia rebuild this popular heritage through the French Cultural Centre, now known as l’Institut français (the French Institute). For example, the Lakhaon Festival held since 2007 has revived the 21 forms of traditional Cambodian theatre. L’Institut français also supports young Cambodian artists by means of training and promotional actions.
Another good example is our audiovisual cooperation with its cutting-edge resources. In particular, there is the work by the Bophana Centre, founded by filmmaker Rithy Panh. We contributed to the creation of this centre and we continue to support it. Then there is the Cambodia Film Commission, which promotes the development of film production and was also set up with support from France.
What does French aid represent in Cambodia? Is France under a particular obligation to support the development of its former colonies?
The bonds between France and Cambodia run deeper than the protectorate era, which ended over 50 years ago, although this era has left its legacy in the form of Cambodia’s involvement in the Francophonie, a shared goal to preserve Khmer cultural heritage and many human bonds. But I would use the term solidarity rather than obligation.
In addition to our efforts to bring peace back to Cambodia with the 1991 Paris Agreements, this solidarity has taken the form of substantial aid since the early 1990s. Both the French government and French civil society have put a great deal into reconstructing the country, training personnel, especially in healthcare, and assisting the populations, speaking of which French NGOs are still highly active on the ground.
Today, our bilateral and multilateral aid to Cambodia totals some 25 million euros per year. And this aid is changing as Cambodia itself changes.
We have together defined the pillars for a new partnership: encourage private investment, finance infrastructure development and support job creations by setting up vocational training centres in textiles and tourism for example. Such are our priorities for the coming years.
Can we look forward to growth in French business operations in Cambodia in the coming year?
Air France has resumed flights to Cambodia after 37 years, and the Accor group has just opened a new hotel in Phnom Penh. Other projects are in the pipeline.
Many French SMEs do business with Cambodia and I asked a number of business heads to accompany me on this visit. This momentum needs to be driven forward by the consolidation of a business-friendly environment, farther reaching than just a legal framework.
What role does France, as a former colonial power, intend to play in solving the Cambodian-Thai dispute?
France is obviously watching these tensions, as they are a concern for us and I know what the area means to Cambodia. We have friendly relations with both countries.
We hope that through dialogue and compliance with international law, Cambodia and Thailand can reach a peaceful and definitive solution to these ongoing problems. We have confidence in the efforts of Indonesia, as Chair of ASEAN.
For our part, we will continue to make all the maps and relevant documents available to all parties.
What is the French government’s opinion of the violations of human rights reported in Cambodia, especially land rights and the freedom of speech? Will these violations affect your political relations with Cambodia or the aid provided to the country?
I believe, first of all, we should think about the situation Cambodia was in following the trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime.
I must say that a huge amount of progress has been made since the Paris Agreements, enabling all Cambodians to live in peace and security today. Having visited the country in 1994, I realise what this progress means to the majority of Cambodians. And then, I must commend Cambodia as one of the rare few countries in Asia to have abolished the death sentence.
There is no doubt still a way to go. Cambodia has built democratic institutions of which it can be proud. It needs to make sure that these institutions benefit all. Independence and integrity of the legal institution and the right of expression granted to the opposition and civil society are vital elements in this. The land issue you mention is also important.
In order to continue progressing with human rights, I think there should be more dialogue between Cambodia’s government, civil society and international partners.
This is the spirit in which we are proceeding with our cooperation, bilaterally and via the European Union, to support this dialogue and strengthen the legal tool, which is precisely the instrument that should be used to settle conflicts over freedoms and rights.
Lastly, there is evidence to suggest that the investigating judges in the Khmer Rouge tribunal have deliberately failed to investigate Case 003. Is France concerned about the possible repercussions for the court’s legacy?
France supports the court, and has done so since its creation, in the name of the duty of justice and remembrance, and because this court is a vital element of the national reconstruction process launched with the Paris Agreements. We have provided more than 7 million euros in financial support to the court since 2005.
I hope that the trial of Case No. 2, which has just started, will be conducted with total impartiality and with respect for all the parties.
This trial is vital, because it concerns the four highest-ranking former Khmer Rouge leaders and because it will foster acknowledgment of the facts and the truth. The smooth running of this trial will further the credibility of the court and, circumstantial controversies aside, the cause of justice.