1997 has been a dramatic year for the Kingdom of Cambodia. As the countdown begins for the 1998 general election, there has been an upsurge of political conflict, resulting in violence and death.

Against the background of already worsening relations between the two ruling parties, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral and Cooperative Cambodia (Funcinpec) and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a series of crises took place in the period between March and April of this year.

On 30 March a grenade attack was made on a peaceful protest rally led by Mr. Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader allied to Funcinpec and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh; this left not only 22 killed and over a hundred wounded, but also a legacy of mounting suspicion and distrust, which was not dispelled by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s condemnation of the act and offer of cooperation to find the culprits. A fortnight later there was an attempt by Prince Norodom Sirivudh, a former minister of foreign affairs and also King Norodom Sihanouk’s half-brother and Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s uncle, to return to Phnom Penh from his "exile" in Paris during Cambodia’s traditional new year celebrations in mid-April; the attempt eventually failed, but it precipitated high military alert in the capital. After this crisis came shifts in political alignments; these were brought about by key defections from Funcinpec and powerful challenges to the party’s ruling establishment,which at a stroke threatened to change both the balance of power within the National Assembly and the composition of Cambodia’s leadership.

Uncertainty reigns in the aftermath of these crises, and this uncertainty poses questions regarding the Kingdom’s longer term political prospects.

The rise of Cambodia from the ashes of two decades of tragic conflicts and wars is a remarkable achievement. The new, increasingly dynamic and progressive face of her society bears testimony to the success of the national reconciliation processes in the five years since the Paris Peace Agreement was signed. But the recent developments have given rise to growing concerns that the road to national reconciliation is reaching a deadend, that as the 1998 general election draws nigh peaceful political contestation may increasingly give way to power plays and violence, and that once caught in this spiral of power play and violence Cambodia may be in danger of relapsing into another round of prolonged and purposeless bloodshed.

Amidst this upsurge of political conflict the new Cambodia stands alone.

With crises elsewhere to cope with, as well as organisational and budgetary problems to take care of, the United Nations (UN) no longer considers it has primary moral or legal responsibility in promoting national reconciliation and preserving peace in the Kingdom. Bilateral ties with friends and neighbours develop apace, but "business as usual" is the thrust and theme. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, both collectively and individually, have indicated their reluctance to "assist" Cambodia in addressing her domestic problems for fear of violating the principle of non-intervention.

Furthermore, in the last few weeks Cambodia’s predicament has been complicated by the possibility that, contrary to earlier understanding and expectations, she may not be admitted to ASEAN membership this year. At a recently held bilateral meeting between Thailand and the Philippines, Cambodia’s preparedness for becoming a member this year was openly questioned on account of her worsening domestic political situation.

Such constraints and concerns are perfectly understandable. There is no denying that the primary responsibility for precipitating the upsurge of political conflict, and hence also for managing and reversing it, lies with the Cambodians themselves, and no one else. The UN has already played both mother and midwife to the new Cambodia and, given its own problems and preoccupations, cannot be expected to bear the burden of supporting the child forever. The ASEAN countries’ collective and individual adherence to the principle of non-intervention is a well-tried and tested formula for the association’s success, and it is natural that no one would wish to tinker with success.

Moreover, it must also be borne in mind that at this juncture the question of new ASEAN memberships happens to be a most controversial issue.

At the informal summit held in Jakarta in December 1996, ASEAN announced that Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar must be admitted at the same time, and thereafter the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Senior Economic Officials were instructed to gather information on the three countries’ preparedness for the ASEAN governments’ consideration and final decisions. The West is strongly and openly opposed to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) regime and hence to Myanmar’s membership. On 22 April the US imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, a measure widely interpreted to be a warning to ASEAN not to admit Yangon this year. Faced with this opposition, ASEAN publicly asserts the right to make its own decisions regarding memberships. The resolve to be firm in principle is clear and correct, but in practice the ASEAN countries understandably may wish to move forward cautiously on this issue, carefully assessing the overall picture and closely examining, not only Myanmar’s "qualifications", but also those of Cambodia and Laos as well. Therefore, the reservations concerning Phnom Penh’s readiness can and should be considered part and parcel of the "vetting" process for new members.

Such constraints and concerns are understandable and in some ways expected. But they do not alter the essential, alarming truth: that this is a most critical time for Cambodia and that at this critical time she stands alone. At stake are her national reconciliation, her participation in the processes of ASEAN regional cooperation, and through it her greater involvement in the affairs of the world at large. At stake is the future of a people whose forefathers for centuries have enriched the artistic and cultural lives of Southeast Asians, a people who for two decades have suffered a fate less tragic than none in the annals of recorded history.

In recognition of the worsening situation in the Kingdom, a group of concerned friends of Cambodia organised a delegation to visit Phnom Penh in early May 1997, under the auspices of the Institute for Policy Research (Institut Kajian Dasar-IKD), Malaysia. Working in our private capacities and calling ourselves simply a "Study Mission to Cambodia", or "SMC" for short, we sought to learn at first hand about the prevailing situation in Cambodia, with a view towards offering any form of support or assistance that is deemed appropriate.

We set out on this voyage of friendship with no preconceived notions about what we could or should do. But out of our common concern for Cambodia, we simply believed that the Cambodian people should not have to stand alone at this critical juncture of their historical development and they should be given all the support necessary for their continuing efforts to consolidate the remarkable progress which had been achieved over the last five years.

More specifically, our objectives in undertaking this mission were three-fold.

Firstly, we sought to increase our understanding of the present situation which, so we believed, contains many conditions for further escalation of conflict and violence.

Secondly, we wanted to assess the Cambodians’ resolve and preparedness to join ASEAN in the light of the recent domestic and regional developments.

And thirdly, on the basis of the information acquired from this trip, as well as from other sources, we planned to collect our thoughts, to formulate our conclusions, including policy recommendations where relevant, and to forward them to the governments and leaders of both ASEAN and Cambodia for their consideration, before the ASEAN foreign ministers convene for their special meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 31 May 1997 to discuss and to decide upon the question of new ASEAN memberships.

Our visit to Phnom Penh was arranged at very short notice. But, over the two and a half days that we were there, we were able to meet and hold discussions with many key persons, from both government and the non-governmental sectors. This reflected the efficiency and industry with which our friends at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) worked to organise our appointments. Rightly or wrongly, we believe that it also reflected the desire on the part of Cambodians and expatriates alike to see the situation improved and to communicate with concerned visitors from the ASEAN countries in the hope of being able to explore all possible channels for improving the situation.

During our visit we were graciously received by both Prime Ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Mr. Hun Sen, as well as Mr. Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Mr. Keat Chhon, Senior Minister of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction and Minister of Finance, and Mr. Ung Huot, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. We also met some Members of Parliament and government officials, officers of both Cambodian and international non-governmental organisations, Phnom Penh-based journalists, as well as a number of diplomats and representatives of the private sector from the ASEAN countries. All of them enlightened us with much information and many ideas. We did not become experts on Cambodia overnight, but these were sufficient to encourage us to formulate our thoughts and conclusions, as follows.





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