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Perhaps another miracle on the Mekong

Perhaps another miracle on the Mekong

In 1998, US Representative Stephen Solarz, a democrat, labeled the successful elections

conducted then a 'Miracle on the Mekong'. Five years later, at the time of writing,

most observer groups, foreign and domestic, apparently agreed that the 2003 polls

were conducted in a professional manner and that millions of Cambodians cast their

vote in an atmosphere of tranquility devoid of violence or intimidation at the polls.

The US State Department said that it appeared that the elections have passed off

smoothly and in a generally ordered fashion with fewer incidences of violence. The

two major local observer groups, NICFEC and COMFREL, while declining to make final

pronouncements, admitted that the polls were calm and clean.

The International Observer Group ANFREL which was very critical of the 1998 and 2002

elections, issued a statement which inter alia said that the election was generally

peaceful, and real improvements were made over previous elections in the country.

All of them pointed out that some irregularities still took place.

I came as a member of the New York-based International Volunteer Observers (IVO),

Fund for Reconciliation and Development. All of us are volunteers and paid our own

way to Cambodia.

The group is headed by Ex-Ambassador from Canada to Cambodia Gordon Longmuir, who

served in the post-UNTAC period.

Our small group was dispersed widely in 12 provinces.

According to the press statement issued by the group, on the basis of their observations

of polling stations and communal counting centers, the elections were held in an

open and inclusive manner, with painstaking attention to detail to ensure the secrecy

of ballots and an accurate vote count.

Election officials, both at the polling stations and counting centers carried out

their duties with evident impartiality, professionalism, zeal and good humor for

which they are to be commended.

At the debriefing session, one even remarked that we could send a Cambodian team

to Florida to teach election officials there how to conduct a free and fair election.

A May 2003 survey conducted by the Asia Foundation gave an unmatched view of the

mood of the Cambodian electorate several months before the election. Four- fifths

of respondents say the country is headed in the right direction and report that people

feel free to express their political opinions, up from around two-thirds in a similar

survey in 2000. The largest problems respondents identify are poverty (52%) and water


Ninety-eight percent planned to vote in the elections. One could therefore call the

2003 elections another "miracle on the Mekong".

Not quite, says lone dissenter US Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican

from Kentucky), considered the second most powerful Republican and chairman of the

Appropriations Committee.

Cambodia is "Zimbabwe on the Mekong", not a miracle on the Mekong, he argued

in a statement to the Senate on July 24.

In a series of editorials in the Boston Globe, Bangkok Nation and other publications,

McConnell and his chief aide, Paul Grove, have called for " regime change"

in Cambodia and exhibited unusually fervent personal animosity towards Prime Minister

Samdech Hun Sen.

Together with Senators Kyle and Leahy, he even introduced a bill in the US Senate

called the "Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2003".

The Act would provide additional foreign assistance to Cambodia-an increase by half

(or $21.5 million) over the fiscal year 2004 budget request of $43 million-if new

leadership is elected in free and fair elections, and if Hun Sen is no longer Prime


Of course, this bill, which smacks of blatant vote buying and interference in the

domestic affairs of Cambodia, will never pass in the United States Senate, where

cooler heads will prevail.

Regime change can only be effected through the democratic process, so painstakingly

introduced by the United Nations through the UNTAC process, costing the world community

$1.7 billion.

In his latest editorial in the Boston Globe last Saturday, July 26, McConnell again

clamored for regime change, arguing that "in the post September 11 world, parliamentary

elections in Cambodia deserve Washington's attention".

Indeed, the whole world mourned the September 11 attacks on the United States and

passed resolutions to condemn those heinous terrorist attacks which claimed almost

3,000 lives from 90- odd countries.

The United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 1373, which decided that member

states join hands in combating terrorism.

Cambodia has actively contributed to the implementation of this resolution and has

reported regularly to the Counter Terrorism Committee established by it.

This is a rather broad interpretation of the now infamous Bush doctrine proclaimed

last September which starts as follows: "The great struggles of the twentieth

century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the

forces of freedom-and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy,

and free enterprise." The spread of these values opens the path to "make

the world not just safer but better", a "path [that] is not America's alone.

It is open to all."

While this doctrine was largely unchallenged for the attack against Afghanistan which

protected and housed Osama bin Laden, the Bush Administration effort to link Saddam

Hussein with Al Qaida was viewed with skepticism by many, especially by Democrats.

To now try to link the Bush doctrine with Cambodian elections is a bit far fetched

and need not be discussed any further.

Talking about foreign interventions, Cambodia had plenty of it in the past. Lest

we forget, UNTAC itself was mandated by the Paris agreement to finally help bring

peace to Cambodia after 20 years of chaos and turmoil, causing untold sufferings

for the Cambodian people, in which foreign interference played a major role.

Lest we forget, Cambodia's problems started in the late 1960s, when Prince Sihanouk

tried painstakingly for his country and people to maintain neutrality in an increasingly

hot war next door in Vietnam.

He was punished for his neutral stance, starting with massive secret bombardments

ordered by Nixon and Kissinger from 1969-73, CIA backing for Son Ngoc Than and his

Khmer Serei, a coup d'etat against him by pro-American Lon Nol, civil war which led

to the triumph of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal regime until its ouster in January

1979, which unfortunately did not end the suffering of the people of Cambodia but

instead led to a political and economic ostracism imposed by the United Nations on

Cambodia which continued to recognize the exiled CGDK.

Finally, the UNTAC elections allowed the formation of one coalition government.

Despite many setbacks and many problems remaining, the past five years have been

in many respects a successful period for Cambodia.

With the military threat from the Khmer Rouge finally eliminated, the country is

at peace. The economy has shown significant growth and living standards today are

certainly a far improvement over that I encountered in 1992 when I came here as UNTAC

provincial director in Siem Reap.

July 29 there was a joint press conference of FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party

which created a deadlock regarding the formation of a coalition government.

As a long-time observer of Cambodia, whose people I love as my own, I wish to appeal

to these leaders to take into account the interests of the people of Cambodia, especially

the young generation who deserve to pursue their objectives under conditions of peace

and stability.

We, foreign observers, should wish Cambodia well and we can monitor its developments

and provide foreign assistance.

But we should stop interfering in its domestic affairs. Cambodia has suffered enough

from foreign interference in the past.

- Benny Widyono was a Representative of the United Nations Secretary General in

Cambodia 1994-97. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do

not represent those of the United Nations.


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