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A Victim of Racist Realpolitik

July 19, 1998|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press reporter, has been covering Cambodia since the 1980s

POIPET, CAMBODIA — At a time when public discontent sweeps out autocrats as entrenched as Indonesia's Suharto, there is plenty of hope for Cambodia, a much smaller country where opposition groups have been more vocal. But short term, Cambodia appears headed for more spasms of abuse after next Sunday's general election. Those who have endured the sad aftermath of the last election, which U.N. peacekeepers organized in 1993, say that the United States, from the beginning, must use all its economic and political leverage to keep the new government in line.

It may be a mistake to invest too much hope in the election per se. The choices are poor and the conditions for immediate real change do not yet exist, particularly independent courts, police and other institutions to check whoever is in power.

The election comes a year after former Communist Hun Sen ousted his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a coup, and after the murders and widespread intimidation of opposition supporters. This time, there will be only one prime minister. If Hun Sen wins, humanrights abuses may continue. If the opposition triumphs, the first problem may be to get Hun Sen to respect the result. There are reasons to worry.

In 1993, Hun Sen lost but, using military threats, dominated the new government. Second, an opposition prime minister would have to confront a government and security apparatus that functions as an extension of Hun Sen's party. Third, most opposition leaders, including Ranariddh, are as autocratic and corrupt as Hun Sen. If a fairly balanced Hun Sen-opposition coalition is elected, there may be violent infighting, as in the previous coalition government.

After the last election, countries did not focus enough on building institutions in Cambodia, especially institutions to punish abusive officials and create a culture of accountability. "The international community is not patient in this area, the long, painstaking process of building civil institutions," says Dennis McNamara, who was a senior official of the U.N. peacekeeping force and now is with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Bridges are easier to see than talking about legal capacity." The only way to achieve democracy in Cambodia, he says, is for countries to require specific reforms from the government in exchange for political and economic support.

Why hasn't the world pushed harder for reform, and for better conditions for this election?

A scholar of Cambodia, Steve Heder, told a recent Senate subcommittee hearing that the country's future was threatened by a "racist realpolitik" among foreign diplomats: the idea that "Cambodians do not want, do not need and are incapable of handling democracy," so there was nothing to be gained by pressuring for it. He said diplomats supported Hun Sen because, politically, economically and militarily, he was someone with whom you could do business, whereas Ranariddh was feckless.

The United States has demonstrated this realpolitik by progressively backing down in the year since it led condemnation of the coup and by positively spinning recent events in Cambodia. While Cambodian politicians, independent election monitors, the U.N. envoy for human rights and international human rights groups have decried the attacks on opposition supporters and warned that a free and fair election was not possible, U.S. and European Union officials have been talking of "significant progress" and a smooth preelection period.

Sam Rainsy, whose pro-democracy party is often targeted by thugs, threatened to boycott the election. He urged foreign countries to work for a postponement until conditions improved. But Sam Rainsy had to back down when outside support did not materialize and only he stood to lose from a boycott. "They turn a blind eye to many shortcomings and irregularities because they want to wash their hands of Cambodia quickly," Sam Rainsy said.

Privately, some diplomats do talk of a calculated gamble in which they are willing to tolerate abuses in Cambodia in the short term. They want the election held because they see no other hope of breaking the current political impasse. They contend it might be better if Hun Sen wins, because he alone controls the security forces and thus can keep the country "stable" long enough for democratic institutions, like opposition parties and media, to develop and create hope for real change. These diplomats say there are reformers within Hun Sen's party. Some even believe that Hun Sen is a democrat at heart.

From the trading town of Poipet bordering Thailand, the outlook is not so sunny. People are dying from an outbreak of cholera. Some 41,000 refugees from fighting and turmoil since the coup cram U.N.-aided camps along the border north and south of here. Most are still too scared to return home.

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