Cambodia leaves the darkness behind

By Jonathan Power

Dateline: Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 5th 2013

Cambodia has lain for too long under the black umbrella of its past. But Cambodia is waking up, has looked the evil one in its eye and, re-born, found its strength.

Cambodia has been to hell and back – 2 million of its people killed out of population of 8 million, with 500,000 of them executed, the consequence of a fanatical communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot and a group of henchmen now being tried in the UN War Crimes Court. (Pol Pot himself is dead.)

The Khmer Rouge violently took power in 1975 and fell in 1979. They wanted a classless society. They abolished money, property and religious practices. Family relationships were criticised and people were forbidden from even showing the slightest affection. The work day in the fields was 12 hours long without pause. Torture and the bullet were the instant punishment for deviance. Anybody educated was singled out for death.

In the late 1970s, the neighbouring Vietnamese, despite having in the early 1970s supported the Khmer Rouge, fought their way into Cambodia and in January 1979 overthrew the Khmer Rouge, capturing Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge fled westward, establishing themselves on the Thai border. Many of them were hungry and ill and UNICEF and NGOs fed and nurtured them. They lived to fight another day.

In an appalling move the US, still scarred by losing its war with Vietnam, persuaded its Western allies to vote to allow the Khmer Rouge to take Cambodia’s seat in the UN. From 1979 to 1990 the Khmer Rouge ruled the diplomatic roost. Western countries gave their political support to a regime that had perpetrated the second worst genocide of the twentieth century. In this they were opposed by the Soviet Union. The Chinese were more in a quandary having been the Khmer Rouge’s main supplier of military hardware.

A handful of US diplomats would like to see the US making an apology, as President Bill Clinton did over CIA activity in supporting a murderous government in Guatemala. But in the words of one Cambodian-based diplomat “Washington won’t let us talk about it.”

In Cambodia the Vietnamese established a government that ruled for a decade. In 1991 the UN negotiated a peace agreement between the de facto Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge. A UN organised election was agreed to, but in the end the Khmer Rouge baulked.

Hun Sen, now Cambodia’s autocratic prime minister, lost the 1993 election but then muscled his way into a power-sharing deal. In 1997 he staged a coup. He is now Asia’s longest serving leader.

Diplomatic and local media observers say that Hun Sen is popular and could win an election without the limits on press freedom and the arbitrary arrests and occasional murder of dissidents that he allows or encourages.

Capitalism is the tool of economic progress. (But one long street is named the Kim Il Sung Boulevard.) On the economic front Hun Sen has delivered. A country that lost a a quarter of its population now has a new generation which in the last handful of years has matured into workers and professionals. Good economic policies have given them their head.

The press, albeit gradually becoming freer, is controlled. Although three independent human rights-orientated radio stations are allowed the head of one is in jail . The media have had to be restrained on such issues as covering the government’s land grabs on behalf of industry and large scale farming.

Economic growth, says the local IMF representative, was above 6% last year and will be 7% -8% this year, one of the world’s highest. There is little inflation and no big debt. In 2012 foreign investment went up by 44%, mainly from China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The US welcomes Chinese investment in the absence of its own. Last year exports to the European Union went up sharply.

Tourism climbed by 20% last year, garment exports by 14%, rice production by 8% and, rare for a developing country, agriculture increased by nearly 5%.

In the 1980s ninety percent of the people lived in poverty. Today it is only 20%, a remarkable achievement. It is one of the largest poverty reductions in the world, says the World Bank representative- far better than its neighbour, Thailand. Nutrition rates are up. So are hygiene and the availability of clean water. Most children are now inoculated and infant mortality has fallen fast. Unemployment is very low. Cambodia is fifth in the world in terms of attaining the Millennium Development Goals (that measure social progress).

But educational improvement goes too slowly. Corruption is pervasive. Manufacturing is only just getting under way.

In July there will be a general election. Hun Sen will win. He has the organisation and the money. Perhaps then he will loosen up a bit more. A prosperous democracy could be, if he willed it, not too far away.

© 2013 Jonathan Power

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