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
"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
"It was instrumental in bringing peace through the Untac elections and continues
to provide about half of the Royal Governments $410 million annual budget,"
"[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..."