Khmer Rock and Roll
Peak Av Min Del Khern Dos
"Cambodia's misunderstood crisis"
The following is the excerpted text of a speech delivered by former
Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Tony Kevin at the Australian Institute of
International Affairs in Melbourne on November 16, 1998.
We have just seen three and a half months of dangerous political
brinkmanship. Many lives were lost. Cambodian civil society was stressed to
breaking point and its international standing further damaged. Cambodians
were encouraged by opposition leaders to reject the credentials of their
first national election and their newly elected parliament, to condemn the
leader of the largest vote-winning party as a war criminal, and to try to
overthrow their government by street protest.
We now finally see a successful negotiation between a Cambodian statesman
prepared to compromise with his opponent in the interests of national
reconciliation, and a terrorist. There is a question: between the two main
protagonists, who is the statesman and who is the terrorist? There are
different opinions on that question.
But is this the right question to be asking now? Is it helpful to the
interests of the Cambodian people, who desperately want peace in their
society, to put the issue in such impolite and undiplomatic terms? Probably
not. There has been so much political name-calling and demonization over the
past few years in Cambodian politics; I don't want to add to it.
So should we instead gloss over everything, congratulate everyone involved
on their statesmanship, cross our fingers and hope for the best? That is
what most governments will be doing. It's also the preferred courteous
Cambodian way - until things next go wrong. But we tried that approach in
1993 after the UNTAC election. For four years, we tried to keep the rocky
Hun Sen-Ranariddh political marriage on course as it fell apart.
That suggests to me that this time round more frankness is needed from the
outset on the part of both Cambodians and their foreign friends. We need to
talk more frankly about why the first coalition failed, and about how
Cambodia might avoid a replay of the same experience. After all, the
Cambodian political elites have just gone from bitter enmity and the most
wounding mutual abuse to a coalition in less than one week. But if this
coalition is to have any credibility - to them and to us - and if it is to
have any chance of bringing real peace and normality to Cambodia, Cambodian
leaders need to articulate to their people how they will resolve the real
issues that divided them last time. It's not enough to just say, as
Ranariddh has said on his agreement with Hun Sen, that there had been no
alternative. In his words: "There was no choice but to find happiness and
develop the country". One has to ask, if it was that simple, why could not
the same agreement have been reached immediately after the 26 July election
when Hun Sen was calling for negotiations? What was all the political
brinkmanship of the past three months about? Why was it necessary to
discredit the election and every institution of the Cambodian State as
fraudulent? Why was it necessary to urge people to rise up against "the
Vietnamese puppet Hun Sen regime" in the streets? Why was it necessary for
so many people - both demonstrators and ethnic Vietnamese victims of riots
fomented by some of the demonstrators - to flee in terror, to be beaten up
and in some cases to die? The crisis of Cambodia - though alleviated by this
welcome news of a coalition - is far from over. If impunity and
non-accountability are again to be the political style of Cambodian elites,
it is hard to have a lot of faith in the staying power of this agreement. It
could again break down - in days, weeks or months - if it is not given
firmer moral under-pinnings.
The natural courtesy of Cambodians conceals much from foreigners. But in
truth, there has been a brutal quality to Cambodian politics over the past
thirty years: all too often, the winner takes all and the loser dies or is
exiled. Cambodia now needs consciously to pursue a gentler political style.
During my time as ambassador I tried to get beyond superficial impressions
and conventional wisdoms. I learned to admire the courage, patience and
political savvy of the ordinary Cambodian people; never to be surprised by
the unexpected; and never to assume that alliances or enmities in the
political elites are permanent - all are built on shifting sands of
self-interest and real-politik. Most of all, I learned to distrust
foreigners who come in with self-righteous and superficial judgements as to
who are the good and the bad guys in Cambodian politics, and what to do to
fix it. The first rule of Cambodian politics is: things are usually a lot
more complicated than they look. The second rule: it is very rarely a case
of good guys versus bad guys - they are usually in shades of gray. (My only
exception is the Khmer Rouge, unambiguously and definitely bad guys.) And
the third rule: ignorant well-meaning interventions by foreigners usually
make matters worse.
What I'd like to try to do is to focus on three thematic issues that are
crucial in looking at Cambodia's current politics.
- Theme one: Cambodian
politicians generally do not see their main function as to serve the people.
As David Chandler pointed out, the Cambodian verb that describes the ruler's
relationship to his subjects is not "to serve", not even "to administer" or
"to direct", but "to consume". The ruler "consumes" the people. Too many
Cambodian politicians still see their role in those terms. It gives rise to
an exploitative manipulative style of politics with no accountability to the
people. A lot of the sad things that have happened in Cambodian history over
the past 30 years are more explicable - though not condonable - when seen in
terms of that value system.
And it goes on still. When opposition leaders call on the international
community to boycott their country's economy, to stop sending aid, to
isolate their country diplomatically and declare its leaders war criminals;
when they send ordinary people out to risk their lives in the streets for a
hopeless cause that is subsequently negotiated away; they are "consuming"
the people they should be serving and protecting. That indigenous Cambodian
concept of leadership roles has interacted in a damaging way with the more
modern totalitarian maxim that "the end justifies the means". Since 1996,
Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy have been urging the world to cut off aid to
Cambodia in order to force leadership change through public dissatisfaction
and unrest. They have never addressed the issue of the distress and
deprivation that was inflicted on the economy and on Cambodian people on the
brink of starvation along the way. Similarly, these leaders were comfortable
in urging people to risk their lives in the streets for political causes
that have now, after three months, been compromised in a political
- Theme number 2: That Cambodian politics since at least 1970 has been
characterized by deep divisions within the society of Cambodia no less
bitter and fundamental than the divisions between communities we see or have
seen within many other societies. The opposition has been successful in
obscuring foreigners' understanding that the Cambodian conflict is a similar
conflict between communities. Funcinpec and the Rainsy Party, whose access
to world media and opinion-forming circles cannot be matched by CPP, have
successfully presented the Cambodian conflict as an East European fall of
communism scenario, with brave and outgunned democrats heroically resisting
a brutal authoritarian communist or post-communist state apparatus ruled by
an evil strongman. But that is not really what the conflict is about. It is
about two communities of Cambodians separated by a bitter history of three
decades and very different views of that history. It has strong class
overtones: the consuming resentment felt by some members of a dispossessed
formerly privileged class against upstart peasants who took their power and
assets away and created a different kind of society.
The class-based divide between CPP and the opposition also resonates
powerfully with the traditional ethnic-territorial fear and antagonism that
many Cambodians feel towards Vietnam; which during the past six centuries
occupied so much of what was previously Cambodian land, and culturally
overwhelmed the Cambodians living in those regions. The historical event
that defines the antagonism between CPP and the opposition parties is 7
January 1979, the anniversary of the Vietnamese forces' occupation of Phnom
Penh which marked the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.
Each side views this anniversary very differently. CPP sees it as a day of
joy, signifying when Cambodia was saved just in time from the auto-genocide
of the terrible Khmer Rouge. No other country except Vietnam lifted a finger
to help save the hapless Cambodian people from their murderous rulers. The
opposition sees it as a day of national shame and mourning - when the hated
Vietnamese invaders and their CPP Cambodian puppets occupied Cambodia's
capital. It was Hun Sen's attempt in January 1996 to make the day a shared
national celebration that helped spark off the breakdown of cooperation
between Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Who was most to blame for this breakdown and
the war of July 1997 will be debated by historians. The important thing here
is the opposed perceptions that firmly exist on each side, that lead to each
side de-humanizing the opponents and denying them a legitimate place in
Cambodian society. Thus, CPP see Funcinpec as traitors: collaborators with
the Khmer Rouge from 1979 to 1991, and again from late 1996 till recently;
and totally selfish and indifferent to the plight of the Cambodian people.
There is real anger in the CPP rank and file about Funcinpec policies of
mobilizing international pressure to starve, intimidate and suppress the
rights of Cambodian people to a normal life. When you next read about dead
bodies of opposition activists found floating in the Mekong, remember that
anger. I say this not to condone such killings, but to be aware of the
context in which they took place.
Funcinpec sees CPP as traitors; collaborators with and puppets of Vietnam,
former Communists who at heart are communists still, expropriators of
private property, and brutal suppressors of Cambodian national values and
traditions. Each side has become more embittered and entrenched in such
extreme views over the past few years since 1996. The gains in national
reconciliation, the healing of the wounds and the awakening of a sense of
shared Cambodian-ness, that was starting to be seen in the years 1993 to
1996, was sacrificed in the ensuing three years. Cynicism and mutual
contempt are widespread among the people. It did not have to happen this
way. It would not have happened if Cambodian leaders had handled their
differences peacefully and in a spirit of mutual respect.
Until the surprise agreement toward a coalition, the dynamics were all going
downhill. The irresponsible intervention of fanatical American ideologues -
the Rohrbacher resolution in the US Congress declaring Hun Sen a Khmer Rouge
war criminal - was further poisoning the well of Cambodian politics and
Cambodia's international relations. Now after the political compromise I am
a little more hopeful. But still the basic challenge remains unsolved -
namely, how to acknowledge in your heart the legitimacy of your opponents?
How to grant them a legitimate place in the society you co-habit with them?
How not to de-humanize them? Cambodia must face up to this dilemma. Until in
their hearts each side can overcome the mutual contempt and fear of the
other, there will never be real peace in Cambodia - only a succession of
tactical armistices punctuated by further fighting. And each bout of
fighting will generate new victims.
We in Australia like to simplify issues, to translate them into our familiar
political categories such as democracy, human rights, freedom to
demonstrate, suppression of dissidents. But we won't understand Cambodia,
and we won't be helping Cambodians, until we make the effort of imagination
and cultural perspective to understand how they see their problems. It's
doubly difficult, because in order to make their problems understandable to
us and to make us sympathize with their respective viewpoints, Cambodians
often present their problems to us in terms of our preferred categories of
political thought. And because opposition politicians are so much better
than CPP at projecting their cause to foreigners in terms that we can
respond to - and Sam Rainsy is a
true genius in this area - we tend to see Cambodia through Fun-cinpec eyes.
So we all talk about Cambodia's problems in our own language. And we are all
- Third theme: the enormous power of foreigners to
influence the way the political game is played in Cambodia, and the
consequent responsibility on all who presume to play a role in Cambodian
politics - or simply to comment on Cambodian politics - to consider very
carefully the effects on Cambodian politics of what we say and do. We have
an enormous power to influence events in Cambodia for good or ill. Our words
are listened to and respected. The way we speak about Cambodian politics
influences how Cambodians perceive their own political reality.
Since 1991 that influence has not been used as well as it should have been.
Our media have too often misrepresented Cambodian political issues and
leaders. There has been too much convenient and lazy stereotyping. The
stereotypes have become so powerful that it is almost impossible for a
Western journalist new on the scene - even one who sets out conscientiously
to research the background and write honestly about current events - to
escape from them. And such journalism, playing back a constant repetition of
these stereotypes into Cambodia, influences how Cambodians with some access
to newspapers and radio themselves see their country's present crisis. And
that in turn influences the crisis. The way in which the street
demonstrations were seen and reported abroad - as an East European-style
street democracy movement - fed back into Cambodia and influenced many
Cambodians to see their government's position as wrong, and the opposition
tactic of obstruction and non-cooperation in forming a new government as
right. Many Cambodians are now confused and anxious. They no longer know if
they had a fair election or not. They have been misled by simplistic and
self-righteous foreign interpretations of their own politics. We foreigners
helped to perpetuate the unnecessary crisis of the last three months.
Finally, where are we left now after the welcome news of a new Cambodian
coalition? It is certainly an improvement on what went before. The King has
done a wonderful job in persuading Prince Ranariddh to compromise - cleverly
choosing a time when Sam Rainsy was safely distant in Paris. Hun Sen to his
credit has pragmatically made substantial political concessions to enable
Ranariddh to join the government in a high status position and without loss
of face. The concessions are potentially fruitful of peace. But all will now
depend on the spirit in which the opposition receives them.
I fear based on past experience that the opposition and their foreign
advocates may draw the wrong lessons from these compromises, and that they
may take into government with them the same kinds of attitudes that made the
1993-1997 coalition a failure. If Ranariddh continues to feel that this
government is not really his - that he owes no allegiance to it; if he
resumes a double game, intriguing with Sam Rainsy in opposition; if he and
Sam Rainsy continue to project Hun Sen to the world as the worst kind of
villain; if they rationalize this latest agreement the way they rationalized
the 1993 government, saying they entered into it under duress and had no
real choice - that they really won the 1998 election and it was stolen from
them; if Ranariddh tries through the rehabilitated Funcinpec rebel generals
and their reintegrated forces in the RCAF again to establish a clandestine
counter-government military force; - then the old cycle of mistrust and
preventive escalation will recur again.
So there is nothing automatic about this latest peace. We cannot afford to
be complacent about it. And that's where foreign voices come in. I think
that at this juncture it is terribly important for foreigners who care about
the Cambodian people to say to Cambodian leaders what we really feel. We
should not keep diplomatically silent. The Dana Rohrabachers and Jesse
Helmses of this world certainly will not do so. Many journalists and
newspaper editorialists will continue out of habit or prejudice to demonise
Hun Sen and CPP. It will take courage and perseverance, but for the sake of
real peace and national reconciliation in Cambodia, those who think
differently from them need to say so, publicly and firmly. We can influence
events in Cambodia to the good if we do so.
We need to break the destructive stereotype view of Cambodia as being
fundamentally a conflict about political human rights. Cambodia's politics
does not have to be winner-take-all, kill the losers and their families, and
eat their livers! It can be humanized.
I know that the vast majority of the Cambodian people want an end, after 30
years of internal conflict, to violent and destructive politics.
It is up to us now, and to their own leadership elites, to help them to find
a new style of politics.
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