Dr. David P. Chandler was in town recently and granted the Phnom Penh Post
an interview. Dr. Chandler, a widely respected historian of Cambodia, has been studying
the country since 1959. He is currently the Research Director of the Monash University
Centre of Southeast Asia Studies in Australia.
What are your observations about the current political situation in Cambodia?
Dr. Chandler: I've been here just ten days and it would be arrogant to claim
precise ideas about what is going on, but from the people that we have been speaking
to we got a consistent impression. Cambodia is now in a genuine transition period
between pre-electoral violence and the election excitement, and the current after-election
count-down quietness. But this is partly because the people that we have been talking
to are UNTAC, which is concerned with winding up its operations here after what has
been, both for UNTAC, and for the Cambodian people, a very successful election. It
was successful in that so many people voted without being hurt, and that their ballot
was kept secret.
But there are aspects to the political scene which are ominous and perhaps comic
at the same time. I refer to the ideas that a transitional government can contain
two prime ministers, a contradiction in terms, and that the government, to be installed
after the constitution, as Sihanouk said recently "will be much the same."
In other words, he envisages a triangular government with FUNCINPEC and SOC, and
himself to draw it together, a synthetic force of the two dialectical forces. This
doesn't make any sense in terms of Cambodian politics, but it reflects Sihanouk's
reading of the power relationships as they exist. There is much more power in the
hands of the people who lost the election, or didn't gain a majority, than those
who won it. These arrangements may amount to the best that FUNCINPEC can do. The
best that the former SOC can do, of course, is another matter. The best that they
can do is to nudge FUNCINPEC people aside, and to re-install the kind of government
with which they are familiar, and with which the Cambodian people are familiar. This
would be a very unpleasant development for many Khmer who had higher hopes for a
more civil society in the years following the election.
You have studied Cambodia's constitutions as a part of your research as a historian.
What will be the sources of the new constitution compared to the ones that preceded
Dr. Chandler: Well the only one that Sihanouk knows much about is the one
from 1947, which was written and modeled after the French constitution. It was written
by a Cambodian political party and approved by Sihanouk. It provided for a parliamentary
system but one in which, as in the Fourth Republic, the government members were not
drawn from the National Assembly, and could be dismissed by the National Assembly
which would of course not be dissolved in the event of a change of government. This
produced a phenomenon in the fifties in France called "revolving door"
governments; it is also the same kind of government that Cambodia had here. Now this
met Sihanouk's requirements as chief of state, because he could move people in and
out as it suited him, based on his reading of power relationships and clients at
There is some thought that the new constitution will be different from that, because
plenty of people would like to see more parliamentary authority. And Sihanouk may
not be as interested in exercising the "hands-on" chief of state political
leadership that he had exercised before. He may be interested in being a more ceremonial
president, as the presidency was intended by the 1947 constitution.
But there are other models floating around. There has been lots of input from other
political parties, from the human rights groups, and from UNTAC. Various people are
trying to cobble something together which might include a bill of rights, and a guarantee
of the separation of powers which is not included in the French Constitution. (As
I recall, the judiciary is not independent, it is part of the Ministry of Interior.)
Various changes could take place. Other constitutions that Cambodia has had, the
Lon Nol Constitution which was modeled on South Vietnam and the United States, the
Pol Pot constitution which was modeled on nothing, and the PRK constitution which
was modeled on the constitution of Vietnam, are not going to serve as models in Cambodia's
constitutional future. The one that the Cambodians are going to use as a model, if
they use one, is the 1947 Constitution, because that is the one that Sihanouk knows
about, the one that he has read, the one that he has amended, it is the one he played
with when he became chief of state in 1960.
Given your understanding of the current political situation in Cambodia, what
elements are the most dangerous?
Dr. Chandler: Well the most dangerous element in Cambodian politics is always
the behavior of incumbent governments, primarily their failure to consider that accountability
- or transparency - is one of the characteristics of government. I am not talking
particularly about corruption, although that is an issue. The business of being unaccountable
to people, that reaching high position allows you to do what you please, in terms
of violence, in terms of force, in terms of money, is very ingrained in Cambodian
practice, not in the Cambodian psyche. I think that the Cambodian psyche, as far
as there is one, is often resentful of this kind of treatment from power holders
to people who lack power. This is why the human rights movement here has grown so
fast; in the last year people have become interested in their rights vis-a-vis those
who hold power.
But it seems to me that a consistent feature of Cambodian politics is that the people
who hold power abuse it. The old adage that "power corrupts and absolute power
corrupts absolutely," is an adage that fits very nicely into Cambodian politics,
but may fit less well if you get some sort of pluralistic politics, which I think
is one of the things that Sihanouk has in mind in having these two prime ministers.
It is his idiosyncratic idea of pluralism. I think that he wants to have a sharing
of power by political parties. But it may work out in practical terms that the more
powerful party will become even more powerful and then begin, or continue to, exercise
power in the way that I am afraid it did in its many years in office, which was often
quite arbitrary and unresponsive.
What is the political position of the Khmer Rouge now, what are the possibilities
for them, and what is it that they want?
Dr. Chandler: Since they operate in secret it is difficult to say what they
are really doing, and one can always be wrong. But because they have this capacity
to terrify people and a demonstrated willingness to massacre unarmed civilians -
as they have shown with people of Vietnamese ethnic origin - they are out there as
a force to be reckoned with. They are a force preventing Cambodia from achieving
true reconciliation, the goal of Prince Sihanouk and others. I think that as a political-ideological
movement, its days are numbered. Khieu Sampan's visit to Phnom Penh was an effort
to buy time, to arrange some sort of temporary cease-fire in the next couple of months
in the transitional period, to consolidate forces, to re-install a kind of united
front policy, leaving his so-called "moderate" colleagues behind in Phnom
Penh to negotiate some sort of deal, I guess, with anyone they can find. These gestures
don't seem to be those of a party that has retained its competence or its momentum,
but it is the only tactic or strategy, it seems to me, that was available to its
leaders, who remain unchanged and unrepentant.
The historical strategic problem for Cambodia has been its geographical position
between Thailand and Vietnam. In the "new world order", where (it is argued)
the economic aspects of foreign policy will dominate the military, what can Cambodia
Dr. Chandler: Cambodians have difficulty thinking in economic terms outside
of a personal and a family basis; they haven't formulated an economic policy for
their country. They have accepted all kinds of protection and help instead. Meanwhile,
of its two neighbors, one is growing very, very fast, by consuming enormous amounts
of raw materials and labor, Thailand. The other, Vietnam, is on the brink of really
quite a major take-off which is merited in terms of the energy and resourcefulness
of its people. I don't see that this economic boom is going to be good for Cambodia,
but on the other hand, the very fact that politics is going to be subordinated to
economic expansion, may well mean that Cambodia may survive. But I don't see that
Cambodia is positioned any better than Laos is to resist the being taken advantage
of by these two countries economically, to resist having its resources moving out
to those two countries, and then being forced to use that money to pay for little
bits of infrastructure to survive. Perhaps it is less-well positioned than Laos,
because Cambodia's borders are so much more permeable. I can't see Cambodia getting
richer in the process. Unfortunately, Cambodia's continued prosperity is of no interest
to its neighbors. And I don't think that it has ever been. The Vietnamese are interested
in maintaining open borders for informal immigration. The Thai are interested in
open borders for economic exploitation - import and export. So I think in this new
era where economic forces dominate, the two neighbors are going to continue to press
against Cambodia, less in a territorial-political way, which is what Cambodians fear,
than in an economic and commercial way. The long term result for Cambodia may be
the same, but the disappearance of Cambodia will take longer than if it were a political
Could you comment on the recent French bi-lateral defense treaty with Cambodia.
Dr. Chandler: I think that this is just French politics. I am sure that the
papers were written before the election, this has been going through the French bureaucracy
for several years, they want to renew their training relationship with the Cambodian
Army which they enjoyed up until 1970. The new army, if it is a national army, including
the forces of three or four factions, will certainly need training... This is not
going to be the same thing as propping up the regime, although one has to be careful
of that. But also it doesn't seem to be sufficient in size to get into the dimensions
of turning France into a puppet of the Cambodian government. What I mean by that
is France is not paying the bills for a major repressive force, the sort of relationship
that America got into with many of armies over the world in the period of the cold
war. I'm not all that frightened by it, I think its part of the re-installation,
the turning the clock back kind of policies that the French are following, which
Sihanouk is following, and which may end up being somewhat to Cambodia's benefit.