I F Warren Christopher looked tired after his day in Phnom Penh drizzle last
Friday, it's no wonder.
From 8:45am until after 10pm, the 69-year-old
U.S. Secretary of State criss-crossed the city, meeting separately with the two
Prime Ministers, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, leaders of four NGOs and a
half dozen Cambodian politicians. He gave two speeches and a press conference.
He sat mopping the sweat off his face during a half hour landmine presentation
at CMAC. He traipsed through the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in the rain and
wrapped up his visit with a Royal audience at the palace with King
The packed schedule was sandwiched into an Asia trip during
which Christopher had other important diplomatic missions to carry out,
including an attempt to fix damaged U.S. ties with China and to open a new era
of U.S. relations with Vietnam.
Indeed the Cambodia visit was viewed of
minor importance by many of the 13 journalists traveling with him from
Washington. Several said they didn't plan to write anything about the Cambodia
stop, which came one day after leaving the ASEAN talks in Brunei, and one day
before the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.
"There was no
hard news today," said CNN correspondent Jud Ginsberg Friday evening. "Cambodia
is one of those places you go to when you are in the region." A wire service
correspondent traveling with Christopher agreed. "The story is Vietnam," he
But the visit was still a milestone in Cambodia's relations with
the United States. It emphasized, according to a state department official, the
United States' sense of a "moral responsibility" to Cambodia. According to the
official, once the Secretary of State's office had decided that Christopher was
to make the trip to Vietnam, "it was a no brainer" to add Cambodia. "He wanted
Christopher's message repeated throughout the day was that
Cambodia's "fragile democracy" launched two years ago needs
The country has come "remarkably far" in two years, he said
when he arrived at Pochentong Airport. But he added that "the survival of
Cambodian democracy cannot be taken for granted. Even with its massive
humanitarian investment in Cambodia over the past decade, the international
community must continue to do its part."
He said the United States will
"remain steadfast in its support of the still fragile
"In a democracy it's not the first, but the second
elections that really count," Christopher said later at a press conference at
the Cambodiana Hotel attended by about 100 people.
"Today Cambodia is
poised to enter the mainstream of a Southeast Asia at peace," he
Some of the Cambodian politicians who met with Christopher over
lunch at U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining's residence said they were pleased that
he inquired about Cambodia's human rights situation and the restrictive new
press law, which prohibits the press from reporting on matters that might affect
"national security" and "political stability".
At lunch he questioned
Khieu Kanharith, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Information, about how
to define "national security" and "political stability". Kanharith agreed to
supply the Khmer Journalists Association and the new League of Cambodia
Journalists with the answer.
Pin Samkhon, president of the KJA, said he
told Christopher that the new press law is bad and is not acceptable to
journalists, and he asked the U.S. government to be vigilant in helping oversee
that Cambodia is able to maintain a free press.
The first to speak at the
lunch was Prince Norodom Sirividh, who, according to others who were present,
told Christopher that Cambodia had only "half the freedom" it wanted to
Second was Kem Sokha, the Chairman of the National Assembly's Human
Rights Commission, who said he told Christopher that Cambodia has four pressing
human rights problems. First, that the government continues to intimidate the
MPs; second, that the court system is not independent; third, that there is no
freedom of expression and fourth, no rule of law.
Sokha said he told
Christopher that it will do no good to try to develop the country without first
addressing human rights.
Sokha said he didn't have enough time to tell
Christopher that he expected to be kicked out of his political party and
expelled from the assembly along with five other members of the BLDP
The BLDP faction led by Minister of Information Ieng Mouly did
expel him as planned on Saturday.
National Assembly member Ahmad Yahya,
who also attended the lunch , said he told Christopher there were some areas in
which he disagreed with the government, but he said that Christopher did not
"give us a strong message. He listened to us," he said.
At the press
conference, Christopher noted that Cambodia is in "a fragile difficult
situation. Democracy begins with elections. So much has to be done in the
He said that a free press is essential to the function of a
democracy. "That is something that will have to be worked out in Cambodia," he
He said that U.S. assistance to Cambodia would not waver, even
though the level of USAID funding is in jeopardy by some members of
"I think it would be one of the last programs Congress would
want to abandon," he said.
Earlier in the day, he announced the
disbursement of $12 million for ongoing USAID programs in Cambodia.
previously pledged funds were for an ongoing family health and birth spacing
program; the Cambodian assistance to primary education, the Technical Support
project, and the Democratic Initiatives project.
In addition he announced
10,000 tonnes of rice to be delivered to the World Food Program to help counter
Cambodia's food shortage this year.
The only uncertainty in the trip was
an on-again-off-again tour of Tuol Sleng, the school that became the Khmer
Rouge's most notorious torture prison.
More than 20,000 Cambodians were
executed there between 1975 and 1978. The visit to Tuol Sleng replaced a planned
visit to the Silver Pagoda. It was put on the schedule at the insistence of the
Washington press traveling with Christopher.
Pol Pot came up at lunch as
well. Christopher asked who among the group had spent the Khmer Rouge era in
Cambodia. Three had.
"I explained they killed my father before my eyes,"
said Kem Sokha. The others told similar tales of horror.
At the press
conference, Christopher said that U.S. leadership in Cambodia in the 1970s and
80s was perhaps "not satisfactory." Christopher was deputy secretary of state
during the Carter Administration in the late 70s. "No doubt with the benefit of
hindsight the United States could have done many things better in Cambodia."
He also briefly mentioned the need for Cambodia to be granted Most
Favored Nation and General System of Preferences status by the U.S. Congress.
The status, which would open U.S. markets to Cambodian goods by lowering and
eliminating tariffs on certain products, was "crucial to Cambodia's
He said both prime ministers had said they thought the first
priority was "to establish an economy that gives people something to live for."