Phnom Penh: a mood of cautious optimism

Wednesday, July 3, 1991

By Helen Jarvis

PHNOM PENH — A more confident and optimistic mood prevails here compared to six months ago, when I last visited Cambodia. The government managed to hold firm against the opposition forces during their 1990-1991 dry season offensive.

Some worrying assaults were mounted, with shells fired into Battambang in January, and a Khmer Rouge attack force coming within several kilometres of Kampot in April. Small parties of Khmer Rouge guerillas penetrated more deeply into the country, harassing and intimidating anyone who cooperates with the government — health workers, teachers and so on. At least two trains were ambushed and government workers taken off and executed. And the dreaded mine laying operations continued, with around 80 Cambodians every day having limbs blasted away.

But the resistance did not manage to seize significantly more territory, and their presence in a district tended to drive thousands more people to flee their homes in fear of the return of the genocidal regime, indicating that they are by no means winning hearts and minds.

Since the Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in September 1989, the government has managed to hold fast militarily and continue to function throughout 90% of the country, despite all the cynical allegations that, as a "Vietnamese puppet", it could not survive on its own.

The economic situation, however, is quite problematic. The dramatic cutbacks in economic assistance from Eastern Europe (which used to account for 80% of foreign aid) and the introduction of a free market and other forms of economic liberalisation (forced on the government as a desperate measure to gain Western support) have led to a bizarre contrast between a booming private sector and a steadily crumbling government infrastructure.

This contrast is dramatically evident in the question of electricity. The government can barely afford to purchase any fuel, and so the city area containing government offices is lucky to have electricity for one or two hours a day — the university has not had any power for over two months!

At the same time, private interests can buy generators and as much fuel as they can afford. Shiploads of diesel fuel are being unloaded at the port to provide power for discos and decorative fairy lights and signs. Flashing lights, air-conditioning and disco bands, complete with strobes, set the scene for nightly displays of ostentatious wealth.

New cars unload jewellery and silk-bedecked dancers to drink cases of imported beer and brandy, while amputees look on from the side of the street with no social security, and not even a fraction of them can even hope to get an artificial limb — the waiting list is over 25,000!

With no prospect of a resumption in aid from the eastern bloc, the economic crisis is the main pressure on the State of Cambodia to make political concessions to win international recognition.

This led the government last year to agree to the framework for a comprehensive political settlement involving power sharing with the opposition coalition, in the establishment of a Supreme National Council which includes the Khmer Rouge and allows for some UN participation in Cambodia in the lead-up to general elections. The SNC has been formally constituted, but has yet to function, due to continuing disagreement over a number of aspects.

The relationship of forces has certainly shifted in favour of the State of Cambodia over the past six months, and this was manifested at the Jakarta SNC in early June, when Norodom Sihanouk indicated that he might envisage a reunion with the government even if the Khmer Rouge does not join in.

Sihanouk's announcement that he would return to Phnom Penh in November, regardless of developments in the negotiation process, gave cause for some cautious optimism. The government's resolve was also expressed on June 19 at the 40th anniversary of the founding of the armed forces, when President Heng Samrin categorically rejected any demobilisation prior to the holding of general elections. This increased strength and confidence in Phnom Penh could lead to achievements at the negotiation table in the coming months.

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