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A parting shot

A parting shot

Believe it or not, this is my last piece for the Phnom Penh Post. What should one

write about on such a valedictory occasion?

After some tough editions, I decided my fans have had enough economics, not to mention

mind-boggling crossword puzzles, they deserve something different. The story behind

the news. In other words, me at a more personal level. I shall take one of Sam Goldwyn's

memorable non-sequiturs: "When I want your opinion I will give it to you,"

as an excuse for what follows.

I shall confine myself to an unofficial translation of the recent Declaration of

the Royal Government's policies to the National Assembly, which I have just read.

It helped crystallize my thoughts after nearly 2 1/2 years of living in the country

and trying to assist Cambodians-from university students and faculty right up to

several Ministers preparing for the last Paris ICORC Conference.

The Prime Minister's speech refers to the need to stabilize security and, in particular,

how to shift people from their "negative attitudes." Well-wishers of Cambodia

can only applaud, especially if this results in having answers to some burning questions.

For example: two of the three men involved in the callous shooting of the German

male nurse have been caught; what's happened to them? Similarly, what has happened

to the three heavily armed men dressed, moreover, in military uniforms, who were

captured and photographed-after a thrilling chase-in a recently stolen UNHCR land

cruiser complete with fresh Army license plates? Apart from knowing what will happen

to the culprits, why should the police refuse to release the vehicle unless the UNHCR

hands over U.S. $3,000 and why should the provincial governor wash his hands of the

whole affair?

As an instance of a "negative attitude," will the government publicize

last week's episode where an expat nurse was robbed of her car at gun point by the

very people she had helped after having stopped at an accident to drive the injured

(who subsequently disappeared) to the nearest hospital?.. These are just the most

blatant of incidents, apart from those thefts where the circumstantial evidence for

high-level complicity should have been too obvious to be ignored by the government.

Although they were!

The latest policy declaration talks abut fostering and attracting foreign investment

and soliciting more foreign aid. Reading this in the light of the above, the uncertain

deteriorating climate and the way expat concerns are pushed to one side, reminded

me of a 1970s slogan about Richard Nixon: " Would you Buy A Used Car From This


Ministers and senior officials don't seem to realize that while they may be able

to count on external aid-until donors get fed up with the prevailing anarchy and

hypocrisy-it is not the same with foreign direct investment. All countries throughout

the world are given a security rating for investment and other purposes. Unless the

Government does something soon to clean up its image then viable long-term foreign

investors-the ones the country so badly needs-will probably feel the same way about

Cambodia as Americans once did about President Nixon.

The political situation, also referred to in the policy statement, gives no cause

for optimism. UNTAC and the subsequent elections were supposed to usher in peace.

Yet the odds shorten every day on a major dry season offensive even if the military

are currently more concerned with organizing the National Army and turning themselves

into a separate power bloc. Corruption, despite the admirable efforts of Sam Rainsy,

Minister of Finance, is worse than it was in the last quarter of UNTAC. Officials,

and it's not petty officials we are talking about, connive with the private sector

to indulge in what economists call "tax transfers," i.e. operating activities

in such a way that the bulk of the proceeds remain in private hands with little or

nothing paid in the way of legitimate taxes so desperately needed by the cash-strapped


The Declaration rightly pays homage to the centralizing role and guidance of the

King who has served Cambodia so well. But, at the same time, Ministers are beginning

to jockey for position as succession becomes a distinct possibility. Although, with

the ending of UNTAC's mandate and SNC's legitimacy, the Government embodies Cambodian

governance there is little sign of governing rather than simply presiding over the

nation. Its first 100 days, when so much was looked for, has seen more time spent

on symbolism than Cabinet discussion (only one meeting) of important issues.

Whatever the high sounding statements, there is no sense of esprit de corps in the

Government nor real sense of leadership. A wait-and-see attitude prevails as most

Ministers, especially those back in their old Ministries, are more concerned with

entrenching their positions.

What is even more disturbing is the medium term outlook in terms of human capital.

There is clearly a generation of people in Cambodia today -in their 20s and 30s-who,

because of their formative experience during the Pol Pot era, are completely amoral.

Although they are the generation that will become tomorrow's managers, the ones the

baton will be handed onto, they manifest is the widespread belief that it's perfectly

reasonable to take (illegally) from those who have, whatever they consider to be

their rightful share. At present their only contribution "to the new page being

turned in Cambodia's glorious history," is to a growing sense of anarchy.

Perhaps where one parts most strongly from what was announced to the National Assembly

is the statement: "the Government maintains a policy of increasing the number

of people quickly" simply because Cambodia "faces neighbors which have

7/8 times more people." Several things need to be said. It is not population

size that counts but their level of human development and the way people are encouraged

to generate wealth.

Population growth rates cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Like a ship at sea

it takes a considerable distance to stop or change direction. Cambodia already has

one of the fastest rates of population growth in the world, a figure which will rise

once high crude death rates are brought down. The country cannot afford to "increase

people quickly." It cannot provide the basic necessities for the bulk of its

population today. Does the Government honestly think that it can double an already

inadequate standard of living-within the existing resource base-when the population

is twice its size as it will inevitably be in only 17.5 years? Doesn't anyone understand

demographic dynamics?

At the moment, the lack of Family Planning and the deliberate denial of sex education

to young women, means that couples do not really exercise personal choice as to having

the number of children they can afford. Children for whom parents wish to give a

better life tomorrow. All average Khmer women want is to be able to limit or space

child-bearing; not have that individual decision usurped by muddle-headed Government

intervention that, in addition, is in the wrong direction. Demographic policy-if

there is to be one-should be determined in function of a realistic assessment of

the country's "carrying capacity," not a Pavlovian reflex to the number

of surrounding Vietnamese or Thais.

A final comment of an institutional nature because it typifies my official Cambodian

experience. The Government says it want to integrate Cambodia into the international

economic system. They say that doing so will be require, inter alai, co-operating

with the General Agreement on tariffs and Trade (GATT). Unlike other international

organizations, GATT is not going to meet Cambodia's habit of wanting to be spoon

feed; Cambodia has to take the initiative. If it is to claim the benefits of belonging

to the world's foremost trade organization and the recently completed Uruguay Round,

it must become a member-with all that involves.

Yet, despite being the only GATT expert in the country (with 25 years of experience),

I shall leave Cambodia taking my knowledge-which happens to be unique about its past

legal relationship-with me. Why? Because months of offering to share this expertise

have led nowhere. Just another example of Cambodian thinking that because they have

expressed a wish for something, action will automatically follow.

One final thought for Government Ministers. Each one of us here is an ambassador

both for our country & the organization we represent. Conversely, when we leave

we are, for a while, a sort of good will ambassador for Cambodia. With so many expats

leaving shortly, what sort of a message does the Government think we should take

back with us?


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