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  "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 settlement.

- 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 misled.

- 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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Copyright 2004