Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The end justifies the means?

The end justifies the means?

The end justifies the means?

T wo years on from the elections, David Ashley asks if the "Kampuchean Problem"

has finally been solved.

THE "Kampuchean problem" as it was understood

international freedoms and civil society. Together they constituted the

obstacles towards a peaceful, stable, prosperous and democratic


The UN operation, although its mandate touched on all three

problems, was largely devoted to solving the first. The interest of the

international community was not primarily in the development or democratization

of Cambodia but rather in stopping a prolonged military conflict involving major

external interests. These included Vietnam, China, Thailand/Asean, the US and -

though often forgotten nowadays - the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This

was achieved, as was the other main objective, a stable central government which

could be recognized internationally; exactly what did not happen in


It could be argued that both these achievements were already

largely in place in late-1991, before the first blue-helmets landed at

Pochentong. The Paris Agreements of October 1991 committed all the outside

players to ending their partisan involvement in a country which, outside the

context of superpower rivalry, was of little strategic importance. All the

outside players have largely respected their commitment, Thailand albeit a

little belatedly.

Within a month of the Agreements, a coalition between

CPP and FUNCINPEC had already been signed at Prince Sihanouk's urging. Although

that agreement, which was supposed to bring FUNCINPEC into a secondary role in

government and grant Prince Ranariddh the role of deputy premier behind Hun Sen,

was not fully implemented at the time, the elections ultimately served to force

both parties back to this original arrangement, with slight modifications. The

reason the coalition re-emerged was that it was, in some respects, the only

realistic option. Whilst FUNCINPEC (or more specifically Prince Sihanouk)

enjoyed popular support and Western backing, the CPP controlled the

administration, army and police. For FUNCINPEC to go it alone would have

threatened an almost certain CPP coup. For the CPP to have gone it alone would

have threatened the Western aid vital to sustaining the regime. The election

results, in that sense, were perfect for the international community in that it

strengthened FUNCINPEC's hand whilst forcing both parties towards compromise.

Because the CPP and FUNCINPEC have succeeded in retaining the coherence and

stability of their coalition, this part of the Kampuchea problem has largely

been solved.

Of course, for the Cambodian people the war hasn't ended.

But rather than being an international conflict, it now involves a low-intensity

conflict against an out-dated Maoist movement of the kind which almost

everywhere else in Southeast Asia had died in the 1980s. Because of the lack of

outside support, the Khmer Rouge are forced to rely on their existing arms

stores which, according to a high-level defector, could enable them to fight

defensive "people and guerrilla warfare" for another twenty years but cannot

support a sustained large-scale offensive. As Ta Mok explained to military

commanders in an internal meeting last year, the DK have now entered a new

phase, a new and lengthy war in which they have to be "economical". It is

primarily because of this diplomatic isolation and thus access to the

international arms market that the military threat posed by the DK has declined

significantly in the last two years.

It is as a result of the success in

the first area, that the second issue, that of Cambodia's economic development

and re-integration into "real" Southeast Asia has also begun to be resolved. The

nature of the CPP-FUNCINPEC coalition, both in its 1991 and post-1993

incarnations, is such that economic reconstruction is its principal, indeed

perhaps its only policy aim. It has met with a degree of success. Yet very

little of the economic and infrastructural progress that has been achieved

(concentrated largely on Phnom Penh) has been because of any particular moves by

the government. Rather, what was true of UNTAC is also the case for the

government: what is important was not anything it does but just the fact its

there, as a symbol of stability and international acceptance. (On the other

hand, UNTAC personnel, whatever their failings, did have one great advantage in

the eyes of the Cambodian population: their wallets.)

The Government's

major positive contribution has been to prevent inflation and to give a

relatively free rein to aid donors, NGOs and investors. It is that much easier

to provide aid or make an investment here than in Myanmar or Laos. But this

extreme laisser-faire approach works well for developing service or

trade-oriented private business in Phnom Penh and less well in trying to build a

systematic modern infrastructure in telecommunications or a reliable banking

sector. There has been little progress in creating a level playing-field or

constructing sectoral or regional development plans in which private investment

or foreign aid could be systematically incorporated. Even the much-trumpeted

Investment Law is a poorly-written document which only adds to the arbitrary

discretion the authorities have vis-a-vis the investor. The accompanying

sub-decree, without which the law is theoretically impossible to implement given

that there are no criteria for granting licenses and only the vaguest criteria

for giving incentives, has still not been written nearly a year


Nonetheless, at least a law exists and a process established,

however arbitrary, by which investors can come and try their luck. Given

Cambodia's natural resources, cheap labor, geographical position and the huge

amount of foreign aid, as long as government keeps quiet, intact and keeps the

door open, things will basically work out. Of course, as with Vietnam and Burma,

foreign investment and diplomatic acceptance doesn't necessarily have any

relationship with balanced and sustainable rural development, social justice,

environmental protection etc. But whilst these may be problems of the next ten

years, they were never central to the "Kampuchea problem" of the previous


This brings us to the third issue - that of the political, social

and economic legacy of an autocratic and socialist government. This was never

the prime concern of the international community: the elections were intended

not so much to introduce democracy as to create a legitimate and thus

diplomatically recognizable government. Nonetheless, in the face of its failure

to demobilize and disarm the factions, UNTAC devoted most of its attention to

organizing a free and fair election and promoting human rights, both ideas which

rapidly gained an important purchase among Cambodian public opinion. Whilst the

post-election government has focused almost exclusively on problem development

and rehabilitation, the elections themselves were fought almost exclusively on

peace/war and perceived abuses of power (human rights, social justice,

corruption, etc.). It was indeed striking how small a role economic issues

played in the elections.

It is largely this discrepancy between the

issues on which the elections were fought and the issues on which the government

has chosen to focus subsequently that explains how quickly the government lost

the support of, for example, the independent Khmer-language press. In terms of

reforming the authoritarian or socialist legacy, it is difficult to recollect

any particular measure the government has taken since the adoption of the

Constitution (the establishment of the Appeals Court and wide-scale budgetary

reforms being limited exceptions).

This is despite the fact that

socialism was always a rather ill-fitting foreign import drafted on to the

Cambodian reality: indeed, nowadays, it is difficult to see any sign that 17

years of blanket socialist-communist propaganda in Cambodia made any impact on

anyone at all (Michael Vickery apart). The centrally-planned economy was far

weaker than in Eastern Europe. There was no large-scale and out-dated heavy

industry to be closed-down and thus no huge work-force to be made redundant.

Already in the late 1980s, following the Vietnamese example, free-market reforms

had moved much faster and with much less opposition than virtually anywhere in

Eastern Europe.

For this reason, the focus in Cambodia was not on

economic but political transition. As in much of the former Soviet bloc, the

CPP, whilst abandoning ideology and state planning, was able to transform its

political power into financial, bureaucratic an organizational strength. While

the elections and economic liberalization severely weakened the CPP's

totalitarian control over the countryside and brought freedoms such as the press

and free movement (still unknown in China or Vietnam), the next stage -

entrenching these freedoms into a rule of law and a democratic system - has

progressed far more slowly.

This is for four reasons. The first: the CPP

controls half the government and has thus been able to prevent any major changes

in the economic or bureaucratic status quo. The second is that even if the

government had wished to confront strong vested interests, it is far from clear

who would have won: the government is weak in financial and human resources and

hamstrung by the inevitable complications of the coalition system. Thirdly,

Prince Ranariddh has adopted a policy of not publicly disagreeing with his CPP

partners. The objective of national reconciliation and fear of upsetting the

delicate political balance has essentially precluded discussion of contentious

political issues: thus the Government has preferred to deny the existence of

serious human rights violations or corruption than to deal with them. At no

point since the elections has FUNCINPEC (or indeed CPP) been prepared to put

forward any alternative vision or policies on which they might seek to gather

public or parliamentary support. This, fourthly, is not least because the top

FUNCINPEC leadership appear to share with the CPP a similar ideal of Cambodian

society, one which is top-down, non-pluralistic and has no place for civil


This should not be too surprising: Cambodia has historically

been a loosely-organized society based vertically on relations of power and

status rather than notions of equality and law. Cambodia has never known a

separation of powers: the society has rather comprised the all-powerful state

(or palace) and the all-powerless rural population with the Chinese traders

in-between. In particular, civil society played no role in the Sangkum Reastr

Niyum regime of 1955-70 which Prince Ranariddh continually evokes as the

government's model. Since no political faction or figure has dared to openly

discuss the weaknesses of that model, it is not surprising that the model is

being reproduced.

As in the 1960's, this unitary model can provide

Cambodia with the political stability necessary for economic development whilst

forestalling violent political and social upheaval. If it does so, then, as in

Malaysia and Singapore, its authoritarian tendencies will be considered a price

worth paying. But the Cambodian leaders have yet to show the far-sightedness,

anti-corruption zeal or sheer drive of a Lee Kuan Yew. If economic development

begins to falter, as in the late 1960's, the greatest weakness of the model is

that it leaves no institutional room for peaceful political change. In 1970,

what was formally just a vote of the National Assembly (albeit under pressure)

to change the President brought about the collapse of the entire system. It was

this lack of any civil society - in terms of institutions or even ideas or

traditions - which ultimately enabled the Khmer Rouge to enact extreme Maoist

policies with a freedom unparalleled anywhere else in the world.


years on, Cambodia has yet to evolve an indigenous way of bringing real

political debate within the system and of building independent institutional

constraints on the use of power. Rather the Royal Government continues to

confuse itself with the political system of which it is merely a part. Note, for

example, the way that all electronic media is completely dominated by and is

subservient to the Government. The courts, who have yet to show any serious sign

of independence, have judged printed criticism of the two Prime Ministers as

harmful to social order. The National Assembly has yet to exercise any of its

constitutional rights to question government policy. (The only time when MPs did

seek to question policy, over the Malaysian contracts, the government simply

refused to answer.) The most outspoken MP, already deprived of any access to the

electronic media, is about to be expelled; yet another defeat in his

long-running attempts to use the law and domestic and international public

opinion against the weight of political power.

The failure of the

Assembly to act as a forum for democratic exchange is made all the more serious

by the lack of internal democracy within the government and the leading parties.

The Council of Ministers now reportedly meets only once a month and appears

rarely to discuss issues of contention; instead, like the Assembly, it largely

concentrates on the discussion and approval of draft legislation or specific

development projects. Within the parties there has been absolutely no attempt to

mobilize or consult the mass membership recruited prior to the elections.

Indeed, for many major decisions, there appears to be no discussion with even

the medium and higher-level party leadership, let alone the general public. In

retrospect, the way in which the constitution was drafted - largely behind

closed doors with no possibility for public input - should have been an early

sign of the way the democratic winds were blowing.

Cambodia's historical

failure to evolve a discourse of legitimate and responsible political debate

affects the "opposition", which essentially means the anti-government

newspapers, just as it does the government. Whereas in other countries, the

boundaries for political criticism have been established by tradition as by law,

in Cambodia no such boundaries exist. Likewise, because no other channels exist,

the press acts as the public's primary means to vent its frustration with the

world, including its paranoia about it's neighbors. The result is that pro-and

anti-government press tends to be largely filled by a fairly unsubtle exchange

of insults; not by news so much as by views and prejudices bottled up over 20


Cambodia has advanced from the horrors of the 1970's and 1980's.

The KR is an anachronism, a movement combining 1950's Vietnamese communist

tactics with half-digested 1960's Maoist ideals. As long as it is deprived of

foreign support, and Cambodia itself becomes part of contemporary Southeast

Asia, then its passing-away, like that of Pol Pot himself, is merely a matter of

time. With political stability, some development and reconstruction will

inevitably proceed; although the pace depends on a degree of strategic planning

and on curbing rapaciousness. But if that political stability is founded on a

system which cannot incorporate political debate or change, then Cambodia, like

Burma, has yet to solve its most fundamental dilemma - that of creating a

political system suitable for a modern world.

- David Ashley, formerly

worked for UNTAC and was assistant to the former Minister of Finance.


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