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Cambodian reflections from the Dutch ambassador

Cambodian reflections from the Dutch ambassador


In her capacity as the Netherlands' Bangkok-based ambassador to Thailand, Burma,

Laos and Cambodia,

Laetitia van den Assum has been an ardent observer of Cambodian developments since

1995. Before leaving Southeast Asia for her new posting in South Africa, she spoke

to Anette Marcher about donor influence in Cambodia, demobilization, the monarchy

and the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Laetitia van den

Post: What is the most significant progress that has taken place in Cambodia during

your time in office?

van den Assum: Cambodia stands out as a country with an active civil society,

largely able to make itself heard and understood. It is the best possible indication

that further democratization lies ahead, despite some of the serious setbacks I have

witnessed since 1995. I have a great deal of respect for all those who have worked

to get this far, and I do not only refer to the very important role of NGOs but also

to dedicated individuals in political parties, in the civil service and in the military.

If you look at some other countries in the region, there is no debate, and civil

society is repressed. Far be it from me to suggest that things are ideal in Cambodia

but in the last few years certain ideas and processes have become fairly permanent

fixtures. They will not be uprooted so easily.

At the same time the existence of debate and dialogue alone is not enough and they

should not be used to justify the status quo. Clear progress is urgently needed.

Post: In what areas is progress needed most urgently?

van den Assum: Establishment of the rule of law, judicial reform. The enormous

impunity problem is the best proof of this.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful that we will see progress. Most actors now recognize that

economic and social progress will not be forthcoming unless the rule of law is established.

When I arrived in 1995 the rule of law was largely seen as a hobby-horse for human

rights advocates. But that notion has broadened and many Cambodians now see that

the success of the entire reform program depends to a critical extent on respect

for the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

That recognition is a big plus, but a lot remains to be done in terms of implementation

and enforcement. There is a long way to go but if you look at the draft Governance

Plan of Action, presented to the Consultative Group last May, it is obvious that

a lot of thinking has already gone into the nuts and bolts of governance related

reforms. It almost reads like a road map and with political will and broader discussion

it can become an effective tool for change.

Post: What is the donor community's role in pushing for these reforms? And how

much influence do donors have at all on the reform process?

van den Assum: The donor community is most effective if it is able to capture

and build on processes of change which are already occurring in Cambodia. That is

probably why a fairly large proportion of assistance is channeled via NGOs. They

are more flexible.

This doesn't mean that channeling resources through the government cannot be effective,

but it takes time to build effective governmental systems and structures. The magnitude

of the tasks the government and its institutions face is enormous, and sometimes

donors are perhaps a little impatient.

While governance is a favorite topic between the Cambodian government and its donors,

we do not always take time to ensure that Cambodia's democratic institutions are

properly consulted about far-reaching decisions. We risk undermining the efforts

to improve the functions of bodies such as the National Assembly and the Senate.

It is not the government alone which is responsible. Donors share the blame.

Post: What - if anything - has donor pressure achieved?

van den Assum: In recent years that a great deal of effort has been put

into policy formulation and in building the legal framework needed to help Cambodia

move ahead. We really appreciate the contours of the policy and legal framework which

are now becoming visible.

But at the same time I am concerned about the lack of implementation and enforcement

of existing laws and regulations. This brings me back to the problem of impunity.

To give you an example: while I have no reason to doubt the seriousness of the work

on the new land law, I don't quite understand why at the same time there are still

so many reports of land-grabbing and illegal sale of state property. The same applies

to trafficking in persons, to corruption etc.

Post: Why is demobilization progressing so slowly and why are the donors reluctant

to give money to the process?

van den Assum: Demobilization is a very sensitive issue, one which goes

back to the tense political situation of the last decade. So it is important to proceed

carefully and make sure that all the major stakeholders agree on the course of action.

The Netherlands contributed to the pilot demobilization program because we felt it

was important to gain momentum and experience. But the pilot program started before

any coherent policy framework for military reform was presented and discussed, not

with donors and, more importantly, not with the democratic institutions of the country.

You cannot put the cart before the horse. Demobilization is an outcome of carefully

thought out military reforms. This is the main reason why we are reluctant to provide

further assistance at this point.

The Cambodian government knows this and should not be surprised by it. I have often

said that we will await the presentation of the White Paper on military reform. Once

it is presented and generally approved, we will certainly sit down with the government

to see how we can be of further assistance.

Post: A draft law clarifying the succession procedures for the Cambodian monarchy

was recently submitted to the National Assembly. How important is this law and why?

van den Assum: Irrespective of the state system, countries and societies

undergoing rapid or far-reaching change need stability and predictability. That includes

knowing which transparent processes will be in place when the Head of State abdicates

or passes away.

In the case of Cambodia the 1993 Constitution does not spell out how the Throne Council

should proceed when it elects a new monarch. It is important to clarify this, even

though every Cambodian hopes that His Majesty King Sihanouk will remain amongst them

for many years to come.

I'm certain that when the time comes, many Cambodians want to know how and under

which procedures the King's successor will be chosen. The monarchy law will limit

uncertainty and prevent political instability.

Post: Speaking of royalty. What role does Funcinpec play in the current political


van den Assum: It is clear that Cambodia does not yet have a tradition

of sharing power in the sense it is known in other parts of the world. Traditions

by their very nature emerge slowly. In 1998 a major political effort was required

to form the coalition and I can see why a more pro-active role by one of the two

coalition partners might be seen as a threat to reconciliation.

But the coalition has given itself and parliament a very good tool to measure progress,

one that can be used by either partner: The 1998 Platform for Action in which the

coalition established its policy directions and priorities. Parts of it were drafted

in Bangkok before the government was formed and even the Sam Rainsy Party contributed

to it.

So it is hard to think of a more widely accepted tool to assess where things stand

and how the coalition and the opposition together can ensure that stated intentions

are realized. This is a role that parliament could play. And donors can perhaps find

ways of supporting this.

Post: How important are the commune elections and what issues must be solved before

they go ahead?

van den Assum: The commune elections are very important because they provide

an opportunity for greater democracy, particularly in the rural areas where local

institutions have not changed substantially since 1991.

But the elections can only contribute to greater stability and development if they

lead to genuine power sharing and not in a mere division of power between major political

parties. If the latter happens tensions are likely to grow.

In the recent Consultative Group meeting in Paris I said that the Netherlands is

prepared to consider support for the elections if three conditions are met. First

the dismantling of militias. If this is not done the conditions for free and fair

elections will not be in place. I have been told that the militias will be transferred

from the military authority to the civilian authority but I am not sure I understand

this. Transferring is not the same as dismantling.

At the same time Interior Minister Sar Kheng, in a presentation about the security

situation, told the government/donor review meeting in early April about the need

to establish "people's self-defense committees". Why these are needed and

how they relate to the militias remains to be clarified.

The second point concerns the balanced composition of the National Election Committee

(NEC). I was a little surprised to learn earlier this year that in 1998 the present

members were appointed for a five year term.

I may be wrong but I don't think the law specifies a five-year term. It seems to

have been the NEC membership itself which assumed that it would be in place for five

years when it drafted its internal regulations and procedures. If this is clarified

then some changes can perhaps be made.

The third and last point is the importance of election monitoring by NGOs. Their

role will be vital to ensure the integrity of the process and every effort should

be made to ensure that they can play their role to the fullest.

Post: The UN and the Cambodian government recently agreed on a Memorandum of

Understanding outlining the elements of a future Khmer Rouge tribunal. What advantages

and shortcomings do you see in the current tribunal agreement?

van den Assum: I have followed the intense political debate over this important

issue of justice. The contradiction between politics and justice has struck me from

the very beginning but like others I have gradually come to accept the need for some

adaptation to the Cambodian situation.

While I have not seen the draft law in its new form, I would like to caution against

an approach which leaves too many open ends, requiring improvisation as the tribunal

moves along with its work. If the key objective of the whole exercise is to help

Cambodians put this very black period of their history behind them, it is important

that the ground rules are clear.

If the tribunal is seen as dispensing less than perfect justice the KR issue will

not be laid to rest. The next generation will come back to reopen the debate. You

see this in many parts of the world, including my own.

There are many issues which, as far as I know, have not yet been dealt with adequately

such as the establishment of a good witness protection program. It is important that

these are clarified very soon.

Post: How should the National Assembly debate be handled?

van den Assum: That is not for me to say but I would hope that there will

be a substantive debate on the key issues, directly broadcast on radio and TV.

Because whatever the Assembly decides, it seems important that the many Cambodians

who have been following the events since the co-Prime Ministers first wrote to the

UN Secretary-General in June 1997, understand why their MP's decide to approve or

reject the draft law.

If they find the arguments convincing they are much more likely to accept the Assembly's

decision. If they are not convinced, the issue of trials for the KR leadership will

continue to generate debate for years to come.


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