Uneasy boom in Cambodia
Byline: Zainon Ahmad
Edition: New Sunday Times; 2*
Memo: (STF) - There is now peace in Cambodia but the general view is that stability will only be achieved when all the institutions of the state have been properly established and strengthened, reports Zainon Ahmad, who was in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap last week.
"ALL is not what it seems in Cambodia," said an Asean diplomat. Most foreigners stationed in Phnom Penh say the same thing when a visitor observes that the capital is booming and that tourists are once again flocking to the country.
Government leaders tell visitors that there is peace in the country following the UN-sponsored general election of 1993, that democracy has taken root and the Press is free. Others, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy and some non-governmental organisations agree that all is not what it seems in Cambodia. They say the peace is uneasy, the economy is a sham and there is no democracy.
"Cambodia is a dictatorship under the control of Hun Sen - make no mistake about that," said jounalist Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine to a group of Asian and German editors in Siem Reap last week.
Sam Rainsy of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party said there was no rule of law and as a result, mafia elements from Hong Kong and Macau had flocked to Cambodia.
But everyone agrees that there is now peace in the country, beginning with the election victory of strongman Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party in the 1998 election.
People are finding employment in the small factories that have mushroomed in and around Phnom Penh in recent years. Shops are stocked with goods and restaurants are well patronised. They are also employed in the scores of hotels.
When asked about the state of things, government officials are quick to say that the economy is growing again after the so-called Asian flu. And they have figures at their fingertips.
They admit that Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the world but say that the one year of peace has attracted many investors and that the future looks good.
The economy is the Government's priority, they say. It has called itself "the economic government" as a strategy to convince prospective investors that it is business-friendly.
"The gross domestic product growth has been fairly consistent with our projections and we hope to achieve at least six per cent growth this year," said Kong Vibol of the Ministry of Economy and Finance at a Konrad Adenauer Foundation-sponsored meeting of Asian and German editors in Phnom Penh last week.
He and other economists spewed statistics to convince the editors that the economy is doing well and that the investment climate in the country is never better.
The editors were told that "the real GDP growth of Cambodia is based on the following: a forcast 3.8 per cent growth in agriculture premising on three factors - a 5.1 per cent increase in rice production, a six per cent expansion in production of other cereals and a 14.8 per cent growth in fisheries products.
Kong Vibol also said: "The goals of the Government's reform programme are poverty alleviation and the achievement of sustainable economic growth. This programme is premised on strengthening the rule of law and governance and tackling corruption."
To which Sam Rainsy said all the glossy statements were presented to convince the donor community that the necessary reforms were taking place and corruption was being eradicated.
An official of one of the European NGOs (there are almost a hundred of them from Europe, America, Japan, Australia and other countries spending money on projects in Cambodia) said because of corruption, Australia was pulling out from extending a helping hand to the Royal Cambodian Navy.
Most of the government economists said Cambodia had benefited tremendously from being admitted as the 10th member of Asean in 1998. But they were quite unsuccessful in explaining how. They would not even admit that it was another bid for legitimacy.
Some NGO officials said government ministers and officials were not used to explaining things to their people. And because of the obsequious nature of the Cambodians in general, they saw no need to do so. "And this perhaps explain why some leaders commit all sorts of criminal acts with such impunity," said an NGO representative from Europe.
In the 1998 general election, Hun Sen's party failed to win two- thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, necessary for any move to amend the constitution. The CPP (the former Cambodian Communist Party) had no choice but to coalesce with the party it ousted in a bloody coup in 1997 - Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec.
Ranariddh, son of King Norodom Sihanouk, is now content to play his role as speaker of the country's Parliament - the National Assembly.
This gives rise to speculation that some form of a deal had been worked out which would lead Ranariddh to be the next king of Cambodia. But only Sam Rainsy dared to speak out. Or, as some put it, was foolhardy or crazy enough to speak out.
He told the meeting of editors it was one of the reasons why he wanted the procedure of selecting the next king to be made public. The people should learn to break free from the feudal mentality under which they had lived for hundreds of years.
In his new millennium message, he lambasted the ruling regime. He said: "The superficially revamped communist regime - under a thin veneer of monarchy which is nothing else than a facade of legality and democracy for an illegal and dictatorial regime - preserves and promotes this type of mentality which forms the moral foundation of the unacceptable present status quo."
When leaders of the CCP and Funcinpec appeared on radio and television to blast him, Sam Rainsy appealed to some foreign embassies to protect him.
Asked by the editors why he made such extreme statements, he said the message was meant to shake up the thinking of the Cambodian leaders and people.
But peace does not mean that no more murders and killings are taking place. Cases of extrajudicial killings abound. Other killings and murders continue with impunity.
Nate Thayer cited examples of impunity, including the failure of the Government to arrest anyone for the 1997 grenade attack that killed at least 17 people and injured more than 100, for the more than 100 extrajudicial killings of Funcinpec security officials following the 1997 factional fighting, and for the lack of action following the December acid attack against a 16-year-old girl police said was led by the wife of a Council of Minister's official.
"People with money are able to buy off people with power, and people with guns are able to buy off people with power," the journalist charged. He said Cambodian officials' links to criminal syndicates were key to understanding why institutions were as weak as they were now in Cambodia.
Nate Thayer blasted the business practises of Teng Bunma, who directs the Thai Boon Roong Group and heads the country's Chamber of Commerce. The tycoon has been barred from entering the United States because of suspected links to drug-trafficking. Teng Bunma has denied the allegations.
One government senior official agreed with much of what Nate Thayer said. "Someone has to say the truth," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There were also Cambodians at the talk who disagreed. National Television of Kampuchea deputy director-general Kem Gunawadh said: "Nate Thayer knows well about my country, but he doesn't understand the differences now compared to before. What he said was true before 1998, but not now."
Lao Mong Hay, the executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy and regular government critic, said: "He might have gone too far."
Despite the bleak picture of Cambodia as painted by Thayer, some visitors to Phnom Penh get a sense that the country is enjoying prosperity especially at night when the city is all lighted up.
Neon signs proclaim the numerous casinos and nightclubs. Far greater number of casinos and nightclubs, said one diplomat, had mushroomed on the western strip of the country bordering Thailand, which does not allow casinos on its soil. Thais and others cross the border in hordes to enjoy themselves there while Cambodians flock there to work.
While Cambodians have no money to gamble they are certainly doing it with their soul, remarked the diplomat.