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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Understanding today’s Cambodia

Alain Forest

Texte intégral

1February 2008

2Between 1990-2005, no other country in the world was observed, examined and scrutinised as much as Cambodia, by both experts, members of NGOs and specialists from across all disciplines. Numerous detailed facts, figures, statistics, tables, percentages, pie charts, forecasts and estimates were produced, many of which were exaggerated. A number of the studies conducted took a superficial approach to the field, raising questions of credibility. Nevertheless, many of the studies conducted do present convincing results, despite the lack of preparation and the rapid speed at which they were carried out, certainly providing future historians with food for thought. These studies, however, were carried out under a utilitarian concept, which proved to be far too limiting, where Cambodia was essentially treated like a series of cases to be solved, with its anomalies evaluated and compared to norms. On one hand, one risks becoming ignorant to Cambodia’s wealth of history and in danger of stereotyping, yet on the other hand one runs the risk of oversimplifying and reducing the understanding of a country into a bunch of numbers.

3Nevertheless, the history of Cambodia, particularly its recent history, boils down to much more than just the events that occurred during the period of the Khmer Rouge and in Angkor. Yet, from the way in which they have gone down in history and the repercussions and consequences of these two events over the years, it is clear to see why they both deserve so much attention.

4A collection of thoughts, reviews and refocused studies on Cambodia, recognising the ever-expanding knowledge of this country over 50 years, was collated by the Institute of Research into Contemporary South-East Asia (IRASEC, MEA Bangkok/CNRS) in Le Cambodge contemporain. This will be published by Indes Savantes (Paris) during the course of the first 2008 trimester. Le Cambodge contemporain is by no means an “encyclopaedia” of Cambodian history; it does not claim to cover all aspects of contemporary Cambodia nor does it include the crucial challenges that Cambodia faces in today’s world. Instead, it merely presents interpretations of Cambodian history and an insight into the reality of Cambodia, from individuals who know this topic well, some having had several decades’ of experience in this field. Although this does not make them flawless specialists on the subject, these individuals have acquired a certain depth of understanding over time, which brings about a certain justification to their analyses of Cambodia.

5These interpretations are determined by at least three observations.

6The first is a fact all too often neglected, that generations of young Cambodians have grown up, never having experienced the regime of Pol Pot in Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979). If we then add to this, those who were born between 1970 and 1979, individuals who were essentially spectator-victims of war and barbarism committed under Pol Pot’s regime, then we can determine the population of those under 38 who are strangers to the history of their own elders. They know very little about Cambodia becoming a protectorate or of the experiences of those who witnessed Sihanouk’s “Sanghum” movement (1979-1989) and the Lon Nol regime (1970-1975).

7There are many people, however, who did live through the dreary years of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the Vietnamese protectorate (1979-1989), and who were not afraid of recalling the years of post-war Communism in the East (in fact, they even helped Cambodia to a great extent over the difficult years, by training technician staff). These people came alive at a time when there was fear and uncertainty, when families were being broken apart and constantly fighting to survive. There are mixed feelings about it; memories of great solidarity, of the harshness of society, feelings of resignation, struggle, envy of those who were able to escape abroad, and pride of having survived and overcome their hardships. They were crippled by the consequences, political crimes and faults of their elders. Not wanting to be accused, they remained sceptical, facing an abundance of moral dilemmas and procedures, which were supposed to unburden them, but which obliged them to go back to the past, a past that they did not know.

8Furthermore, when they looked back at the past, what did they see? An international community, that despite acknowledging the Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, continued to arm members of the Pol Pot regime for more than 10 years after their extradition. And when they looked into the present? They saw the big neighbouring countries including Thailand, Vietnam and China, which benefit from the same kind of gratification from the international community, particularly China, which is effective in defending its friends against the West.

9In many of its articles, Le Cambodge contemporain is thus trying to penetrate this Cambodia; a Cambodia painted by generations laden with a past that barely explains their electoral trends, a country that is opening up to the world, the market economy, media coverage and globalisation.

10Secondly, this does not mean to say that Cambodia will decline into such a catastrophic state again, as it oscillates between a country that has undergone an extremely painful ordeal, abject poverty and political corruption and one that captivates people with its spellbinding charm. Between 1980 and 2000, Cambodia was the recipient of a large amount of aid relief and justifiably so. A large difference exists between the Cambodia today and the Cambodia that was once described as without a future, haunted by the terror of what a man in a state of rapacity and thoughtlessness could inflict. Cambodia of course, remains one of the poorest countries in the world, but when comparing it to others, it is far from deteriorating into a state of irrecoverable deprivation.

11In any case, the moment of truth is beckoning and where aid is concerned, Cambodia will cease to be treated as a special case. It is imagined that one of the purposes of the Khmer Rouge court proceedings will be to mark the end of Cambodia being viewed with such a status. This will also justify the withdrawal of the input from the international community, which would explain why the Cambodian authorities are keen to drag things out for as long as possible. Presumably, Cambodia will turn towards Asia for help, especially to China.

12The third observation is that non-Asian donors and experts situate Cambodia in a part of Asia that is not totally neglected, but which is sometimes forgotten or neglected. Apart from providing certain explanations for some of the key trends of Cambodian regimes since 1953, this information should be integrated alongside the current social, economical and political trends in the criteria used for analyses. It is evident that Cambodia struggles to find its place within ASEAN at this moment in time, but it means that it also manages to escape the pressures or intrusive concerns of its close neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as those of Western and international institutions, in doing so with the support from China.

13Some of Cambodia’s less tolerable problems range from corruption to paedophilia, not to mention the trafficking of art and drugs, going beyond any hope of dialogue or common action between Cambodians and Westerners, upheld by practices, patterns of behaviour, drug circuits and Asian suppliers and consumers.

14The new economic circuits, determined either by investments into Cambodia or by the influx of tourists, and areas of priority for development, are hot topics as business initiatives are for businessmen from China, Thailand and Malaysia. At the same time, they are also under the influence of Korean, Japanese and Chinese politicians, either through the governments directly or through institutions such as the Asian Development Bank. It is with doubt that advice and help from the West will be futile in shaping the type of society that Cambodia will become or the political regime to take hold of the country. This is, of course, in comparison to Asia’s influence, with its dynamic societies, economies and close relationships between its countries.

15So how can the small country of Cambodia be of interest to us? Beyond the argument that is too often used and, which justifies almost anything and everything that which concerns Franco-Cambodian history in particular? It is certain that Cambodia was, and remains to this day against its will and advantage, a good example of the power struggles at work in this region in the world. There is a rift between “Sinisation” and “Indiansation”, Vietnam and Siam, French colonisation and Anglo-Saxon expansion (there are too many French and Anglo-Saxons still analysing the substance of these terms), the rise of Communism and containment, which today, is perhaps at the core of major regional reshuffling. Is Cambodia not destined to become the bridgehead of China’s enlargement due to its economic power and the fact that it focuses more on development, as well as being driven and therefore controlled by itself? Or that it concentrates on the Burmese and Lao-Cambodian passageways rather than on weapons in order to assert itself even at the risk of paralysing South-East Asia, whose major principles (of “non-interference”, in the modes of governance of different countries and of non-violence defence of national interests) are cleverly instrumentalised by Beijing, which today, seems to be at a loss for initiatives, pretending rather to organise a movement to take over it? It can be presumed that this will not happen without provoking new tense situations.

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