Cambodia's years of chaotic change

Issue 

By Lenore Tardif

Mark Deasey has worked with Quaker Service Australia in Cambodia for the past four years. Back in Australia, he talked to Green Left Weekly about the changes he has witnessed and his view of the peace process.

"When I arrived in Cambodia in 1988 it was still a 'socialist state', with the People's Revolutionary Party the single dominant political force. There were a large range of mass organisations, and the whole party apparatus was built on Vietnamese and Eastern European models. But there was little collectivisation of land, and 95% of retail trade was in private hands. Cambodia was described as the least communist of communist countries.

"The USSR initiated aid to Cambodia in the 1960s under Sihanouk. From 1979, the USSR and eastern bloc countries were the largest providers of aid, with more than 1500 experts and aid workers in the country."

Working out of Phnom Penh as a field coordinator, Deasey saw reconstruction bankrupted by the sudden withdrawal of eastern bloc aid and personnel. The Chamlar Doung (Agricultural Training Institute) and the Cambodian Soviet Friendship Institute (the only technical training institute) were left in chaos.

"Some multilateral aid and non-government aid from Western countries tried to fill the gap. UNESCO paid the salaries of the Soviet staff at the Technical Institute, and the West German NGO, SODI, replaced areas of East German aid. But aid replacement process was complicated by the imperative that the newly installed Supreme National Council be the route of all Western aid, and not the Phnom Penh government."

When he arrived in 1988, Deasey said, he could count maybe 12 private cars in Phnom Penh. There was a rapid increase in the next few years. "The free market reforms in 1989 saw a small percentage of the population grow very rich while the poor remained the same or became poorer. Growth has been in the non-productive service economy, with a burgeoning of export-import industries. Most people were unsure of the future, and those who could were getting as rich as possible while the going was good."

Deasey describes what is happening now as an unplanned and uncontrolled transition from centrally controlled economy to open slather free enterprise. For example, income tax is currently almost non-existent while large personal fortunes are being made.

"There has been quite rapid and chaotic change in Cambodia over the last few years. The commitment and skills of many people in government administration and in communities remain profoundly impressive given the adverse conditions they have been working under. o underestimate the degree of trauma that still exists just because it is balanced by tremendous reserves of resilience", Deasey stressed.

When the United Nations Transitional Authority arrived in Cambodia, the influx of thousands of troops and hundreds of civilian personnel helped push inflation to extraordinary levels.

At the same time "the Khmer Rouge have not yet complied with the provisions of the peace agreement; have held out disarming and demobilising their troops; have not allowed access to UN administrators into areas under their control; and have shot at UN troops."

Deasey says a tentative optimism exists among the population that the elections scheduled for May 1993 will bring about some kind of workable government and some sort of peace.

"But a deep degree of disenchantment is felt for all political parties. Sihanouk retains popular with the older population and in rural areas but is also deeply distrusted by many because of his alliance with the Khmer Rouge and his many changes in positions. Younger people are not impressed by monarchical-style politics.

"The supposed support for the Khmer Rouge, spoken of by many Western journalists, is very limited and in many cases illusionary. While there have been reports of the Khmer Rouge conducting 'hearts and minds' operations in areas under their control, there are numerous examples of indiscriminate murders and pillaging, the targets of which have been the poor peasants whose interests they claim to defend."

Deasey feels that the containment of the Khmer Rouge hinges not only on UN, but also upon political developments in Thailand.

"Certain Thai generals have for a long time acted as middle men for the Khmer Rouge commercial operations, and if current moves in Thailand to limit political power and restrict the commercial role of the military are successful, this will be a severe blow to the Khmer Rouge supply lines", Deasey notes.

Mark Deasey is meeting with Quaker groups around Australia to update them on the Cambodian work carried out by the Quaker Service in Australia.

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