Believe it or not, this is my last piece for the Phnom Penh Post. What should one
write about on such a valedictory occasion?
After some tough editions, I decided my fans have had enough economics, not to mention
mind-boggling crossword puzzles, they deserve something different. The story behind
the news. In other words, me at a more personal level. I shall take one of Sam Goldwyn's
memorable non-sequiturs: "When I want your opinion I will give it to you,"
as an excuse for what follows.
I shall confine myself to an unofficial translation of the recent Declaration of
the Royal Government's policies to the National Assembly, which I have just read.
It helped crystallize my thoughts after nearly 2 1/2 years of living in the country
and trying to assist Cambodians-from university students and faculty right up to
several Ministers preparing for the last Paris ICORC Conference.
The Prime Minister's speech refers to the need to stabilize security and, in particular,
how to shift people from their "negative attitudes." Well-wishers of Cambodia
can only applaud, especially if this results in having answers to some burning questions.
For example: two of the three men involved in the callous shooting of the German
male nurse have been caught; what's happened to them? Similarly, what has happened
to the three heavily armed men dressed, moreover, in military uniforms, who were
captured and photographed-after a thrilling chase-in a recently stolen UNHCR land
cruiser complete with fresh Army license plates? Apart from knowing what will happen
to the culprits, why should the police refuse to release the vehicle unless the UNHCR
hands over U.S. $3,000 and why should the provincial governor wash his hands of the
As an instance of a "negative attitude," will the government publicize
last week's episode where an expat nurse was robbed of her car at gun point by the
very people she had helped after having stopped at an accident to drive the injured
(who subsequently disappeared) to the nearest hospital?.. These are just the most
blatant of incidents, apart from those thefts where the circumstantial evidence for
high-level complicity should have been too obvious to be ignored by the government.
Although they were!
The latest policy declaration talks abut fostering and attracting foreign investment
and soliciting more foreign aid. Reading this in the light of the above, the uncertain
deteriorating climate and the way expat concerns are pushed to one side, reminded
me of a 1970s slogan about Richard Nixon: " Would you Buy A Used Car From This
Ministers and senior officials don't seem to realize that while they may be able
to count on external aid-until donors get fed up with the prevailing anarchy and
hypocrisy-it is not the same with foreign direct investment. All countries throughout
the world are given a security rating for investment and other purposes. Unless the
Government does something soon to clean up its image then viable long-term foreign
investors-the ones the country so badly needs-will probably feel the same way about
Cambodia as Americans once did about President Nixon.
The political situation, also referred to in the policy statement, gives no cause
for optimism. UNTAC and the subsequent elections were supposed to usher in peace.
Yet the odds shorten every day on a major dry season offensive even if the military
are currently more concerned with organizing the National Army and turning themselves
into a separate power bloc. Corruption, despite the admirable efforts of Sam Rainsy,
Minister of Finance, is worse than it was in the last quarter of UNTAC. Officials,
and it's not petty officials we are talking about, connive with the private sector
to indulge in what economists call "tax transfers," i.e. operating activities
in such a way that the bulk of the proceeds remain in private hands with little or
nothing paid in the way of legitimate taxes so desperately needed by the cash-strapped
The Declaration rightly pays homage to the centralizing role and guidance of the
King who has served Cambodia so well. But, at the same time, Ministers are beginning
to jockey for position as succession becomes a distinct possibility. Although, with
the ending of UNTAC's mandate and SNC's legitimacy, the Government embodies Cambodian
governance there is little sign of governing rather than simply presiding over the
nation. Its first 100 days, when so much was looked for, has seen more time spent
on symbolism than Cabinet discussion (only one meeting) of important issues.
Whatever the high sounding statements, there is no sense of esprit de corps in the
Government nor real sense of leadership. A wait-and-see attitude prevails as most
Ministers, especially those back in their old Ministries, are more concerned with
entrenching their positions.
What is even more disturbing is the medium term outlook in terms of human capital.
There is clearly a generation of people in Cambodia today -in their 20s and 30s-who,
because of their formative experience during the Pol Pot era, are completely amoral.
Although they are the generation that will become tomorrow's managers, the ones the
baton will be handed onto, they manifest is the widespread belief that it's perfectly
reasonable to take (illegally) from those who have, whatever they consider to be
their rightful share. At present their only contribution "to the new page being
turned in Cambodia's glorious history," is to a growing sense of anarchy.
Perhaps where one parts most strongly from what was announced to the National Assembly
is the statement: "the Government maintains a policy of increasing the number
of people quickly" simply because Cambodia "faces neighbors which have
7/8 times more people." Several things need to be said. It is not population
size that counts but their level of human development and the way people are encouraged
to generate wealth.
Population growth rates cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Like a ship at sea
it takes a considerable distance to stop or change direction. Cambodia already has
one of the fastest rates of population growth in the world, a figure which will rise
once high crude death rates are brought down. The country cannot afford to "increase
people quickly." It cannot provide the basic necessities for the bulk of its
population today. Does the Government honestly think that it can double an already
inadequate standard of living-within the existing resource base-when the population
is twice its size as it will inevitably be in only 17.5 years? Doesn't anyone understand
At the moment, the lack of Family Planning and the deliberate denial of sex education
to young women, means that couples do not really exercise personal choice as to having
the number of children they can afford. Children for whom parents wish to give a
better life tomorrow. All average Khmer women want is to be able to limit or space
child-bearing; not have that individual decision usurped by muddle-headed Government
intervention that, in addition, is in the wrong direction. Demographic policy-if
there is to be one-should be determined in function of a realistic assessment of
the country's "carrying capacity," not a Pavlovian reflex to the number
of surrounding Vietnamese or Thais.
A final comment of an institutional nature because it typifies my official Cambodian
experience. The Government says it want to integrate Cambodia into the international
economic system. They say that doing so will be require, inter alai, co-operating
with the General Agreement on tariffs and Trade (GATT). Unlike other international
organizations, GATT is not going to meet Cambodia's habit of wanting to be spoon
feed; Cambodia has to take the initiative. If it is to claim the benefits of belonging
to the world's foremost trade organization and the recently completed Uruguay Round,
it must become a member-with all that involves.
Yet, despite being the only GATT expert in the country (with 25 years of experience),
I shall leave Cambodia taking my knowledge-which happens to be unique about its past
legal relationship-with me. Why? Because months of offering to share this expertise
have led nowhere. Just another example of Cambodian thinking that because they have
expressed a wish for something, action will automatically follow.
One final thought for Government Ministers. Each one of us here is an ambassador
both for our country & the organization we represent. Conversely, when we leave
we are, for a while, a sort of good will ambassador for Cambodia. With so many expats
leaving shortly, what sort of a message does the Government think we should take
back with us?