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 Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Development Aid and Democracy in Cambodia

Chanthou Boua

In 1988 I was asked by the umbrella group for non- governmental organizations (NGOs) in Australia to launch a new book called Punishing the Poor, written by Eva Mysliwiec. It was about the international NGOs' efforts in Cambodia since 1979, and Mysliwiec was just the right person to write such a book. She had been sent to Cambodia by American Friends Service Committee to be their first director in Phnom Penh, in 1979. A very experienced and dedicated person, who since then has worked for many other NGOs in Cambodia, she is still there now, directing the Cambodian Development Resource Institute.

In her book, which was written in 1986, Mysliwiec said that "Cambodia is the only Third World country that is denied United Nations development aid." And this remains true even until now. For the last 13 years Cambodia has not received UN development aid. The reason is that Cambodia, under the present government of the State of Cambodia, is not recognized by the UN and most of the Western countries, who are donors of the UN funds. It is this government that ended the suffering and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime. For the last 10 years, the UN seat has been occupied by a coalition 'government' of the Khmer Rouge and two non- communist opposition factions. It is well known that the KR is by far the strongest in this coalition. So, like the title of Mysliwiec's book notes, 8 million Cambodians living under the Hun Sen regime have been punished by the world community. It is interesting to look at and find out who are those 8 million people that the world and the UN are punishing.

Cambodians After Pol Pot Rule

I arrived in Phnom Penh in 1980 for the first time after I left it in 1972. I saw a country which was in ruins-- schools, hospitals, government buildings, roads, private homes--were largely destroyed; and people who were shattered psychologically by their experiences in the previous 4 years under the Khmer Rouge leadership.

The people I met were mostly women. 60 to 65 percent of Cambodians are women. Their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers were killed by the Khmer Rouge forces or died of starvation and diseases. Women, too, died and were killed, but their menfolk suffered in larger numbers, because they represented more of a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime than the women. With the war continuing for 13 years up to the present, with more men getting killed, we have the situation in Cambodia now where 30 to 40 percent of families are headed by women. The women have to bring up young children and sometimes orphans of friends or relatives as well. 50 percent of the people are under the age of 17. It is these women and children that the world community and the UN is punishing.

After the Pol Pot period, these women went back to their villages to find their family homes destroyed, their pots and pans and household goods disappeared, farming equipment and draught animals in short supply; and the rice fields unmanageable as a result of the collectivization that took place under Pol Pot.

The last 13 years have been tough for Cambodian women. The vast majority (90 percent) of the Cambodian population live in rural areas, therefore the bulk of the womenfolk earn a living through farming. The isolation, which includes the denial of the UN development aid and the U.S.-led economic and trade embargo, has hurt Cambodia in every field.

Agriculturally, it meant that equipment ranging from tractors to shovels could not be purchased by or given to Cambodia. Tools, irrigation pumps, draft animals, vaccines for animals and fertilizers are very difficult to come by. So year after year, the women faced the same problems of not having enough fertilizer, insecticide, seed, or other inputs to boost their production. As a result, agricultural production has been low despite their heroic efforts. Still they fight on doing whatever they can to build up their livelihood, while the world watches, almost unmoved. Because of the embargo and the denial of UN aid, Cambodia has become one of the poorest countries in the world.

In other fields, too, heroic action has met with limited results. After 1979, throughout the country, teachers and nurses went through training and retraining to fill the positions as educators and care givers. As we know they had been decimated during the Pol Pot time. Schools were reopened in great numbers and by 1984 there were more children attending school than even in the Sihanouk time. Everyone was enthusiastic. They considered themselves so lucky to have survived the KR period that they worked tirelessly and were determined to rebuild their country. They worked for very little. The sacrifice was enormous. Civil servants, teachers, nurses were paid enough rice for their family plus a salary equivalent to something like two kilograms of sugar or pork. Like their peasant counterparts, life was tough for them. During that time, the early 1980s, many people left Cambodia. The move was quite understandable because Cambodia was very poor. You could easily die of diarrhoea or fever as there was no adequate medicine supply, and of course the threat of the KR was real. This was reinforced by the fact that the KR was recognized by the UN, and the Phnom Penh government was not. I myself helped sponsor a few refugees to Australia.

The Response of the International Community Since Pol Pot

Not everybody, of course, failed to hear the cry of the Cambodian people. A dozen or so international NGOs responded to the need of the Cambodians. One of them was AFSC, who first sent Eva Mysliwiec to direct their program in Cambodia. Others from America included Church World Service, Oxfam America, and the Mennonite Central Committee. Against the policy of their governments, they battled on with the small budgets characteristic of all NGOs. Their task of aiding Cambodia was made extremely difficult because of the U.S. embargo against Cambodia and the Trading with the Enemy Act. The UN too opened an office of UNICEF in Phnom Penh in 1979. For the first couple of years it had a big budget, reduced radically in following years.

Many critics tried to discredit the NGO activities, saying that NGO aid was 'going to the Vietnamese' or that it did not reach the truly needy Cambodian people. I have been involved in evaluating some of the NGO programs. I did an evaluation for Oxfam America and found that their irrigation pumps, rice seed and fertilizer were put to use effectively and were very much appreciated by the villagers. Of course, there was not nearly enough aid. Oxfam had a limited budget. At that time only 15 irrigation pumps were given to a village of 344 families. But still, it improved, to a certain extent, the production of that village.

Nonetheless, the new Heng Samrin government was not a failure economically. With the help of NGOs and of friends from India and the socialist bloc, the dedication of the Cambodian people themselves, the government managed to revive Cambodia from Year Zero, as John Pilger called it in his film, to a respectable state, however poor. The Heng Samrin government went through many stages of reform; economic reform, agricultural reform, state control, semi-state control, joint ventures of state and private. With their meager resources they tried to survive with all sorts of reforms, against the embargo.

The success was not by accident. It was largely due to the sensible economic policy of that government. Yes, it was inspired by Marxist ideology, but it was what Cambodia needed at the time. I remember writing a report for Oxfam UK about a desperate family I met in 1986. I remember writing that this young family with no parent, under the Sihanouk or Lon Nol regimes, would have become destitute or its women prostitutes in urban slums. Instead the Heng Samrin agrarian policy at the time allowed the family to remain in the village, living not prosperously, but with access to land, and with dignity and a future to look forward to.

The dedication of the Cambodians, too, impressed many NGO workers and visitors alike. I remember interviewing a Church World Service director, an experienced aid worker, who said that Cambodia was the easiest country he has had work with. He said he received full cooperation from the government. He was pleased that all the aid reached the people, which was not the case in other countries he had worked in.

The early 1980s was an exciting time for Cambodia watchers. I feel privileged to have witnessed such a rebirth of a nation. I went to Cambodia quite often during that period, and every time the progress made never failed to surprise me. A new shop here, a restaurant there, a new set of pots and pans for this family, a new cut of cloth for that woman. They were small things, but those who emerged from the Pol Pot regime with nothing appreciated it more, and took pride in that first step of wealth accumulation. Nonetheless, it was slow progress, there were simply no resources. So, while it was an exciting time, the progress was painful to watch.

The argument for the denial of aid to Cambodia at the time was that the Vietnamese was occupying the country. There were Vietnamese advisors and Vietnamese army troops in Cambodia then. The fact is that the Vietnamese army were very much welcomed by the people of Cambodia, at least for the first few years. There is no shortage of Cambodians at home or even here in the U.S. who say that the Vietnamese liberated them from the KR. Not all of them were appreciated by the Cambodians, and some, especially Vietnamese advisors, outlived their welcome. The advisors started to leave in 1981 and were all gone by 1988. The army followed them a year later, and the last Vietnamese were gone by 1990.

Still the isolation continued. No development aid was forthcoming from the UN or the West. The West said that they wanted a 'comprehensive' settlement before aid could be given to Cambodia. This means including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia's future. Desperately needing foreign assistance, after the Vietnamese and the Eastern bloc had left the scene, the Phnom Penh government entered into UN peace negotiations in 1989 with the other three factions, including the KR. At no stage during these negotiations did the UN 'Permanent Five' try to exclude the KR.

The UN Peace Plan

The negotiations took place at the time when the Cambodian people had just started to consolidate their life. In the rural areas as well as in the cities it was a time when they had just started to enjoy the fruits of their hard work. While Hun Sen was going around the world negotiating, back in Cambodia people became nervous. The rural people were anxious about the prospect of the return of the KR and about what would happen to their newly-distributed land and animals. Civil servants feared that they had to share power with the other three factions. There has never been a peaceful relinquishment of power in modern Cambodian history. But the Perm 5 insisted that the Phnom Penh government must go through with it. The same for a democratic election; there hasn't ever been one in Cambodia (or the rest of Indochina), and even in modern Southeast Asia, democracy is a rarity if it even exists. But Cambodia must go through it, despite the presence of an army that committed genocide in close living memory. Those responsible for that genocide are preparing to move into politics too. Sometimes I wonder why the world is doing this to Cambodians, people who have suffered unbearably already.

There are also other demands on the Hun Sen government. The KR, for example, successfully demanded that the word 'genocide' be omitted from the UN Peace Plan. Sihanouk, on the other hand, has long demanded a complete liberalization of the economy, which Hun Sen delivered. A quick liberalization saw Cambodia moving towards becoming a pseudo- capitalist country, where the gap between rich and poor gets wider every day. In the absence of any bilateral aid from the West or multilateral development aid through the UN, together with the insecurity of civil servants about their future careers in an ambiguous political transition, levels of corruption like those elsewhere in Southeast Asia have predictably emerged. From that point I sadly watched Cambodia degenerate into a state of instability. Corruption and instability are of benefit to the Khmer Rouge.

The success of the UN agreement in finding peace for the Cambodian people depends totally upon the goodwill and the willingness of the 4 main political factions to play by the rules. Given the KR's record in only playing by their own rules, this agreement imposes on the Cambodians an enormous risk and long range uncertainties.

The UN is facing an enormous job. I am not terribly optimistic, but, nonetheless, we must now help the UN and hope that it acts in good faith and will succeed.

In a successful search for democracy, development aid is an important factor in a developing country such as Cambodia, where many people are still concerned about their next meal. Democracy cannot take root among people with empty stomachs. Most of Cambodia's 8.5 million people live below the poverty line with an estimated per capita GNP of less than $100. It is a country which is perennially short of food. I've heard a view, expressed by Son Sann among others, that economic or development aid should not be sent to Cambodia until after the election, that is, to extend the international embargo for more than another year! This seems to be the current policy of the international community.

I think this view is wrong. Firstly, there is no excuse for continuing to punish the people of Cambodia by denying them their entitlements to international aid as citizens of a member country of the world community.

Secondly, the election simply cannot be held in an unstable political and military environment, such as that which is fostered by the world's continuing enforcement of Cambodian poverty. Unless the country's economic and communications infrastructure is maintained and developed, and other sectors (such as education) allowed to function with appropriate assistance as in any other Third World country, the UN presence in Cambodia will be ineffective.

Thirdly, if the country is economically impoverished and the people's lives are insecure or threatened, the election will have little meaning for the population, even if its administration goes ahead effectively as planned.

Urgent Assistance is Needed

The UN plans to spend $2 billion on the Peace plan, but so far no money has been targeted to help the people of Cambodia with roads, fertilizer, irrigation systems, clean drinking water, health or training, all important factors in restoring stability for Cambodia. Over the years, the UN Development Program has accumulated, up to now, US$80 million of unspent money earmarked for Cambodia. I urge UNDP not to sit on this fund any longer, but to start spending this money immediately. There are lots and lots of things to be done. Just one example: most of Cambodia's 9,000 miles of highways and provincial roads are in ruin. You cannot have an effective communications system, and thus a democratic election, without being able to move quickly and freely.

It is obvious for visitors to Cambodia that the people's living standard must improve, especially in the rural areas and especially among women, before a democratic election can take place. Women are going to be an important factor in this election, since they are the majority. It is important that women's livelihood is beyond intimidation by political factions. My studies over the last 13 years have shown that women, or families headed by women, have remained persistently poor, and are among the poorest in every village. To improve their living standards, the UN aid should concentrate specially on women. So far, not enough work has been done for them. The SOC government, too, has not been treating their womenfolk favorably enough either, and I think it is time that they improved their record.

I remember reading an American Friends Service Committee report about their income generating project for women in Cambodia. Each family headed by a woman was given vegetable seeds, baby chickens, or ducks, worth $30. With vegetables growing in their gardens and chickens laying eggs under their house the women felt more secure about their family's livelihood than ever before. AFSC has a limited budget and at the time only about 200 families were assisted this way. I could not help calculating that to carry out this project for all families headed by women throughout Cambodia would cost a mere US$10 million. It's peanuts really, compared with the billions of dollars that the UN is planning to spend on other things.

To have a truly democratic election the UN must ensure that the people are physically as well as economically secure to choose their leaders without intimidation. There should be UN observers in every village, not just in the districts as it is planned to do so far.

It is a big job, but this is the only way to go to achieve the UN mandate, which is to find democracy for Cambodia. We must all bear in mind the appalling record of the UN towards the Cambodian people over the last 13 years. An accomplice in mass murder like Thiounn Prasith for example, is still even today running Cambodia's UN Mission-- as he has been for the last 13 years. At last, Prince Sihanouk raised that question recently. So why not rectify the record and make this a first step toward democracy that the UN can take for the Cambodian people?

I would like to end by informing you that the English version of this book, Punishing the Poor, has recently lost the support of its publisher and distributor. Since its first publication in 1988, Oxfam has been publishing and distributing it in the UK. But in 1991, the official UK Charity Commission criticized Oxfam, for having "persecuted with too much vigour" its public education campaign on the nature of the Pol Pot regime and the threat of its return. I can assure you that Cambodian people do not share that view. But because of the pressure from the UK Charity Commission, Oxfam ceased its distribution of this book, which now becomes unavailable. We must note here that the UK is a member of the UN Permanent 5. With friends like this in high places, one can hardly feel optimistic about the prospects for the poor under the UN Peace Plan. Can states that enforce the withdrawal from circulation of politically unacceptable books demand the right even to teach democracy to Cambodia, let alone to impose on it the return of the Khmer Rouge?

Nonetheless, after 13 years of punishment, I hope that the UN feels that it owes the Cambodian people, and rectifies its stand. Of course, there is no shortage of people who will watch the UN carefully int he process of finding lasting peace and true democracy for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge threat must be ended. The process must succeed.

Chanthou Boua was born in Kompong Cham province, Cambodia. After attending Phnom Penh University, she gained degrees in economics, education and sociology from the University of New South Wales, Melbourne State College and the University of Wollongong. She is author of Children of the Killing Fields (University of Wollongong Center for Multicultural Studies, 1990) and co-editor of Peasantas and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981 (London and New York, 1982) and of Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-77 (Yale Southeast Asia Council, 1988). She has worked on various aid programs in Cambodia. Ms. Boua gave this paper at the Conference on Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia, Yale University Law School, 21-22 February 1992. The paper will be included in a forthcoming collection from the conference.

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