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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shawcross urges end to victimhood culture

Shawcross urges end to victimhood culture

WILLIAM Shawcross displays a humility which is not common among his contemporaries.

Cambodia scholars have a reputation for their dogmatism - and for the virulence of

their attacks on anyone who challenges their respective positions.

But Shawcross comes across as different. He seems almost embarrassed to be considered

a "Cambodia expert".

"Unfortunately, I know much less about Cambodia today than most of you who live

here," he declared to a capacity audience gathered to hear him speak at Phnom

Penh's Foreign Correspondents Club.

"I'm an occasional visitor, alas...[but] if I've learned one thing about Cambodia

over the past 26 years... it is that nothing is ever certain. Except that one does

not know what is going on."

A humble claim indeed. His books - Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction

of Cambodia, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, the Holocaust and the Modern Conscience

and Cambodia's New Deal - have been widely praised as giving uniquely clear insights

into Cambodia's tragic recent history.

Perhaps that was why the audience seemed unconvinced at Shawcross' claims of relative

ignorance and why its members continued to press him for an assessment of Cambodia's

progress toward peace and prosperity.

Overall, his response was cautious. And though he expressed an optimistic vision

of the future, there was something in his tone which suggested a degree of pessimism.

"[My] first impression is the way Phnom Penh has been turned into a miniature

Bangkok, - gas stations on every corner where there used to be beautiful old French

houses - it's just awful, " he said of a city once considered uniquely beautiful

and charming.

"The modernization of Cambodia is inevitable and proper but it should not be

carried out purely in terms of short term commercial interests. Cultural, aesthetic

and wider economic concerns are being ignored.

"It's horrible and sad if its just a free for all - no one will benefit except

a few politicians and foreign businessmen [and] the country will suffer. The beauty

of Phnom Penh and towns like Siem Reap is a unique asset which must be preserved."

Greed, corruption and the lack of law were themes that Shawcross warmed to. The dominance

of narrow self interest over the needs of the nation, he said, was stifling the growth

of pluralism and was possibly the biggest single issue facing Cambodia today.

"...I think that corruption at the level that we see in Cambodia has a huge

impact on the growth of a civil society...In a country where [civil servants] are

paid $15 a month some sort of corruption is inevitable, but not the million dollar

corruption which we see in land sales and elsewhere.

"I think logging and the forestry concern is a huge [issue] and will become

bigger if evidence becomes more conclusive that... deforestation is affecting the

whole environment in Cambodia. It is perhaps the most serious crisis of corruption

in the regime," he said.

Shawcross is aware that criticism in Cambodia is rarely seen as positive or helpful,

and worse, that people pointing out the mistakes of the country's leadership are

often pigeon-holed as enemies of the State.

But he remained straightforward and prepared to express unpopular views. While the

international community must accept some of the blame for the Cambodian tragedy in

the past, he said, it could be argued the international community has now repaid

its debt.

"It was instrumental in bringing peace through the Untac elections and continues

to provide about half of the Royal Governments $410 million annual budget,"

he said.

"[But] are we seeing value for the aid dollar? No, I think we are not. And I

think there is a continuing obligation - and a right - from the international community

to say: 'Look, if you are going to continue to go on deforesting and ruining the

country at this rate, there is no reason why we should continue to prop up the economy.'

"It seems to me that [in this case] strings are legitimately attached... I don't

quite see how the international community can be expected to remain involved in this

level [and not say]: 'Look, we give you half of your national budget, you should

spend it properly and not so as to just strip the country."

Shawcross added that despite the trauma of Cambodia's recent history, in his view

it was time for the country to take responsibility for its own future, to prove it

had truly reemerged as a nation.

"There are lots of countries which are worse off than Cambodia... this is a

[relatively] rich country... [but] the culture of victim hood has existed here for

some years, and its not a very healthy concept for Cambodia to indulge in forever."

As for the Paris Peace Agreement (PPA) and the virtue of Cambodia's "experiment"

with pluralism, Shawcross said: "Hun Sen and others may argue that you need

to have a prolonged period under a one party system [in order to create the stability

required for development].

"But it seems to me to be very hard to argue that position, particularly after

the experience of the 1993 election which did show to me the need within people to

express a free choice.

"I'm absurdly sentimental and romantic, but it seems to me the ability to choose

is a basic human need and I am never going to say people should not have that right...I

think, on the whole, you get a better form of government, you don't have a culture

of impunity when people have a choice.

"It's [all about] the rule of law... the rule of law matters more than anything

- without it, most reputable international companies will not invest here."

That, he said, was what the PPA was all about, but agreed the international unity

of purpose which resulted in the 1993 elections had since been undermined by members

of the coalition and those signatories who remained uncritical of the government

out of concern for their own prospects for commercial gain.

The result, he said, was the risk the ruling elite would not fully embrace notions

like universal human rights and protection of the environment.

"I think it is important that the international community should maintain the

obligations to which it is committed under international law - and to see that the

obligations agreed to by the Cambodian government are observed by that government.

But, according to Shawcross, all is not doom and gloom and credit should be given

where it is deserved.

"Even though I am critical of the government, this is a far less bad government

than Cambodia has experienced in the past 25 years. Given what Cambodia has gone

through in the past, the advances are extraordinary.

"Cambodia is in a much better position than it was in the darkness of the Heng

Samrin era, or the utter darkness of the Khmer Rouge.

"In the area of human rights you have local organizations that operate courageously

and widely, if not entirely freely. You have an extraordinarily free press, though

it's occasional licentiousness is its own worse enemy.

"You have a parliament which is still only a rubber stamp, but the idea five

or six years ago that there would be a parliament at all would have been laughable.

"And I think it's reassuring that during the recent anniversary of the PPA,

Hun Sen rejected an assertion that the agreement was imposed on Cambodia by the west,

saying instead the idea belonged to himself and the King."

As for the upcoming elections, Shawcross believed it was inevitable that tension

would build as the election date neared and that the prospect of a free and fair

election faced a multitude of challenges.

"I would think that in the upcoming elections there should be as many international

observers as possible. There should be international observers in every polling booth

and in the counting to ensure there is no outright intimidation.

"If the elections don't take place, that will mean, in effect, that there's

been a sort of coup d'état by the governing parties... because it means they

will have abandoned the spirit of the Peace Accords to continue their control of

the country's assets..."

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