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An Interview with David Chandler

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

the time.

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

military operation.

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.



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