AT the end of United States Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's recent
visit to Phnom Penh he effusively praised the "emerging triumph of democracy" in
Cambodia. Citing the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the
collapse of the Soviet empire, and the creation of multi-racial democracy in
South Africa, Talbott concluded: "But nothing is more significant than what
happened here in May 1993."
But while the symbolism and hopes of the $2.8
billion United Nations effort surrounding those May elections remain, the
reality of what has happened since stands in stark contrast.
diplomats are convinced that the veneer of democracy is crumbling and the
political thuggery that has kept Cambodia one of the last running sores of
Southeast Asia is on the ascendancy.
In reality, US officials
acknowledge that Talbott heard sobering tales of human rights abuses, death
threats against MPs, assassinations of journalists, closure of newspapers, and a
military sufficiently out of control that few countries are willing to provide
it weapons, unsure of whether they will sell them to the Khmer Rouge, use them
against the population, or launch another coup attempt.
At the next
meeting of the International Committee on the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction
of Cambodia (ICORC), scheduled for Paris in March, the key donor countries and
lending institutions will gather for their annual assessment of Cambodia's
Most of Cambodia's leaders will be there seeking further
pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support and the crucial
political stamp of approval of the international community.
last year's meeting in Tokyo - a triumph of political support which netted
pledges of nearly $900 million - this year's is likely to be a more muted affair
clouded by the pessimism of many donor countries that Cambodia is not on the
As well it reflects the waning interest of the international
community in Cambodia in general.
Compassion fatigue is setting in among
sectors of the donor community. One question that will be raised at ICORC will
be: Why pour further money into a country where there is little strategic or
economic interest if the Cambodian government is not interested in democracy and
sound economic policy?
"The international community paid for their
conscience already with the UN and elections, but now we are free. Now it is
over. We don't care really anymore," said one Western ambassador in Phnom
"They are doing their best to keep a simulated state of law to keep
assistance coming in, but the political situation is declining... Now Cambodia
is returning to it's own view, it's old ways."
Those old ways seem to
include a clear policy from Cambodia's leadership to squash criticism and impose
authoritarian rule by preventing an independent parliament and judiciary and
hog-tying the press.
Elected MPs attempting to play their role of
government watchdog have received threats in recent weeks, some allegedly from
Some now carry guns and others have officially
sought - and received - promises of political asylum from Western embassies if
the situation further deteriorates. Most have just shut up, voting the way they
are told to vote by the two Prime Ministers.
Those that dare continue to
challenge the leaders have been implicitly threatened by the Second Prime
Minister in recent public statements.
Meanwhile, the press - which has
faced three assassinations of journalists and government bans and lawsuits in
recent months - faces a draft press law which would prohibit "humiliating
national organs or public authorities".
Charges of corruption or other
abuse, even if true, would be banned for undermining the popularity of officials
or the government.
But Khmer newspapers, as well as many Cambodian
officials concerned but too afraid to speak out, have so far received only lip
service from donor countries who say they are unlikely to remove their stamp of
approval for the government.
Says one Western Ambassador: "At ICORC the
countries will be severe in speech, but it means nothing. The government will
make promises, but nothing will happen. They will bring back the money, and then
I fear the real crackdown will begin."
Typical, say diplomats, is the
message of the US, which has taken the lead in supporting the
A letter to Prime Minister Ranariddh from American Ambassador
Charles Twining last June 3, obtained by the Post, praised the government and
said: "Cambodia remains one of the world's great success stories."
continued: "Progress in many areas -the economy, human rights, and maintenance
of the coalition among former blood enemies - has been most impressive. The
steadfastness... in defending press freedoms is itself the most eloquent
testimony to the strength of the Royal Cambodian Government."
was written while Western hostages were being held and foreign NGO workers had
been evacuated from a number of areas in the countryside.
Later in June
newspapers were shut down, a journalist was murdered, and it was revealed that
the military was involved in a torture, murder and extortion racket that the UN
says involved the summary execution of at least 53 civilians at secret military
Intimidation of MPs opposed to the Khmer Rouge "outlaw" bill was
widespread in June, according to human rights workers and MPs.
later a coup attempt was launched by factions within the government that plunged
the country into crisis.
More Western hostages, later executed, were
seized in July. An American tourist was murdered last month. Two other
journalists were murdered in September and December. Other editors have been
arrested, and others fined. Papers have been suspended and sued for their
writings, press runs confiscated, and equipment seized.
Ambassador's letter continued by saying: " It is frustrating to read the often
unjustly negative and sensational press coverage of Cambodia... I also want to
express my full agreement with your assessment that, contrary to the picture
painted by the press, the security situation in Cambodia is really quite
It concluded that "the message I will carry [to the US government]
is that, despite daunting challenges, Your Royal Highness and Samdech Hun Sen
are leading the country to peace and prosperity."
The US Embassy
officially declined to comment on the letter, saying it was "private" and
"outdated", and pointing to the State Department report on human rights in
Cambodia released this week.
MPs, human rights workers and some diplomats
argue that the international community should take a strong stand in Paris next
In a visit in late January, UN Special Representative for Human
Rights Michael Kirby told a meeting of ambassadors that he was in favor of
linking further foreign assistance to improvements in human rights. Kirby said
threats against parliamentarians were "a new turn and it is
Human rights officials and some diplomats say the tone set at
ICORC by the donor community could influence whether the situation deteriorates
further, particularly after the departure of the King, expected in
"In the long run it is suicidal to the donor countries own
economic interests," said one Western proponent of linking further economic
assistance with protecting democracy.
"The government at this moment is
selling the country's resources to private entrepreneurs. It is in the hands of
corrupt officials who have no national interest. If you don't have freedom of
expression, an independent parliament to say this is wrong, when the resources
disappear, Cambodia again will become an international beggar. That is why it
should be linked to ICORC."
Says a Phnom Penh ambassador: "Enough is
enough. At some point we have to move on. But the Cambodian government is child
enough to think they deserve assistance forever."
But even among those
who agree that the political situation is deteriorating, there is debate that
changes in foreign policy could be counter-productive, unrealistic and
"There is a real risk that if the international community
pulls out, Cambodia will become another Burma, which is a disaster," said the
head of one major donor agency.
"Burma is isolated and embargoed as
punishment for it's political repression, and you could argue that people have
suffered more and the international community has no leverage at
Said another ambassador: "There is a setback from the 'Phnom Penh
Spring', yes, but the situation is better than under the CPP. There is a return
to these communist practices, but the thuggery is a shadow of it's former
"If the West wants to teach them a lesson, they could. But they
will tolerate all this. The question is: What is the alternative? The US wants
stability. Australia wants stability. If you undermine this stability, what is
the alternative. Burma?"
The ambassador continued: "China gets away with
it. Indonesia gets away with it, so Ranariddh says ' Why not me?'."
answer, some say, is that the international community agreed to assist Cambodia
on the condition that the government create and maintain a very specific
political structure as spelled out in the Paris Peace
Furthermore, that the international community has an obligation
to respect the mandate given to the victorious FUNCINPEC party, after promises
of political freedoms.
Recent visitors who have had audiences with the
King say he is critical of both the government's deteriorating commitment to
political and human rights and the lackadaisical attitude of the international
community to this.
"How can you ask me to do something when I ask the
government and they say there is no problem," one source who attended meetings
with the King last week quoted him as saying.
"The foreign observers all
come and give a good assessment and then ask me to intervene. I, Sihanouk,
prefer to give you the truth, the reality. There is a lot of
The donor community indeed has great leverage given that 44
percent of the $410 million 1995 budget is international money. Hundreds of
millions of other aid is crucial to Cambodia's effort to rebuild
Economically, 1994 saw significant progress in a number of areas.
Inflation, while still at 30 percent, was greatly improved from previous
years. A five percent growth in GDP and a remarkably stable exchange rate were
other positive signs.
But worrying was significant slippage in the
government's repeated commitment to maintain a central budget controlling state
Specifically, logging, by far the biggest single source of
internal revenue, was stripped from control of the Finance Ministry last June
and turned over to the military.
Since then, according to Finance
Ministry sources, no money from logging has been turned over to the
Former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy estimates that "sustainable
revenues from logging without damaging the environment should be about $150
million a year."
Some donors are surprised at the International Monetary
Fund's weak-willed response to the logging issue, given that a central coffer
that collects and disburses all state revenue according to a budget approved by
Parliament is "an inviolable foundation" of economic policy under Cambodia's
international lending agreements.
To refuse to put Cambodia's major
source of revenue into the budget while requesting foreign money in its place
raises the question of Cambodia's sincerity in upholding its agreements, say
some government officials and diplomats.
Despite numerous IMF and World
Bank protestations, the government has refused to return control of logging back
to the state.
Uncontrolled logging, much of the proceeds now pocketed by
the military, now seriously threatens Cambodia's forests and future bids to use
logging as a major source of revenue, according to some.
Said IMF country
representative Reza Vaez-Zadeh in January: "Hopefully there will not be any
expenditure outside the budget and the government has made very clear that there
will not." But such expenditures continue.
But while questions will be
raised, both sides of the debate seem to agree that little change is likely to
be demanded at ICORC.
It is unlikely that the symbolism of victory of the
May 1993 polls, they say, will be allowed to be tarnished by highlighting the
difficult road to implementing the letter of the Paris agreements in the two
That struggle will be conducted either quietly or not at