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
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.