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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - What to do now about your "mistake", Mr McNamara?

What to do now about your "mistake", Mr McNamara?

A n architect of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War admits

mistakes and Basil Fernando asks: "What now?"

Robert S. McNamara,

former US defense secretary, in his recently published memoirs, has stated that

"we were wrong" on Vietnam. This statement has a shattering effect on any one

who has worked in Cambodia in recent times. The destruction caused on this

country since the Khmer Rouge take-over twenty years ago is beyond human

imagination. Though the Khmer Rouge were defeated after ruling the country for

years, every aspect of physical and social life defies all attempts for

restoration. The most visible aspects of this remaining tragedy are: a dearth of

educated Khmers; vast tracts of land still affected by land-mines; the collapse

of every aspect of the transport, communications, education and health care

systems; the incredible absence of law and order; the loss of memory of

democratic institutions including the loss of any idea about independence of

judiciary. Had not Mr McNamara and his colleagues made the mistakes they now

admit having made, Cambodia would not have suffered the terrible tragedy, which

will take many more generations to overcome.

Mr McNamara gives the

reasons for US mistakes as the ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture,

leading to wishful thinking. One regrettably notes that even the attempts to

help Cambodia to pull out of its tragedy, such as United Nations Transitional

Authority of Cambodia (UNTAC) and many other initiatives, continually failed due

to the same reasons - ignorance of Cambodian history, culture, people and

society. What is more alarming is the attitude that considers such knowledge

irrelevant and superfluous.

Cambodians today struggle reconstructing

their country. In May 1993, over 90% of the electorate turned to the polls to

elect their own representatives. The civil society of Cambodia that was

paralyzed returned to life. A number of independent social organizations,

newspapers and NGOs have gained roots in Cambodia. Among the Cambodians

themselves there is high level of discussion and consultation as to the ways

they could overcome their own problems. However one of the recurring themes in

these discussions is the expression of frustration over the way United Nations

agencies and other agencies from developed countries continue to misunderstand

the Cambodian situation.

The major problem of Cambodia in terms of its

reconstruction is the effects of the almost total loss of intelligencia under

Pol Pot's ruthless policy of wiping out the past. The term intelligencia is used

widely to mean anyone possessing any form of urban culture. Thus Cambodia lost

its teachers, scientists, lawyers, judges, monks, and even drivers and

mechanics. A handful of educated people survived the slave labor camps, some

escaped to other lands. Details of deaths and the exodus are well-known to the

world. Since 1979 there have been heroic attempts at recovery. However, the

creation of a new generation of qualified people to deal with technical and

other aspects of development have met with considerable obstacles. There are not

enough people qualified to train others. There are not enough teachers to impart

primary and secondary education. New programs for assistance in higher education

are nowhere near the required scale. Besides the assistance programs are linked

with learning foreign languages, particularly French, which takes more time than

actually learning the subjects. Cambodia needs massive assistance for education

and technical training. However, if such assistance is to bear fruit, it is

necessary to draw from resources of countries near Cambodia, from people who

would find it easy to understand Cambodian history, culture and


In Cambodia development is very much linked with the restoration

of law and order. UNTAC did not make any significant contribution to Cambodia in

this respect. Once the UNTAC police and military were withdrawn in mid-1993,

society rapidly returned to its former position. Banditry, extortion and crime

are a normal way of life. What one finds in Cambodia for most part is not

state-sponsored violence, but violence that the state is unable and powerless to

prevent. Tens of thousands of ex-military personnel pose a major threat to the

population. This is heightened by the slow yet continuous warfare carried out by

the Khmer Rouge. The police are not technically trained to carry out criminal

investigations. Judges lack knowledge and training and are poorly paid (about

$30 a month). There is a very insignificant amount of legal texts. The

Constitution itself was hurriedly made after the May 1993 elections to expedite

the departure of UNTAC. It is a very inadequate document and in many respects

incapable of implementation. In this respect, the attempts of UNTAC and other

United Nations agencies and other programs of assistance have failed to have any

influence due to social and cultural misunderstandings. Attempts to impose

foreign models, like the French legal system, has confused the Cambodians. What

is needed is to draw up laws and procedures in consultation with Cambodians, to

build a legal system that will work in the social and cultural context of

Cambodia. However, amateur "experts" from other countries have been pressuring

Cambodians to give up their own initiatives.

The third major area that

Cambodia needs assistance is to clear land mines. It is not only that a large

part of the land is unusable, but transport, electricity, and water distribution

systems are affected. Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered mine

injuries. Many concerned groups are working towards the goal of eradicating land


Will the admission of mistakes by top ranking US officers like

Robert McNamara lead to reparations being considered to those countries which

have suffered the extreme consequences of those mistakes, directly or

indirectly? How genuinely this question is answered will determine the extent

and the quality of assistance that will be extended to these countries. Cambodia

deserves extensive and long term assistance.



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