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The Roots of Violence

The Roots of Violence

'UNTAC's high profile - warts and all - probably ended forever the mystique with

which expatriates were previously held'.

Until recently, the expatriate community took UNTAC's security umbrella for granted.

Now, with the UN operation virtually at an end, a new potentially alarming situation

needs to be faced.

What is behind the violence, why has it spread from the general population to those

meant to help them and what is being, or can be, done?

The first underlying cause can be described as psycho-social. For most outsiders,

the principal spill-over of the Khmer Rouge period was the swathe cut through the

intellectual life of the country. While true, this ignores a deeper, sadder reality.

All Khmers over the age of 20 years have experienced a bewildering series of psychically-damaging

events. Periods of years in which the very fabric of traditional society has been

severely strained.

For example, they have lived through an attempt -- which very nearly succeeded --

to overturn marital bonds and family structures with their close knit ties; to expunge

the central role of regular Buddhist practices; and to eradicate all traditional

art forms and music of an individual character.

Apart from 13 years of intermittent and internecine civil war, this large heterogeneous

age group has moved, within less than a generation, from paternal feudalism to communism,

with the "experiment" of the Pol Pot era as an interlude, and then unbridled

capitalism. The net result has been the development of a special type of day-to-day

survival mechanism within an attitudinal climate of suspicion.

At the purely psychological level, one may well surmise that all those who lived

through the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath, and especially the large number

of orphans that were a product thereof, have been traumatized to some degree or another.

This goes a long way to explain examples of paranoid and anti-social behavior, primitive

reactions to problem-solving, the violence with which personal grievances are settled,

the callous indifference towards the disabled and handicapped, sudden bouts of depression,

and the onset of an unusual degree of alcoholism among young males.

For a significant period, economic activity and the state became synonymous. Big

Brother not only watched and controlled, but "provided", after a fashion.

Then came the state's unilateral decision to shift towards an economy driven by market


Liberalization of the state apparatus that began in 1986 became a flood after May

1989 and the period thereafter. Cambodians, having lived through the abolition of

local markets to largely controlled-price markets, unexpectedly found they were free

to buy and sell at will.

Given their background, those suddenly allowed a taste of economic freedom naturally

soon wanted a banquet. With the economy rapidly becoming unshackled and unregulated,

every day living not only meant widened opportunities but, also, the scramble of

the fittest.

Rapid economic changes, without preparation and adequate checks and balances, brought

new pressures to bear on the social fabric. Pressures affecting the cost of living

included the end of required employment, the unpopular ending of subsidies and an

inflationary spiral.

Bare figures convey little human feeling, but their degree of escalation can suggest

its severity. From relative stability with an average inflation rate of 10 percent

per annum up to 1988, approximate annual price increase shot up to three digits -

143 percent in 1990, 200 percent in 1991, 73 percent in 1992 and then up again to

279 percent in May 1993, compared to the year before.

Inflation does not only mean a sustained increase in the price level, it also results

in severe loss of purchasing power. Thus, 1,000 riels in 1989 had a buying potential

of only 79 in 1992.

Cambodians were beset on all sides by a get-rich-quick mentality. Corruption for

those in positions of responsibility became endemic while smuggling and profiteering

became rampant.

The false economy created by UNTAC's arrival affected people's behavior. All the

previous negative features were multiplied while new ones mushroomed, like widespread

watching of violent videos.

The climate of economic uncertainty fed back on the pre-existing psycho-social malaise

with predictable effects. Effects that remained hidden from the vast majority of

expatriates while the going was good.

Overall, UNTAC's high profile - warts and all - probably ended forever the mystique

with which expatriates were previously held.

The recent stagnation of the economy, and the growing realization that UNTAC's withdrawal

will leave nothing to fall back on economically, has also had a negative effect.

All these anti-social tendencies have come to the fore, directed not only towards

Khmers themselves but also the foreign community's property.

This is the picture facing the expatriate community post-UNTAC. It poses a major

question: what can be done, if anything? The first avenue calls for a number of things

at the institutional and practical level.

To reduce security risks, particularly at night , financial assistance for the purchase

of home generators needs to be provided. All personnel need to be provided with a

two-way radio or telephone and a central number that can be called at any time. They

also need to know the location of their nearest police station. Bus pools should

be organized for all thus limiting personal unaccompanied car use to and from the

office to the essential minimum. To preserve freedom after hours, organizations should

supplement this facility by providing a couple of their Khmer-chauffeured office

cars, painted not in "give-away white", to serve as a type of taxi service

at night.

For those working in the provinces, an additional requirement would be to minimize

health risks and subsequent dependence on a dilapidated and insufficient medical


Such risks devolve from the ever-present risk of mine accidents and Cambodia's range

of tropical diseases. In both cases, there are two essentials: provision of adequate

medical supplies including trauma kits, and proven arrangements for medical evacuation.

Unless these aspects are given due priority, and high-lighted by the media, the UN

will continue to find it hard to find experts willing to work in risk-reputed areas

outside Phnom Penh.

All newcomers - and old, for that matter - should be comprehensively briefed on Cambodia,

its people, and its cultural mores. A recognized human failing on the part of many

UNTAC personnel was their general ignorance of the country and the sensitivities

of its population.

Other suggestions include: practical assistance to the local police and emerging

legal structures; the deliberate employment, by foreign agencies, of local and expat-Khmers

in senior positions; active assistance to all indigenous Khmer NGO's dealing with

human rights; and, finally, funding of Buddhist renovation projects to increase civic


Aid agencies could threaten to hold the authorities responsible for further unresolved

acts of robbery and violence. Where there is tangible proof of organized theft, aid

could either be suspended or selected projects put "on hold". Inventories

of stolen property could be presented to the government and then subtracted from

proposed assistance until remedied.

By taking action, it will at least show the limits of the foreign community's tolerance

of the unacceptable.

In retrospect, one of UNTAC's main failings was in the area of pre-planning and recognition

of prevailing conditions and in not ensuring that there was general understanding

among Cambodians of the ramifications of its mandate. Post-UNTAC, the UN and the

foreign community need to make sure there is no repeat of such history.


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