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Cambodia: A United Nations Success Story Going Awry?

Two years after a UN-run election, this war-scarred nation faces scrutiny over official intolerance and corruption. Foreign donors meet March 14 to ask the tough questions.

WHENEVER peacemaking diplomats succumb to glum reflections about the inhumanities they have been powerless to stop - in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Rwanda - they can always turn their thoughts toward Cambodia, the UN's great ``success story'' of the post-cold-war era.

It has been almost two years since UN-supervised elections ended decades of geopolitical rivalry over Cambodia, a nation of about 7 million. Now a legitimate government functions in Phnom Penh. Khmer Rouge rebels, whose reign of Maoist zeal led to the deaths of about a million Cambodians in the 1970s, have been defecting by the dozens.

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Some of the country's economic indicators are downright rosy. And Vietnam, which occupied the country from 1979 to 1989, has kept its hands off.

By some measures, the United Nations' success story is just that. But after a week of interviews with government officials, diplomats, businesspeople, and ordinary Cambodians, it seems that the more thorough the analysis of affairs here, the more difficult it is to be optimistic.

The most negative assessment is that a corrupt and repressive government is emerging, one that mocks the ideals that drove the multinational effort to bring peace here. Few people voice such a grim view, but a larger number admit a version of this concern has crossed their minds.

On March 14, supporters of the UN intervention who now provide grants and other assistance will meet in Paris for an annual assessment of Cambodia's reconstruction.

The last time these donors met in 1992, they pledged $880 million, a sign of their confidence in the government's ability to nurture the stability germinated by the UN effort. About half of that was spent in 1994, funding about a fifth of Cambodia's operating budget and all of its development spending.

This year there is a growing sense that the nations that backed the peace process now must take steps to ensure the country ends up with a government worthy of its origins. ``As the government succeeds in conquering the Khmer Rouge threat,'' says Australian Ambassador Tony Kevin, ``the focus has to turn more to questions of good governance in this country.''

Conversations with diplomats and representatives of non Cambodian organizations about the country often take on a paternalistic tone, as if it were up to the world to save Cambodians from themselves. But some of the donors feel they have bought their say and continue to buy it with aid. Their message to Cambodia's leaders, says one diplomat, should be this: ``The world has paid a lot of money for the restoration of democracy ... and we can't afford to let you guys blow it.''

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What disturbs some observers here is that many of the silver clouds over Cambodia seem to have dark linings. Take the economy. While it is true that investment is up, inflation is down, and the economy as a whole is expanding, it is also true that major foreign-backed projects are under scrutiny, and that ordinary people are complaining more loudly than ever about their prospects.

``The situation ... is more difficult than before,'' says Rath Na, standing behind her jewelry counter in the central market here.

``The people in the countryside are short of water and food,'' adds Sok Nang, her colleague, explaining that rural business depends on villagers coming to the capital to buy things they cannot get at home.

``In three months,'' warns Sam Rainsy, an elected member of Cambodia's National Assembly who represents the northwest province of Siem Reap, ``we will face a near famine,'' because of food shortages and drought.

Mr. Rainsy was forced from his post as finance minister last October after disagreements with other officials, and since then has criticized several recent investment projects approved by the government. He says that the deals are unconstitutional because the government made agreements involving state assets without consulting parliament.

Despite formal requests by Rainsy and other parliamentarians, the texts of several controversial deals have not yet been made public.

``Economically it has been a good year,'' says an Asian diplomat, citing indicators like the 49 percent increase in the number of tourists who visited Cambodia last year compared with 1993. But he adds - on condition of anonymity - that the more than $2 billion in proposed investments approved by the government in 1994 may include ``inflated'' figures and that officials have been ``naive'' in their dealings with foreign companies.

Says Reza Vaez-Zadeh, an official of the International Monetary Fund here: ``There is a general feeling by the donors that they would like to see more transparency.'' Urging ``transparency'' is a polite way of discouraging theft of public money.

Nonetheless, as Information Minister Ieng Mouly points out, something must be said for the fact that Cambodia functions. There is a national budget, most revenue is collected centrally, and expenditures are approved by the legislature. Although the Army continues to fight the Khmer Rouge, there is a growing sense of security. People no longer flee their country as refugees.

Given that as recently as two years ago the country was the scene of geopolitical conflict, with communist states supporting one side and Western countries the other, the government's supporters argue that Cambodia does and will succeed. Furthermore, they point out that the coalition government combines groups that once fought each other: the Cambodian People's Party, which Vietnam installed in 1979 and which placed second in the UN-backed election, and a party of royalist anticommunists known as FUNCINPEC, the acronym of its lengthy French name.

FUNCIPEC won the election, but has had to share power because the CPP threatened to divide the country if it was excluded from the government.

King Sihanouk, who reigns but does not rule under the Constitution, is now back on the scene after recuperating from an illness. The much revered king is again demonstrating his tendency to roil the waters he all but walks on, lately denying any desire to regain power even as he reports that his doctors have pronounced him fit enough to do so.

The functioning of the government notwithstanding, there is a rising level of intolerance for debate and criticism. The assembly, which can be the scene of lively discussion, has been in session for less than five days since November, even though the docket is backed up with draft bills needing consideration.

The Assembly has been debating a bill regulating the newly freed press, which now features vicious attacks on political figures as well as responsible reporting about corruption. The bill would allow the punishment of offending journalists under criminal laws.

Chan Rattana, director of the Voice of Khmer Youth newspaper, was recently sentenced to spend a year in prison and pay a fine for libeling Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Mr. Rattana's Jan. 13 opinion piece called the prime minister a stupid dictator who angered easily.

There is also evidence that critics of the government are facing violent intimidation. Outspoken members of the assembly complain of threats, and at least two journalists have been murdered during the past year.

Foreign Minister Ung Huot says there is not much his government, or any government, can do about threatening phone calls. To dwell on individual incidents of intimidation misses the point of Cambodia's situation, he suggest.

``The government is a legal government born from UN-supervised elections,'' he observes. ``Cambodia is a baby in the world. That baby is now starting to learn how to walk. It falls down from time to time as babies do. The important thing is the education and support to let this baby grow.

``We need education in this society. When people don't understand democracy, it becomes anarchy.''

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