Recently returned from three months in Phnom Penh, HELEN JARVIS describes the problems facing Cambodia as it attempts to implement the peace agreement signed in Paris last October.
On December 16, welcoming Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the country faced a crisis as a result of pressures from the resistance coalition to convert the Supreme National Council into a quadripartite national government. The coalition was demanding a role in administering at least the five key ministries of foreign affairs, finance, information, interior and defence (a formula definitively rejected by the State of Cambodia during negotiations in 1990-1991).
The peace agreement involves a complex definition of power and relationships between four centres of political authority: the SNC; the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia; the State of Cambodia (SOC) government (which has administered 80-90% of the country); and the resistance coalition of three factions (with separate areas of authority along the border and camps of refugees in Thailand, and which appears to be operating less and less as a single coalition).
In the months since the signing of the agreement, there has been little progress. The SNC itself did not meet inside Cambodia until January, because of the public attack on Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan and his hasty departure within hours of returning to Cambodia on November 27. The Khmer Rouge leaders are still living in Thailand and only coming in for brief visits to attend SNC meetings or to meet occasional foreign dignitaries, such as the Chinese foreign minister.
The two KR delegates to the SNC (Khieu Samphan and Son Sen) are seldom inside Cambodia at the same time, and their military and civilian officials are not participating in the day to day functioning of the SNC Secretariat, the Military Working Group and other ongoing bodies.
In many ways, the SOC is well placed to consolidate its own authority and international standing in this interim period, as international agencies, foreign missions and business representatives begin to stream into Phnom Penh. Although diplomatic accreditation has been technically to the SNC, offices, aid and business operations are being established in SOC-controlled territory, and all contracts, utilities, rentals, purchases etc are being conducted through the SOC administration.
The standing of the SOC was strengthened considerably by Norodom Sihanouk's decision to return to Phnom Penh and to begin
to function at a day to day level with the SOC — the only faction operating in the city. The announcement in November of a political, military and even possibly a governmental coalition between SOC and the faction formerly led by Sihanouk, and now by his son, Norodom Ranariddh, made it seem as though the other two factions (the Khmer Rouge and the KPNLF) were becoming increasingly marginalised, particularly since their leaders were not establishing bases in Phnom Penh but, as Sihanouk put it, "scuttling like crabs to all corners of the world".
However, problems within the national government and various city and provincial administrations may prevent the SOC from reaping the political kudos and authority that should logically be its due as 12 years of political and economic isolation draw to a close.
On December 20, Hun Sen sacked the minister for transport and communications and his three vice-ministers after public rallies brought forward evidence that they had pocketed money from the sale of government assets.
This is a critical issue because the SOC faces an acute economic crisis in this transitional period. The removal of economic assistance from the eastern bloc, which was estimated at 80% of the national budget, has kicked the props out from under the government. This dramatic loss, combined with the political and economic liberalisation adopted by the government in stages since 1985 in an attempt to win western recognition, has left the government floundering economically and subject to the mercy of market forces.
As foreigners move back to Phnom Penh and look for accommodation and offices, houses are commanding US$1 million price tags, or monthly rentals of US$1-5,000, while senior government officials are still on salaries of around US$30 a month (and are often months in arrears or given one month's pay for six weeks' work). Many units of government appear to have decided that the only way out is to sell off everything they have at their disposal. But considerable disquiet is being expressed at precious public assets being sold off, some at bargain basement rates, with the proceeds not necessarily going into the public purse.
As well as depriving the country of future assets, these fire sales have other repercussions. Hundreds of workers are losing their jobs (like the 111 employees of the Kampuchea Weekly printing house, which is to be sold) or their chance to supplement their salaries by growing vegetables (like the 120 employees of the Defence Department who protested the sale of a vacant lot).
Thousands of poor people have been evicted from public buildings, vacant lots and houses which had been their homes for the past decade as the Municipality of Phnom Penh responds to the insatiable demand for land by foreigners and overseas Cambodians. There is even talk of selling off the land on which these displaced squatters have now been rehoused in camps on the outskirts of the city!
While corruption in Cambodia is probably no worse than elsewhere (neighbouring Thailand for instance) or in other factions (a senior and long-standing political adviser to Sihanouk walked out in December over the same issue), it is politically unacceptable in a country that has suffered so much and whose people are expecting that peace will bring benefits to all.
On the very morning the shootings occurred, Hun Sen was on radio and television explaining his sacking of the officials and appealing to civil servants not to "commit inappropriate acts", but at the same time appealing to the demonstrators not to run riot. "Cambodia will become a lawless country, with no-
one listening to anyone, and anarchic ... and the war will inevitably resume because the [peace] agreement cannot be implemented".
A demonstration outside the Municipality office on December 21 protesting against such developments that led to killings. Students at the nearby Medical Faculty were observing and discussing the demonstration when police moved onto the campus to disperse them. "This was a police manifestation [demonstration] not a student manifestation", one student said to me.
Shots were fired, mostly into the air, but I saw one bullet hole in a wall only 10 centimetres from the ground, and one student was apparently beaten to unconsciousness and later died. Five students were taken away, and their return became the focus of the student protest, which increased throughout the day and moved on to the National Assembly and then to the city's central police station, where the students thought their colleagues were being held. It was here that the shooting took place. Apparently most of those (as many as nine) were hit by ricocheting bullets when police fired at the ground.
A broadcast of a press conference held the morning after the shootings by foreign minister Hor Namhong was shown on television. He spoke in Khmer, but with English translation. "This was an armed insurrection with a political aim ... They want to create instability for the government. They want to prevent the implementation of the Paris peace accord."
He hinted at Khmer Rouge responsibility for the violence, saying, "We don't know exactly who they are, but you are fully aware who we have fought, who we have struggled against for the last 13 years". Hor Namhong said that "armed elements" were hiding in the area where the worst violence occurred, and that one of them had been shot down from his position on the roof of a hotel. He described this person as "not a normal person, and not a student either", aged over 40, with long hair and no identification papers, and with grenades around his waist. This important statement was not carried in the print media until after it was released by the government SPK news agency on Tuesday!
Hun Sen reaffirmed his previous statement (made after the attack on Khieu Samphan) that he would not use force against his own people, who had the right to express their political views in demonstrations. However, in January the National Assembly passed legislation to define and limit the circumstances in which people can demonstrate.
The Khmer Rouge issued a statement on December 24 denying any link with the riots. In early January the Khmer Rouge radio was quoted as stating that demonstrations had taken place on December 28 "to oppose the corruption practised by the Vietnamese ... officials" in Siem Reap.
On January 24, Amnesty International issued a report disputing a number of points in the government statements. In particular, it claimed that it had information about the death of eight people (seven by gunshot and one from beating, four of whom were identified by name and age), and had received reports on the deaths of at least three more people and 26 people hospitalised for injuries received in the demonstrations. The report went on to say that eyewitnesses reported no firing on the police, and it called on the government to issue a full list of all people detained during the demonstrations, urging the release of those held "solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions".
While the city seemed to calm down in early January, violence continued to escalate in the countryside. Government troops have been pulled back prior to their demobilisation, as agreed in the Paris accords. But these areas have in many cases been quickly penetrated by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
In some districts of Kompong Chhnang and Kompong Cham, health services have been suspended because it has become too dangerous for teams of workers to venture off the beaten track. In addition to KR military activity, one hears many reports of bandits, some of whom may be demobilised or renegade government soldiers
who have not been paid in recent months.
In Kompong Thom, fighting between the two military forces resulted in more than 10,000 refugees. In a number of provinces officials and police have been assassinated and others threatened unless they leave their government jobs. These threats are not regarded lightly, and have been accompanied by attempts to set up "village levels SNCs", calling for the dismantling of the present government administration and the formal integration of opposition forces at all levels, quite in contradiction to what was agreed in Paris.
In late January political violence returned to Phnom Penh, two prominent critics of the government being attacked in broad daylight. On January 22, Tea Bun Long was kidnapped from outside his house and taken to the outskirts of the city, where he was killed. He was a Buddhist political leader, tipped to head the new Ministry of Religion, but had been known to express some sharp criticism of government corruption. The following week, Um Phang was shot on the street outside his house, but he managed to survive the attack after surgery, and was given refuge by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Um Phang, a former minister, was only recently released from 17 months in jail for attempting to form an opposition political party.
"Long's killing was ordered by a powerful faction within the government which is afraid of losing power in the liberalised political situation brought about by UN intervention... [and] is said to be the work of senior government leaders who have split with Prime Minister Hun Sen over the terms of the peace accord", Nate Thayer wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, citing "diplomats and opposition leaders". Some Cambodian journalists and government officials I spoke with took a different view, believing that the incidents are part of a campaign to discredit and weaken the government in the lead-up to the elections.
The pressures on the SOC government are tremendous, but so are the opportunities. If it can halt the wholesale sell-off and end or at least curb corruption and re-establish its moral authority among the population, then it stands to lead the process of rebuilding Cambodia. If not, continuing difficult days lie ahead.