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Cambodia: a long way from national recovery

Cambodia: a long way from national recovery

Have hopes engendered during the 1993 elections been realized? Hassan A. Kasem looks at recent events and wonders about the next poll.

DURING the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, many Cambodians, young and old, sensed that a genuinely "unified", constitutionally-based polity, be it a monarchy or a republic, would be born, with a government that would address critical issues hindering the nation's development. Three years on these very same people question whether substantial changes, as some pledged to bring about, have really been achieved.

Many people now believe that Cambodia's decades-long fratricidal tendencies and socioeconomic ills require a miracle cure, and that Western attempts to treat the problems in any other way will simply create conflicts with Cambodian values. A well thought-out plan - be it of Western or Cambodian origin - will bode well for long-term national interests. With elections coming soon - assuming they take place - let us put the state of the Kingdom in perspective.

As a constitutional monarchy, the King "reigns but does not rule", however certain powers are vested in the monarch during His reign. The King may exercise them as He wishes, provided His actions are in line with the constitution. He can grant, among other things, amnesty to convicted criminals - at least three times a year - on His birthday, on Independence Day and New Year's Day.

The King's decisions on some issues, however, have not pleased certain government officials, despite solemn pledges of allegiance to follow His Majesty's guidance. The King is known to have expressed displeasure with the way He was treated by government leaders. A case in point was the government's request to the King to amnesty Ieng Sary. Although He has the power to grant amnesty, the King signed the Royal amnesty to pardon Ieng Sary only with assurances from the first and second prime ministers that it not be made public prior to a full debate in the National Assembly. In a move to cash in on KR internal rifts, the government went public on the amnesty, claiming the majority of MPs would not oppose the King's decision.

An amnesty for convicted criminals proposed by the King during His birthday anniversary jolted law enforcement officials, students and businessmen. Human rights advocates aside, those in Funcinpec reluctantly agreed with the King, and those in the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) refused to endorse it for fear that released felons might seek revenge against law enforcement officers who apprehended and incarcerated them. The general amnesty program, from a law enforcement standpoint, would open the door for rich and well-financed recidivists to buy their way out and leave poor guys charged with petty thefts behind bars. The Royal pardon, if not strictly monitored, would inevitably exacerbate public confidence in law enforcement and the judicial system, since no-one could guarantee freed prisoners will not commit new crimes.

Before his latest departure to China for medical treatment, the King thought He was not really regarded as an indispensable figure in His own country. It was said by Palace sources He "would retire in France" if His proposed general amnesty angered Cambodians. Another cause for His displeasure was that the King sees the CPP as having made a concerted effort to undermine the Monarchy-out of fears He might abdicate and reenter politics. Implied CPP concerns over the King's popularity prompted the monarch to issue a statement reassuring CPP leaders that he "... will certainly never enter the political arena, never enter the elections, never assist any party or group, because I am the Father of every Cambodian and a genuinely neutral person."

Adding to the King's dismay were repeated allegations of political maneuvers involving the Royal family and Funcinpec leadership. Prince Norodom Chakrapong was expelled from Cambodia on charges he attempted to stage a coup d'etat. Prince Norodom Sirivuddh was exiled to France for conspiring to kill second Prime Minister Hun Sen. The prince's desire to come back has been objected to by CPP members.

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh threatened last year to withdraw from the government if the CPP refused to share power. In addition, Funcinpec officials, with or without the King's acquiescence, were alleged by the CPP to have prepared a secession plan in the northwest should the coalition fall apart.

The question as to who will succeed the King upon his death remains open. So far no de jure Prince has accepted to become King, nor has a successor been appointed and approved by the Throne Council. As per Cambodian customs and tradition, a commoner could never be permitted to ascend the throne as a de jure King or Queen, although he or she was lawfully married to a princess or a prince. In fact, long ago a princess was forbidden to marry a commoner. However, palace rules and practices have changed. With the King's wish and seal of approval on the nomination to elevate the royal status of a well-mannered family member, a commoner married to royal blood may become a de jure princess or queen.

The King, who was out of the country while the KR issue dominated the government agenda, either because of the monarch's poor health or for political reasons, sent a clear massage to Cambodian politicians that he was not pleased with his subjects, particularly those in power.

The Royal government: The coalition established in 1993 started as an uneasy alliance. Hailing their respective victories, each major party demanded key portfolios and privileges for loyalists. Untac was accused of voting irregularities. Charges and countercharges were traded in party-financed media when one party appeared to be dominated by the other.

However, the gloomy political atmosphere was transformed into a promising future. Upon the King's advice, the winning parties agreed to cohabit; ministries to be run by co-ministers and extra-ministerial positions created for the sake of peace and stability. This has led to an oversized bureaucracy.

For two years both premiers made public appearances together in Cambodia and overseas, ostensibly reconfirming a spirit of friendliness and mutual trust. The King himself referred to Second PM Hun Sen as his "godson". When addressing a Cambodian-American audience after a UN General Assembly session, the two PMs appealed to all Cambodians to close their "philosophy books and place them aside" for the moment asserting that "if we can fight against each other, we can find a way to end our fighting."

Alas, the pseudo-faithful marriage between the CPP and Funcinpec turned into disharmony and polemics causing the public to speculate that a new round of violence was inevitable. The friction between the ruling coalition partners has largely been attributed to a power-sharing disparity and, also, a lingering distrust between the two former battle foes.

FUNCINPEC officials have charged that the CPP has wielded influence in government affairs, and systematically coordinated efforts to undercut grassroots support for the majority. The CPP has refuted all charges made against it, blaming Cambodia's political, social and economic short comings on Funcinpec's ineffective and insensitive leadership.

Despite the fact that the prime ministers have occasionally appeared together at some official events, both premiers' views on foreign and domestic policy issues-which were often drawn along party lines-are far apart. For example, Hun Sen established ties with South Korea to promote trade and investment, Funcinpec officials welcomed the move halfheartedly, fearing it would affect the friendship between the King and North Korea.

Last year, the two PMs disagreed on use of military force to root out KR bases in the west. This fundamental policy difference led to a disunified military command center, with Funcinpec soldiers refusing to take orders from CPP commanders.

Hostility on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border flared up, as Prince Ranariddh accused Vietnam of allegedly poaching Cambodian land and threatened to "use force if necessary." The prince's stern warning to Cambodia's neighbor prompted Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to reply "... if anybody wants to fight with Vietnam, please go it alone".

These and other vital policy issues of national interest usually demand extensive discussions behind closed-doors to seek a common solution and avoid public panic. The two PMs, instead, move in different directions, delivering speeches to justify their political lines which are soon aired on party-affiliated television stations. Previously, some senior officials from both parties downplayed their leaders' exchanges of strong - and sometimes alarming - rhetoric, referring to it metaphorically, as a typical family feud or democracy at work. However, concerned observers think the opposite is true, given the frequent contradictory statements and strategic actions unilaterally demonstrated by senior members of each party.

The possibility of armed conflict was witnessed last November - and the confrontation almost burst - when senior RCAF officers toeing respective lines placed their troops on a combat-ready status in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Svay Rieng and Kompong Som.

As far as the debate to outlaw the KR, it was the only vital national issue one can remember where the first and the second premiers spoke with unanimity, despite opposition from some party members in parliament. Many months later, after the passage of the bill senior RCAF officers from each political party secretly conducted separate talks with moderate KR guerilla leaders to encourage defections and court their support. All under the banner of the Royal Government's national reunification and reconciliation policy. The legislative body had been left in the dark about the deals.

Responding to calls for a cease-fire or an end to fighting, KR chiefs in Pailin and Malai - Ieng Sary, Ee Chhien and Sok Pheap-broke away from their hard-line colleagues, but balked at a quick integration as sought by politicians. Leaders from both sides of the ruling coalition claimed credit when news of the KR split came to light. Ee Chhien (nicknamed Brother 79), a division commander who has long been regarded as a "hero" for his magnanimous heart and gestures towards his fellow countrymen, is known to have taken a neutral political stance, while the ruling parties are vying for his support.

Funcinpec's and CPP's maneuvers to draw KR support suggest that the outlawed guerrilla organization is still a force to be reckoned with. When the parties think it is time to strike while the iron is hot, the KR now stand on high political ground, perceiving they have more to gain than to lose in the future.

This overzealous approach to form an alliance with the KR prompted the King to warn that it is a "lamentable and dangerous politics." This, too, is obviously in contrast to his philosophy of reunifying and reconciling the divided people. Bewildered by the deals being struck between the government and the breakaway KR, the National Assembly is muted over what to do with the law outlawing the KR. No debate on the issue is necessary because some MPs have already withdrawn in lump sum their five-year salaries.

The absence of a supreme legal authority, i.e. a Constitutional Council, to review and interpret the constitution has apparently led government officials to interpret the Kingdom's highest as they wish. UNTAC's legacy governing such matters as freedom of the press and court rulings are still honored and sometimes, implemented concurrently with the laws passed by the National Assembly or with ministerial sub decrees. When a bill is passed - the drafts of which are mainly introduced by MP-Cabinet members-it becomes law and then it will be implemented by the government. No other body interprets its constitutionality.

Prince Sirivuth's case provides a reference upon which to base an educated argument. When the prince allegedly plotted to assassinate Hun Sen, he was taken into custody and detained. The evidence and the eyewitnesses were said to be grounds for the plaintiff to file formal charges. The prince was released and exiled, with help from the King and Funcinpec officials. A brief trial was held later, and the same defendant freed earlier by the government was convicted - and sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Now he is wanted back again for good.

Government efforts to stimulate the country's morbid economy have fallen short. The free market has attracted more small-scale entrepreneurs than upscale investors for solid projects. Risk-taking traders have opened up businesses, taking advantage of untapped natural resources and government incentives. Some major industrial development projects have only been approved, but have yet to be set in motion. Foreign and local businessmen are discouraged over the unpredictable political climate, and also complain about red tape and corruption. Because Cambodia imports more than it exports inbound shipping costs are higher than neighboring countries because ships usually return with less cargo.

Excessive government spending, loss of logging revenues, ineffective tax-collection measures and graft have created a budgetary shortage of hard currency, and compelled the country to depend more on foreign loans. The current trend, if it continues, will leaves Cambodia with chronic debt problems.

The government's failure to implement effective action on a number of policy issues has disappointed international leaders as well as aid donors. As a result, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has now withheld loan installments earmarked for Cambodia's development programs, while the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other foreign donors strictly monitor their funds given to help rebuild the Kingdom. To date, the ADB alone has provided a total of $286 million in loans and grants, with an additional $85 million expected in the next three years.

The lack of international confidence in Cambodia's future has not only kept most legitimate and honest multimillion-dollar investors at bay, but may plausibly delay the Kingdom joining ASEAN.

A final analysis reads: as an election approaches, party stalwarts continue to push school-building - no matter how many students there are in the classrooms. But parental hardships have not been addressed adequately - the main reason their kids quit early.

The National Assembly only debates and approves draft laws presented by the government, not those of its own design, and is reluctant to raise issues implicating its members in any wrongdoing.

The citizens, once again, will be asked to elect them again because the first term was not long enough to achieve many things for the country and its people. High politics! So it is said the men once condemned to death for genocide have been called "peace promoters."

Potential long-term investors continue to hold back at least until after 1998, and ASEAN and others are waiting to see what's next. If the elections take place, they are not likely to be a free and fair-much less nonviolent-plebiscite, considering the intensifying political polarization. The Cambodian people will be locked as ever to the chain of Karma (an ill fated existence), and will find no one else to blame for it this time.

Some hard-pressed souls fed-up with politics say this: "Cambodians all claim to be strugglers and liberators. Those pleading with others for unity and support never intend to unite with and support anyone. Those advocating peace are possessed with the spirits of Angkorian warriors, who fear no death, and will resort to anything for their egos. Next time we just won't go to the polls."

-Hassan A. Kasem was born in Kompong Thom in 1953 and grew up in Kompong Chhnang.
He currently works for a trading firm in Phnom Penh.


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