The situation is grave.

As we had believed before we set out on our mission, in recent months, particularly during the March-April 1997 period, there has been an upsurge of political conflict between the two ruling parties, Funcinpec and the CPP. As both prepare for the general election in 1998, this trend is likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future. This situation has been, and continues to be, aggravated by a number of factors.

One is the propensity, on the part of both sides, towards using rhetorics as an instrument of bargaining and legitimation, which not only impedes the day-to-day task of governance, but also reduces the opportunity for compromise and raises the intensity of the rivalry.

The second is the existence of two opposing forces of heavily armed bodyguards employed by both prime ministers to ensure their respective security; these "private armies" serve to accentuate the climate of tension between the two sides.

The third is intra-party conflicts, evident in the case of Funcinpec where there have been major defections and powerful challenges to the leadership.

The last factor is the understandable reluctance on the part of the only individual who is respected throughout the country and can act as a moderating force on his own, namely King Norodom Sihanouk, to mediate between the two sides.

Cambodia’s politics at this juncture is a simmering cauldron of conflict, distrust and suspicion. The situation, we fear, is fraught with danger. An individual act, a single event, can catalyse a chain reaction leading to widespread violence and destruction. Perhaps another grenade attack on a protest rally, or another attempted return of Prince Norodom Sirivudh, or an inadvertent clash between units of the bodyguards, or an incident involving a key political figure: what form that act or event will take may ultimately be of little relevance. What matters is that at present in Cambodia the dividing line between intensified, yet peaceful, democratic political contestation, on the one hand, and uncompromising, violence-oriented power rivalry, on the other, is becoming increasingly hard to discern.

The situation is indeed grave. But it is not hopeless. It is not beyond repair. In fact, even though we take into serious consideration some of the more alarmist viewpoints, we are encouraged by the fact that there are also a number of signs which augur well for Cambodia’s immediate future.

The first is the existence of a broad consensus for peace and national reconciliation.

Predictions or expectations of the inevitability of violence and war can be self fulfilling prophecies; they can bring about a chain of actions and reactions which ultimately cause conflicts to escalate to a level of crisis where rationality and good sense can no longer prevail.

Among the Cambodians today there are no such predictions or expectations. On the contrary, there seems to be a broad consensus of thoughts and sentiments: that there must be no more "killing fields", no return to the past; that violence and war can be avoided and should be avoided at all costs; and that everyone must work together to strengthen national reconciliation by upholding the principles of democracy and freedom.

This broad consensus does not mean that violence and war will not take place, or indeed that the process of democratisation is irreversible. Nothing can offer an absolute, iron-clad guarantee in these matters. But it does mean that Cambodia will not easily fall victim to self-fulfilling prophecies of violence and war and that, amidst the upsurge of political conflict, conditions still exist for the kind of conflict management and cooperation among the Cambodians which will keep the process of national reconciliation on the right track. Today, the spirit of compromise does not rule, but it is there and, as long as it is there, we feel that there must be hope for a better tomorrow.

The second sign that augurs well for Cambodia’s immediate future is the existence of broad participation in the process of national reconciliation.

In Cambodia, as in other countries in the region, there are asymmetries in the levels of political awareness, commitment and participation, especially between the more educated, urban populace, on the one hand, and the less educated, rural masses, on the other. Therefore, one should guard against simplistic generalisations and conclusions. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that participation in the process of national reconciliation is broadening.

At the vanguard of this "movement" are non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which actively provide political education, advocate greater transparency and accountability of governance, and strive to protect human rights, to promote civil liberties and to improve the country’s social and economic conditions. There is, of course, no guarantee that these NGOs will succeed in their endeavours or that the process of democratisation is irreversible. But their many activities both reflect broadening participation and serve to help broaden participation in the national reconciliation process.

This must be considered a healthy development, for it indicates strong life-signs for Cambodia’s recovery and rehabilitation. Moreover, since most of these NGOs work directly or indirectly with inter-governmental organisations or foreign NGOs, these activities also represent points of convergence and cooperation between Cambodia and the international community, which can help further strengthen the national reconciliation process.

The third is the emergence of a moderating third force in Cambodia’s political processes.

A Royal Government Joint Commission for Abnormal Conflict Resolution was set up, comprising key military and security leaders from both ruling parties. The CPP were represented by Mr. Sar Kheng (Deputy Prime Minister and Co-Minister of Interior), Mr. Teah Banh (Co-Minister of Defence), General Ke Kim Yan (chief of General Staff), and Mr. Hok Lundy (National Police Chief). From Funcinpec were Mr. You Hockry (Co-Minister of Interior), Mr. Tea Chamrath (Co-Minister of Defence), General Nhiek Bun Chhay (First Deputy Chief of General Staff), and Mr. Yeng Marady (Deputy Police Chief).

On 29 April 1997 this "Commission of Eight" issued a joint declaration before a gathering of 600 government, provincial, military and police officials, calling on all military and security forces to put the nation’s interests before party interests and to remain neutral in the conflict between political parties. Giving strong warnings to "opportunists who create public disorder and instability," it promises to "monitor the situation regularly," thus prolonging the life of its mission for a period and perhaps also preparing the ground for its institutionalisation.

This declaration, we believe, signals the emergence of a key moderating force.

The Commission members may not be able to keep peace in all places at all times, but by virtue of their collective command over military and security personnel, they have the capacity for preventing the conflict between the two ruling parties from escalating towards sustained and widespread violence. If they can preserve unity among themselves, they can help ensure that political contestation continues to be peaceful as Cambodia moves towards 1998, the year of electoral reckoning, and that through peaceful political contestation the process of national reconciliation remains on track for the foreseeable future.

The fourth sign that augurs well for Cambodia’s immediate future is the decline of the Khmer Rouge as a threat to Cambodia’s newly constituted polity.

Over the past year or so, time, battle-fatigue, and pressure from the international community seem to have taken their toll on the Khmer Rouge. The party’s or its armed forces’ demise should not be taken for granted, especially since they still retain control over important natural resources along the Thai-Cambodian border. But they do not seem to have the capacity to go on the offensive and to take advantage of the worsening political situation. For obvious reasons, this is a blessing indeed.

And the last is the generally healthy state of the Cambodian economy.

A healthy economy is not a panacea for all the problems of politics, but a weak or collapsing economy makes a political system less immune to all the ailments that afflict it. In the context of Cambodia’s growing political conflict, it is important to note that she has made significant progress under her medium-term economic and structural reform program.

Latest statistics indicate that real gross domestic product (GDP) at 1989 base-year prices grew by 7.6% in 1995 and by an estimated 6.5% in 1996. The rate of inflation has subsided from 114.5% in 1993 to about 7.1% in 1996. The exchange rate against the U.S. dollar has remained generally stable, and the country’s foreign exchange reserve position has become stronger, although confidence in the riel continues to be sensitive to political developments. In addition, increases in foreign aid disbursement and flows of foreign direct investment have facilitated an improvement in the country’s balance of payment position. The achievement of relatively strong economic performance bears testimony to the Cambodian Government’s firm commitment, not only to its economic rehabilitation and reconstruction plan, but also to the maintenance of firm fiscal and monetary discipline over its economic policies.

Moreover, prospects for the Cambodian economy seem fair. According to the latest official projections for the 1997-2001 period, the expansion of real GDP is expected to increase from 6.5% in 1997 to 8.1% by 2002, with real GDP growth averaging 7.2% per annum in the next five years. If such projections are accurate, GDP per capita is anticipated to rise by nearly 60% from US$312 in 1997 to US$496 by 2001.

We believe that the situation remains grave, with a potential for further escalation of the conflict. But we also believe that it is necessary to look at both "the forest and the trees", to examine Cambodia’s problems in the full context of her historical, political and economic development.

If one does so, one can appreciate the fact that,while at the present juncture the national reconciliation process is indeed in trouble, the Cambodians have successfully operated in the democratic milieu and have already achieved a great deal in terms of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the past five years. For a society just emerging from two decades of war when at times its very existence was threatened, this is an incredible perfomance. Furthermore, as we have pointed out, there exist conditions which should be supportive of the Cambodians’ efforts to continue operating in this democratic milieu and to build upon this achievement for the foreseeable future.






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