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Don't pack up the USAID villa

Don't pack up the USAID villa

The Editor,

The "rocket scientist" who authored the emotional indictment of the USAID

mission in Cambodia (Letters, PPP, Oct 20) makes a number of compelling points but

he does not cast his net of outrage nearly wide enough when challenging the practices

of foreign donors and their impact on the political and economic developments in

Cambodia today. He neglected to mention the most important partner in this, the Royal


As a former ex-pat user of one USAID-funded Jeep Cherokee, I can assure him that

his comments are fully understood, and even appreciated, by the same NGO grantees

he condemns along with Mssrs. Huffman, Goodwin, Greeley and Briggs. I even cheered

until I got to the part where he pined for the Monorom, confined far from the provinces

and the vast majority of Khmers for whom he has sacrificed so much - evidence, I

assume, of a greater humanitarian instinct now gone forever thanks to the UN and

its unconscionable occupation force. But where he really lost me was by offering

US Senator Jesse Helms as a beacon of fiscal accountability and racial equality on

behalf of the American taxpayer and the Cambodian people.

For those unfamiliar with this consummate pork-barrel politician, Jesse Helms is

a United States Senator because he has shamelessly played to the racist fears of

white Americans in every one of his election campaigns for the past thirty years.

Moreover, masked behind a cynical veneer of budgetary oversight, Helms' assault on

USAID is only one among many of his relentless pursuits against the poor, whites

and non-whites alike, both in the U.S and abroad. If Senator Helms gets his way,

welfare-dependent Americans might as well flee to the Krajina or Mondulkiri because

he would eliminate this social safety net entirely - although he would surely vote

to subsidize the tobacco farmers in his state so they can export their life-threatening

products to Asia and Eastern Europe since so few Americans smoke these days. As for

the long-suffering Cambodian people, Jesse Helms couldn't care less.

If the xenophobic views of Jesse Helms had prevailed in 1979, Cambodian survivors

of Pol Pot would not have been granted asylum in America and the US Refugee Act would

not have been adopted by Congress one year later. If Senator Helms could remake history,

the US would not have been a signatory to the Paris peace accords and the embargo

of Cambodia might well be in force to this very day. If the Senator succeeds in reversing

America's 100-year-old open immigration policies, future victims of genocide, torture

and political repression will just have to go somewhere else.

Furthermore, in order for Senator Helms to stop the flow of USAID support to developing

countries, he will have to persuade a great many others to abandon their humanitarian

principles in favor of his racist, short-sighted and isolationist vision of the world.

He will have to embrace the very presumption of supremacy that led to the American

bombing of Cambodia in the first place. And he will have to invoke the misguided

belief that foreign countries and their people bear the blame for America's socio-economic

and moral decay. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to measure the brief distance

between these views and the modern face of fascism.

The United States has a great deal of unwashed blood on its hands for its sordid

policies in Cambodia but it was the Khmer Rouge who exploited the devastation wrought

by American political and military intervention. It was the Khmer Rouge who caused

the deaths of more than one million people while systematically deconstructing every

aspect of public and private life - all this, one cannot forget, in the name of Khmer

nationalism and self-determination.

The Khmer Rouge were as bad as it ever gets but the betrayal of the Cambodian people

by their own leaders didn't start in April of 1975, nor did it stop when the Vietnamese

tanks rolled across the border nearly four years later. For yet another Hobbesian

lesson in the pathology of power and its effect on human nature, take a good look

at the SoC regime or the Thai border camps or the political hierarchy in Phnom Penh

today, replete with the same cast of characters.

With the outcome of an election that was free enough but hardly fair, it is no surprise

that Cambodian journalists are shot dead or sent to jail, that MPs are expelled from

parliament and their political parties for challenging the status quo, or that prisoners

risk dying from disease and malnutrition while rotting in jails throughout the country

uncharged with any crime. There isn't enough money in the entire U.S. treasury to

fill a vacuum of political will where none exists and the responsibility for this

state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of the Royal Government of Cambodia.

Spend an afternoon at the Council of Ministers for a view of these newly enlightened

demagogues in action. If that doesn't open your eyes, drop in at a party meeting,

take your pick, or check out the casino if you want to see lucrative deal-making

at its best. For a look into the future, consider the words of the Second Prime Minister

and his promise to stay in power until the year 2010 and maybe beyond. Then ask yourself

why - despite the assistance of some 30 countries and more than $1 billion pledged

for reconstruction and development - the alleviation of poverty and the protection

of human rights are ideals that get pursued with more vigor and success elsewhere.

If the Cambodian people hold the international community in such grave contempt for

its failure to adequately compensate their misery, what must they think of their

own leaders?

USAID represents different things to different people. To some, it will forever remain

a sinister bastion of American imperialism whose agents plot the overthrow of sovereign

states under a cover of humanitarian assistance. To others, it is more benign but

no less indifferent to culture and context. Today, to this war-ravaged country, USAID

represents a bottomless well of atonement. However wasteful, inefficient or insensitive

the policies and practices of USAID and its grantees - or any other foreign donor

for that matter - the absence of any timely progress in reforming the legal and judicial

system bodes far worse for the promise of human rights and democratic accountability

in Cambodia, not to mention reconstruction and development of the country.

What does this imply for USAID and other aid organizations in Cambodia? Should they

pack up their villas and go home? Should the World Bank and the IMF apply standards

of performance to Cambodia that cannot possibly be met? Should NGO workers check

their worldly possessions in left luggage lockers before flying in to meet their

fate alongside the Cambodian people? Should foreign governments break diplomatic

ties because the Royal Government thinks floating casinos are more urgently needed

than health clinics or human rights?

Before banishing these intermediary minions of international conscience, consider

the frustrations of those ministry workers who actually show up for work on the off-chance

they can accomplish even the simplest of assignments without partisan interference.

Consider the dangers faced by Cambodian human rights workers in the provinces who

monitor the actions of the local police and RCAF forces. Consider the impotence and

increasing isolation of Cambodian MPs who are blocked at every turn from doing the

job they were elected to do. Consider the underlying principles of free speech and

the role of independent media in holding governments accountable and then just imagine

what this government would do if no-one was watching. Consider the urgency of the

task faced by Cambodians who struggle against all odds and at great risk to bring

rule of law to this lawless country. And then, after all this, imagine how it feels

to wonder when the next unknown assassin will come for you.

Before extolling the hate-mongering virtues of the intolerant Jesse Helms, ask these

Cambodians whether the hardly adequate umbrella of support and protection they receive

through their association with an imperfect USAID mission and the projects it funds

is better than none at all.

- Jamie Factor, Dresden, Germany.

(Jamie Factor was head of the National Democratic Institute in Cambodia 1993-94

- Ed.)


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