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ICORC highlights foreign aid debate

ICORC highlights foreign aid debate

AT the end of United States Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's recent

visit to Phnom Penh he effusively praised the "emerging triumph of democracy" in

Cambodia. Citing the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the

collapse of the Soviet empire, and the creation of multi-racial democracy in

South Africa, Talbott concluded: "But nothing is more significant than what

happened here in May 1993."

But while the symbolism and hopes of the $2.8

billion United Nations effort surrounding those May elections remain, the

reality of what has happened since stands in stark contrast.


diplomats are convinced that the veneer of democracy is crumbling and the

political thuggery that has kept Cambodia one of the last running sores of

Southeast Asia is on the ascendancy.

In reality, US officials

acknowledge that Talbott heard sobering tales of human rights abuses, death

threats against MPs, assassinations of journalists, closure of newspapers, and a

military sufficiently out of control that few countries are willing to provide

it weapons, unsure of whether they will sell them to the Khmer Rouge, use them

against the population, or launch another coup attempt.

At the next

meeting of the International Committee on the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

of Cambodia (ICORC), scheduled for Paris in March, the key donor countries and

lending institutions will gather for their annual assessment of Cambodia's


Most of  Cambodia's leaders will be there seeking further

pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support and the crucial

political stamp of approval of the international community.

But unlike

last year's meeting in Tokyo - a triumph of political support which netted

pledges of nearly $900 million - this year's is likely to be a more muted affair

clouded by the pessimism of many donor countries that Cambodia is not on the

right track.

As well it reflects the waning interest of the international

community in Cambodia in general.

Compassion fatigue is setting in among

sectors of the donor community. One question that will be raised at ICORC will

be: Why pour further money into a country where there is little strategic or

economic interest if the Cambodian government is not interested in democracy and

sound economic policy?

"The international community paid for their

conscience already with the UN and elections, but now we are free. Now it is

over. We don't care really anymore," said one Western ambassador in Phnom


"They are doing their best to keep a simulated state of law to keep

assistance coming in, but the political situation is declining... Now Cambodia

is returning to it's own view, it's old ways."

Those old ways seem to

include a clear policy from Cambodia's leadership to squash criticism and impose

authoritarian rule by preventing an independent parliament and judiciary and

hog-tying the press.

Elected MPs attempting to play their role of

government watchdog have received threats in recent weeks, some allegedly from

government officials.

Some now carry guns and others have officially

sought - and received - promises of political asylum from Western embassies if

the situation further deteriorates. Most have just shut up, voting the way they

are told to vote by the two Prime Ministers.

Those that dare continue to

challenge the leaders have been implicitly threatened by the Second Prime

Minister in recent public statements.

Meanwhile, the press - which has

faced three assassinations of journalists and government bans and lawsuits in

recent months - faces a draft press law which would prohibit "humiliating

national organs or public authorities".

Charges of corruption or other

abuse, even if true, would be banned for undermining the popularity of officials

or the government.

But Khmer newspapers, as well as many Cambodian

officials concerned but too afraid to speak out, have so far received only lip

service from donor countries who say they are unlikely to remove their stamp of

approval for the government.

Says one Western Ambassador: "At ICORC the

countries will be severe in speech, but it means nothing. The government will

make promises, but nothing will happen. They will bring back the money, and then

I fear the real crackdown will begin."

Typical, say diplomats, is the

message of the US, which has taken the lead in supporting the


A letter to Prime Minister Ranariddh from American Ambassador

Charles Twining last June 3, obtained by the Post, praised the government and

said: "Cambodia remains one of the world's great success stories."


continued: "Progress in many areas -the economy, human rights, and maintenance

of the coalition among former blood enemies - has been most impressive. The

steadfastness... in defending press freedoms is itself the most eloquent

testimony to the strength of the Royal Cambodian Government."

The letter

was written while Western hostages were being held and foreign NGO workers had

been evacuated from a number of areas in the countryside.

Later in June

newspapers were shut down, a journalist was murdered, and it was revealed that

the military was involved in a torture, murder and extortion racket that the UN

says involved the summary execution of at least 53 civilians at secret military


Intimidation of MPs opposed to the Khmer Rouge "outlaw" bill was

widespread in June, according to human rights workers and MPs.

A month

later a coup attempt was launched by factions within the government that plunged

the country into crisis.

More Western hostages, later executed, were

seized in July. An American tourist was murdered last month. Two other

journalists were murdered in September and December. Other editors have been

arrested, and others fined. Papers have been suspended and sued for their

writings, press runs confiscated, and equipment seized.

The American

Ambassador's letter continued by saying: " It is frustrating to read the often

unjustly negative and sensational press coverage of Cambodia... I also want to

express my full agreement with your assessment that, contrary to the picture

painted by the press, the security situation in Cambodia is really quite


It concluded that "the message I will carry [to the US government]

is that, despite daunting challenges, Your Royal Highness and Samdech Hun Sen

are leading the country to peace and prosperity."

The US Embassy

officially declined to comment on the letter, saying it was "private" and

"outdated", and pointing to the State Department report on human rights in

Cambodia released this week.

MPs, human rights workers and some diplomats

argue that the international community should take a strong stand in Paris next


In a visit in late January, UN Special Representative for Human

Rights Michael Kirby told a meeting of ambassadors that he was in favor of

linking further foreign assistance to improvements in human rights. Kirby said

threats against parliamentarians were "a new turn and it is


Human rights officials and some diplomats say the tone set at

ICORC by the donor community could influence whether the situation deteriorates

further, particularly after the departure of the King, expected in


"In the long run it is suicidal to the donor countries own

economic interests," said one Western proponent of linking further economic

assistance with protecting democracy.

"The government at this moment is

selling the country's resources to private entrepreneurs. It is in the hands of

corrupt officials who have no national interest. If you don't have freedom of

expression, an independent parliament to say this is wrong, when the resources

disappear, Cambodia again will become an international beggar. That is why it

should be linked to ICORC."

Says a Phnom Penh ambassador: "Enough is

enough. At some point we have to move on. But the Cambodian government is child

enough to think they deserve assistance forever."

But even among those

who agree that the political situation is deteriorating, there is debate that

changes in foreign policy could be counter-productive, unrealistic and


"There is a real risk that if the international community

pulls out, Cambodia will become another Burma, which is a disaster," said the

head of one major donor agency.

"Burma is isolated and embargoed as

punishment for it's political repression, and you could argue that people have

suffered more and the international community has no leverage at


Said another ambassador: "There is a setback from the 'Phnom Penh

Spring', yes, but the situation is better than under the CPP. There is a return

to these communist practices, but the thuggery is a shadow of it's former


"If the West wants to teach them a lesson, they could. But they

will tolerate all this. The question is: What is the alternative? The US wants

stability. Australia wants stability. If you undermine this stability, what is

the alternative. Burma?"

The ambassador continued: "China gets away with

it. Indonesia gets away with it, so Ranariddh says ' Why not me?'."


answer, some say, is that the international community agreed to assist Cambodia

on the condition that the government create and maintain a very specific

political structure as spelled out in the Paris Peace


Furthermore, that the international community has an obligation

to respect the mandate given to the victorious FUNCINPEC party, after promises

of political freedoms.

Recent visitors who have had audiences with the

King say he is critical of both the government's deteriorating commitment to

political and human rights and the lackadaisical attitude of the international

community to this.

"How can you ask me to do something when I ask the

government and they say there is no problem," one source who attended meetings

with the King last week quoted him as saying.

"The foreign observers all

come and give a good assessment and then ask me to intervene. I, Sihanouk,

prefer to give you the truth, the reality. There is a lot of


The donor community indeed has great leverage given that 44

percent of the $410 million 1995 budget is international money. Hundreds of

millions of other aid is crucial to Cambodia's effort to rebuild


Economically, 1994 saw significant progress in a number of areas.

Inflation, while still at 30 percent, was greatly improved from previous

years. A five percent growth in GDP and a remarkably stable exchange rate were

other positive signs.

But worrying was significant slippage in the

government's repeated commitment to maintain a central budget controlling state


Specifically, logging, by far the biggest single source of

internal revenue, was stripped from control of the Finance Ministry last June

and turned over to the military.

Since then, according to Finance

Ministry sources, no money from logging has been turned over to the


Former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy estimates that "sustainable

revenues from logging without damaging the environment should be about $150

million a year."

Some donors are surprised at the International Monetary

Fund's weak-willed response to the logging issue, given that a central coffer

that collects and disburses all state revenue according to a budget approved by

Parliament is "an inviolable foundation" of economic policy under Cambodia's

international lending agreements.

To refuse to put Cambodia's major

source of revenue into the budget while requesting foreign money in its place

raises the question of Cambodia's sincerity in upholding its agreements, say

some government officials and diplomats.

Despite numerous IMF and World

Bank protestations, the government has refused to return control of logging back

to the state.

Uncontrolled logging, much of the proceeds now pocketed by

the military, now seriously threatens Cambodia's forests and future bids to use

logging as a major source of revenue, according to some.

Said IMF country

representative Reza Vaez-Zadeh in January: "Hopefully there will not be any

expenditure outside the budget and the government has made very clear that there

will not." But such expenditures continue.

But while questions will be

raised, both sides of the debate seem to agree that little change is likely to

be demanded at ICORC.

It is unlikely that the symbolism of victory of the

May 1993 polls, they say, will be allowed to be tarnished by highlighting the

difficult road to implementing the letter of the Paris agreements in the two

years since.

That struggle will be conducted either quietly or not at



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