"It is tempting to throw up one's hands and leave Cambodia to its fate. That
would be a mistake," argue Kassie Neou and Jeffrey C. Gallup,
following Hun Sen's removal of his co-Prime Minister.
THIS is an article that we hoped we would never have to write.
There is a old Khmer saying: "When the elephants fight, only the ants die."
In Cambodia, after months of bickering, increasing tensions, and governmental paralysis,
the elephants fought on July 5 and 6. The military forces backing the Second Prime
Minister, Samdech Hun Sen, defeated the units loyal to the First Prime Minister,
Samdech Krom Preah Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Prince Ranariddh was ousted.
But the real victims were the ants - the ordinary Cambodian people. Already traumatized
by a quarter century of war and terror, the sounds of tanks and rockets echoing in
the streets of Phnom Penh brought back the worst memories.
Now the international community has to decide what to do. It is understandably disappointed
and angry. For a time, after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords were put into effect, there
was relative peace in Cambodia. Democratic institutions sprouted. Signs of prosperity
appeared. Now, peace seems to be jeopardized. The economy is damaged. Democracy is
in doubt. It is tempting to throw up one's hands and leave Cambodia to its fate.
That would be a mistake. Since Cambodia is a Buddhist country, we will give a Buddhist
reason. The Buddha preached the middle way - moderation, patience, avoiding extremes.
The Cambodians do not want to return to the old days of repression, excruciating
poverty and international isolation. Even the leaders don't really want to revisit
the dark ways of the past. A measured approach by the international community can,
we believe, coax Cambodia back on the path toward peace, democracy and human rights.
First, it is important for the international community to engage the Cambodian leadership.
Cambodians pay great respect to their elder relatives and their teachers. In matters
of democracy, the international community is the elder brother and teacher of Cambodia.
The international community should insist on peace - no revival of the civil war
by either side. Cambodian leaders' ambitions and desire to avenge wrongs are not
more important than preventing war. Second, the international community should vigorously
promote respect for human rights, especially since the intoxication of war seems
to have set off recurrences of barbaric behavior we thought belonged to the past.
Finally, the international community should call for free and fair elections next
year in Cambodia, as required by the democratically adopted Cambodian Constitution
and the Paris Peace Accords. Elections are the litmus test of democracy. Failure
to hold them would plunge Cambodia into a limbo with no law but the will (or whim)
of its leaders, and for as long as they choose. Moreover, elections are the critical
opportunity for the international community to push for improvements.
The international community should insist on real, not sham, elections, and help
ensure them with advice, observers, and concrete assistance, on the condition that
the government proceeds, openly and clearly, to construct a genuinely free and fair
election process, in which all parties can participate without fear and on an equal
International assistance is part of the equation. Some international assistance has
understandably been suspended in protest, but aid carefully designed to benefit the
people, not just the government as an institution or its top leaders, is needed and
appreciated deeply by the Cambodian people.
International aid has done many wonderful things to help the Cambodians. Education
for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law has been provided to thousands of
people, including government officials and employees, many of whom have opened their
eyes and become disciples of a free system and good governance.
During the Khmer Rouge years, all schools were shut and educated people were singled
out for execution. Now, the Cambodian people want desperately to learn. Foreign assistance
is helping revive the public school system. The international community has also
built roads and supported economic development for the poor, so towns and villages
are no longer isolated and sunk in misery. Health programs save the lives of thousands
This aid for the people of Cambodia is international generosity at its best. It is
valuable even if some government employees, such as schoolteachers, health workers,
or local administrators, benefit in ways such as training. It is in fact these ordinary,
poorly-paid, hard-working citizens who are the real backbone of Cambodia, and who
are most committed to building a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future. Non-profit
organizations like our own have a stake in international aid, since we too have received
assistance to strengthen our work for democracy and human rights and decent government.
Putting Cambodia back on course is a difficult challenge. But we are optimistic that
Cambodia, despite its terrible past, has a bright future ahead. The Cambodian people
are more advanced than one might think. Ninety percent of them voted in the 1993
United Nations-sponsored elections, despite violence and threats. In effect, they
were casting their ballots for peace and democracy. They are ready to do so again.
They just need a helping hand, and, just as important, a steady one. Such as an elder
brother can provide.
( - Kassie Neou, a native of Cambodia, was imprisoned and tortured by the Khmer
Rouge. He went as a refugee to the United States, became an American citizen and
returned to his homeland, where he founded the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights
in 1993. Jeffrey C. Gallup is Associate Director of the Institute.)