T he world's work in Cambodia is far from over, argues Frederick Z. Brown,
Southeast Asian studies professor at Johns Hopkins University. The following is edited
testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Sept 21, 1995.
I served as an polling station officer during the May 1993 national elections organized
and directed by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Since
then I have visited Cambodia three times, and met often with Cambodian officials
visiting Washington. I visited Phnom Penh in June of this year.
My observations address primarily the political aspects of the situation in Cambodia.
I place them in the context of the 1991 Paris Agreements on a Comprehensive Political
Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, and the Royal Kingdom's 1993 Constitution. The
Paris Agreements stipulated that "Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy,
on the basis of pluralism..." The Constitution itself stipulated "a multi-party
liberal democratic regime guaranteeing human rights..."
Problems of Democratization
It is misleading to talk of "democracy" or the "process of democratization"
in Cambodia in the way we Americans think of these concepts. Cambodians, particularly
those in rural areas who comprise 80 percent of the electorate, are still more used
to a recessive (if not subservient) posture in politics. They may still be more comfortable
with a monarchic system and feudal political relationships, as demonstrated by the
outpouring of support for Prince (now King) Sihanouk and FUNCINPEC, his son's party,
during the UNTAC election. Cambodia has a cultural tradition of authoritarian rule
dating from the days of the Khmer Empire. But even admitting that the social base
for democratic practices is in its infancy in Cambodia, it is undeniable that the
UNTAC protectorate of two years and the elections (89% participation) had an impact
upon the Cambodian people's sense of "political empowerment". The elections
changed the way many Cambodians, particularly students, younger adults, intellectuals,
city-dwellers, and a small but growing middle class have traditionally viewed their
role in the political process. It is difficult to judge how deep and how durable
these changes are - but the changes are certainly there.
Since the formation of a coalition government by First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh
(FUNCINPEC) and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (CPP) in September 1993, there has
been a steady compression of the political space for Cambodians seeking to participate
in the democratic process. This compression may represent a regression into traditionalCambodian
authoritarianism - but it also contravenes the pluralist, liberal intent of the UN-brokered
peace arrangement, of the international community and of the Cambodian Constitution
itself. FUNCINPEC (ostensibly the election winner) has been all but subsumed by the
CPP at the policy level; the key positions in the armed forces and security services
are controlled by the CPP; the 21 provincial and special zone administrations are
dominated by CPP cadres. Ranariddh and Hun Sen appear to share identical political
and economic-commercial interests. The Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, which was
the National Assembly's third largest delegation (winning 10 seats out of 120 in
the 1993 elections), has disintegrated in a fight between its founder, Son Sann,
and Ieng Mouly, Minister of Information, who has cast his lot with the CPP. Former
Minister of Finance Sam Rainsy, the most outspoken dissenter from his own party's
policies, was expelled from FUNCINPEC and removed from the National Assembly. Those
Assembly members who have offered legislation, or simply voiced ideas not in step
with the coalition parties, or openly criticized corruption, are now very reluctant
to speak out for fear of losing their seats (or their lives). The chairman of the
Assembly's Commission on Human Rights, Kem Sokha, and five other BLDP Assemblymen
have been threatened with expulsion from the Assembly. Other members of the Assembly
have been intimidated. In short, the legislative branch of the Royal Government for
which, in 1993, there was great hope as the keystone of Cambodian democracy, is approaching
the status of a rubber stamp. And one party, the CPP, appears to direct the significant
policies and activities of what is said to be a coalition government.
It is possible that personal rivalries and now-subdued discontent in both the CPP
and FUNCINPEC will produce a factional realignment during 1996. In the context of
the 1997 local and 1998 national elections, a realignment of individuals and factions
that resulted in a viable single-party cabinet would probably enhance prospects for
more effective governance - or it could simply lead to "more efficient corruption"
and further erosion of democratic principles. 1998 is still distant, and the present
government has many dangerous economic and political shoals to navigate. What will
be crucial is the manner in which politicians move from the present regime to the
next, and the extent to which the changes occur within the law and the Constitution
and with respect for human rights. One signal will come from Sam Rainsy's experience
if and when he attempts to form a new party, perhaps enlisting politicians who can
no longer stomach FUNCINPEC, the BLDP, or the CPP (which is far from united). What
happens in 1998 also depends on whether the concept of a loyal opposition party -
in contrast to a revolutionary opposition party - can be accepted by the Cambodian
political elites. (In the words of one senior Cambodian official during my recent
visit to Phnom Penh, "Cambodia has two laws, the law of money and the law of
the gun. If the leadership cannot buy you, they will shoot you."
Freedom of the Press
Under UNTAC, Cambodia had enjoyed a liberal environment for public expression.
While responsible journalism was practiced by many newspapers, some others engaged
in tabloid journalism of an extreme western variety. The Royal Government has grown
increasingly displeased by a sensationalist press that, in its view, has endangered
national security through "false reporting" and "slander" against
officials. There have been critical accounts of military reverses in northern and
western Cambodia in Spring 1994; reports of military abuses and corruption; speculative
reporting on the abortive July 1994 coup; and reports of alleged political instability
at the time of the March 1995 meeting of the International Conference on the Reconstruction
of Cambodia (ICORC) in Paris.
Open threats by both FUNCINPEC and CPP officials have led to an atmosphere of fear
in the print media. Several newspaper offices have been attacked with grenades; a
number of newspapers have already closed down; three editors of newspapers critical
of the government have perished in "traffic accident" or by gunshot; four
editors have been sentenced to jail and are awaiting appeal. The Government's displeasure
has been made manifest in the press law adopted in July 1995 after more than a year
of debate in the National Assembly, among the foreign donor community and in the
Cambodian media itself. (The fact that the draft law was actually debated, if gingerly,
perhaps provides one ray of hope for freedom of expression.) The press law imposes
heavy fines for publishing material affecting "national security and political
stability". It stipulates that defamation is a criminal rather than civil offense.
As yet, there is no clear definition of these terms or of the ground rules for enforcement.
It remains to be seen whether the law will be used to stamp out any media criticism
whatsoever of Government policies or of the leaders of the two parties. The most
prominent case in play at this time concerns the American owned Phnom Penh Post,
which is widely read by the foreign community in Cambodia and by Cambodia watchers
outside. The Government has filed indictment papers against the Post. The Cambodian
language press has been pretty much cowed into submission.
It is to the Royal Government's credit that it has succeeded in bringing about
significant macro-economic improvements since coming to power. Inflation has been
brought under control, and the value of the Cambodian riel has held steady for almost
two years. What impact this improvement has had on the countryside is debatable.
It has been the ruling political elite - an extremely small group associated with
the leadership in FUNCINPEC and the CPP - who have been the main beneficiaries of
the macro-economic gains, from privatization, and from foreign investment entering
Cambodia. There is little evidence that the "trickle down" has benefited
the 90 percent of Cambodians who still live in abject poverty.
Militarily, in some areas of the country the Khmer Rouge retains the ability to disrupt
Cambodia's rehabilitation. The Khmer Rouge as an organization, however, is losing
ground and is close to becoming merely a collection of brigand groups scattered about
the countryside. Containment and eventual elimination of the Khmer Rouge depends
not only on military security but also on economic stability and on increasing the
size of the economic pie available to most of the population. It is axiomatic that
the greatest potential strength of the Khmer Rouge, or of some other revolutionary
social movement, lies in the inequities of Cambodian society and the inefficiencies
of the Royal Government. Rural impoverishment tops the list, but there are others:
weak administrative capability, rampant corruption, human rights abuses, and corrosive
entourage-based zero-sum political competition. The government has made progress
on the economy, but it is just out of the starting gate in addressing the tough social
issues which are both economic and political, and which touch the daily lives of
most Cambodian citizens.
Some foreign observers, stressing all the negatives, see Cambodia entering a downward
spiral, or "vicious circle" of events. They see a leadership - both the
CPP and FUNCINPEC - that has learned little from the Lon Nol period, and that is
allowing the country to fall into a repeat of the internal collapse of 1969-75. They
stress the poverty of the great bulk of the population and the opportunities this
creates for an angry popular movement along the lines of the Khmer Rouge. More positive
observers, in contrast, believe that the Royal Government for all its foibles is
evolving reasonably well given the historical context, the brief time since the Paris
Agreements superimposed a radically new and incomplete set of institutions and norms,
and the nature of the incentives facing the society and its political elites.
One important key to peace and prosperity in Cambodia will be the determination on
the part of the outside powers to use their substantial near-term leverage to help
promote broader political participation and sound economic growth. The ability of
the international aid donors to sustain such a role will depend in part on the Cambodian
leadership's adherence to the standards it agreed to adopt under the Paris Agreements,
and to the broad policy framework already defined in the relationship with international
financial and development institutions. There is much to be said for the outside
powers backing off from a tutorial or interventionist posture after the extraordinary
intrusion of the UNTAC period, and instead to encourage self-reliance and Cambodian
"ownership". On the other hand, an even stronger argument can be made that
Cambodia's own interests have been well served by key embassies and international
agencies when they have made clear, as some have on several occasions, where the
"line" is drawn respecting political and human rights behavior - including
reasonable freedom of the press and a genuinely active National Assembly - that separates
the internationally acceptable from the unacceptable. In Cambodia, there is a role
for rigorous conditionality in the delivery of international assistance.
- The job in Cambodia is far from finished. Important initial steps have been taken
through the electoral process, the writing of a fresh Constitution, and the formation
of a coalition government. The United Nations should be proud of its accomplishment
in Cambodia, and so should the Cambodian people. The U.S., under the Reagan, Bush,
and Clinton administrations, has performed an intelligent leadership role. But the
international effort must be sustained for months and years if Cambodia is to have
a real chance of peace and stability.
- The FUNCINPEC-CPP coalition has been in power two years. It has had some successes
in building an administration virtually from the ground up and in getting the economy
going. But it has also failed the Cambodian people in important respects; some of
its policies threaten to damage, even destroy, the progress that has been already
made. The fundamental causes of political instability are still present in Cambodia.
- The U.S., and the international community which invested so much in the UNTAC
effort, must make a strong effort to expand the Cambodian people's sense of empowerment
and to support the principles of the Cambodian Constitution. One way to do this is
through continued firm enunciation of support for the principles and practices that
were the fundament of the comprehensive peace settlement hammered out in the early
1990s. Words alone will not suffice. The U.S.and the international community must
take clear positions on specific issues: human rights abuses by civil and military
authorities, intimidation of National Assembly members, high level corruption, environmentally-unsound
commercial deals, to name but a few.
- Support can also come through NGOs working in community development, economic
development, human rights, and as advisors to the Government and the National Assembly.
The laws governing the local elections to be held in 1997 and the parliamentary elections
in 1998 are just now getting under way. Outside participation in this process is
imperative to prevent FUNCINPEC-CPP from stacking the deck.
- I would draw the Committee's attention to the important work that the Asia Foundation,
National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, National Endowment
for Democracy, PACT, Veterans International, among many other U.S groups, are doing
to help Cambodia.
- The programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are also
extremely important. I urge the U.S. Congress to fully fund the USAID programs for
Cambodia. Bringing a durable peace in Cambodia through sound economic development
and by building a pluralist, participatory political system is important to the stability
of Southeast Asia and, therefore, to American strategic interests in the region.