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A Democracy That Can't Make It on Its Own

June 01, 1997|Peter Eng | Peter Eng is a former Associated Press correspondent who covered Southeast Asia

PHNOM PENH — An upsurge in political violence here has prompted calls for renewed outside intervention before events spiral out of control. The United States should take notice, perhaps even rethink its sometimes too-cautious posture. Having made a substantial diplomatic investment in Cambodia, Washington must not betray the democratic hopes it has kindled in Cambodia's people.

The United States, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council, brokered the 1991 Cambodian peace treaty signed in Paris. It and other U.N. members mounted a $2-billion peacekeeping mission that organized elections in May 1993. But the resulting coalition government has been torn by bitter feuding between Co-Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The stakes have risen recently as each tries to strengthen his hand in preparation for the November 1998 election, which will produce one prime minister.

The army remains split along party lines. In February, soldiers of the two sides clashed in a northwestern province. On March 30, grenades were thrown at a demonstration in Phnom Penh led by Ranariddh's ally, opposition leader Sam Rainsy. At least a dozen people were killed, more than 100 injured. (This past week, Sam Rainsy said a Cambodian police investigation, aided by American FBI agents, has concluded that Hun Sen appears to have been behind the attack.) On May 4, attackers shot up a pro-Hun Sen TV station studio in the southern city of Sihanoukville, killing one person and injuring two. In addition, Hun Sen threatened violence against former Foreign Minister Prince Norodom Sirivudh, a relative of Ranariddh, if he returned from exile in Paris. Tensions escalated when Hun Sen was accused of masterminding an attempted revolt of legislators against Ranariddh's leadership.

But contrary to newspaper headlines, Cambodia is nowhere near chaos and, presuming leaders stay rational, renewed war appears unlikely because all sides stand to lose from it. Much of the tension arises from the chest-beating bombast of the co-prime ministers, and the alarms raised by Sam Rainsy as he tries to incite the world to intervene in Cambodia.

The fundamental problem is that none of the major Cambodian factions know how to share power. Cambodia's traditional political culture, accentuated by continuous civil conflict from 1970 to 1991, is based on personalization and concentration of power, intolerance of opposition and the inability to resolve conflicts except by force.

Legislative preparations for the '98 election have been slow because "both sides want to ensure they are going to win," says Pok Than, chairman of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, a lobbying group of NGOs. "That's why there's been so much difficulty passing the electoral law. It's not difficult to have a good law. What's difficult is a self-serving law."

It's difficult to see how Cambodia's political crisis can be resolved internally. There are no state institutions capable of reconciliation efforts. King Norodom Sihanouk, 74, in ailing health, recently rejected calls for him to intercede.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the grenade attack, 41 members of Cambodia's National Assembly asked the United Nations to consider measures to deal with the "'rapidly deteriorating" political and human rights situation. They noted that the Paris treaty commits its 19 signatories--including the United States and other members of the U.N. Security Council--to intervene if needed to ensure that the treaty is not violated.

U.S. policy has been criticized for being too reliant on quiet diplomacy, although Congress has been more vocal than the administration. In April, the Cambodian co-prime ministers received a strongly worded letter from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R--Huntington Beach), a member of the House's International Relations Committee. Condemning the attack on Rainsy's rally as a terrorist act, Rohrabacher warned that if a similar attack occurred again, he would move to have Cambodia's most-favored-nation trading status revoked and withhold future U.S. assistance.

The chairman of the Cambodian National Assembly's human rights commission, Kem Sokha, says the United States and other countries fear that if they apply stronger pressure on the government for democratic reform, it might upset Cambodia's political stability. He contends that since their statements of concern aren't having much effect, countries should take action, such as restricting international economic aid, which accounts for half of Cambodia's national budget and thus basically keeps the government afloat. Conditions attached to aid might include specific steps the Cambodian government must take--such as passage of electoral laws and formation of an independent electoral commission--within a specific time frame.

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