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
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