The view from Phnom Penh


HELEN JARVIS spent 10 days in Cambodia in December, her third visit to that country. She describes the changes that had taken place since her last visit three years earlier, and an interview with the deputy foreign minister about the prospects for peace.

At a superficial level, much has changed in the city. Motorbikes, and even private cars, tear down the streets in a wild cacophony from dawn until curfew — still at 9.00 p.m. — making the informal traffic rules quite inadequate. The one traffic light and the occasional policeman standing on a pedestal at peak hour manage to put only a mild brake on the madness.

Many more shops have reopened, and the shopfronts are brightly painted, some with decorative and even flashing lights at night. Restaurants have sprung up everywhere, stocked with all kinds of liquor and beer — (Fosters sells at 50 cents a can!). Photocopy and one-hour film developing shops abound, and the markets are stocked with all manner of goods from East and West.

This is the private sector, burgeoning under the liberalisations introduced progressively since 1987 in response both to internal demand and to pressures from the West as one of the prices Cambodia must pay for recognition.

The public sector, by contrast, looks much as it did three years ago, and in many areas things have got even worse. While medicines can be bought across the counter (if you have the cash, and dollars are preferred), the hospitals and medical centres are woefully equipped.

The past year's Khmer Rouge offensives have caused around 200,000 people to flee their homes and seek refuge in camps with virtually no facilities — not even latrines and clean drinking water.

Around 800 to 1000 people every month lose their limbs, stepping on landmines or picking up explosives shaped like toys. But the Ministry of Social Action has almost no resources. The prosthesis workshop in Phnom Penh can produce only 1000 artificial limbs a year, and the government the resources to provide pensions or jobs for so many people with disabilities.

Recent developments in Eastern Europe spell more difficulties for Cambodia, for almost all their aid — estimated to underpin some 50% of the economy — is being withdrawn. Crates of building materials have recently arrived at the University of Phnom Penh but the engineers are not there any more, and the language teachers are about to return home.

Recognition blocked by Evans plan

At the end of 1989 it seemed as though a breakthrough might occur in securing Western recognition. The alleged obstacle to normalisation (Vietnamese military assistance against the Khmer Rouge) had disappeared, but instantly another was conjured up.

Independent recognition of the State of Cambodia was said to jeopardise a "comprehensive peace settlement". Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans took on the leading role of promoting this proposal, originally floated by US member of Congress Stephen Solarz.

Over a year has now been spent in and negotiating this paper castle plan for a UN administration pending internationally supervised elections. The bottom line in this "settlement" has been Khmer Rouge participation, and forcing the Cambodian government to accept this has demoralised the populace while giving the Khmer Rouge time to press forward its military campaign.

I met with Sok An, deputy foreign minister, on December 9, my last day in Cambodia. I had just heard on Radio Australia of Evans' statement in parliament rebuffing pressures from the Australian community to extend diplomatic recognition and restore normal relations with the State of Cambodia. Evans said that Australia would, instead, continue with the "peace process" aimed at achieving a "comprehensive political settlement".

Earlier, from November 23 to 26, five permanent members of the UN Security Council had met in Paris together with the UN secretary-general and the co-chairs of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia (the foreign ministers of France and Indonesia). They voted to adopt a full draft of the comprehensive political settlement, presented as a logical extension of what the Cambodian parties had themselves agreed to in Jakarta in September.

'Violation of sovereignty'

However, Sok An insisted that this document goes far beyond the Jakarta agreement, and the UN role elaborated therein is "a flagrant violation of Cambodia's sovereignty". The proposal that the State of Cambodia's army be demobilised prior to elections is unacceptable, as it is the only force able to prevent a Khmer Rouge return.

Likewise, the deconstruction of the State of Cambodia and National Coalition Government of Cambodia is rejected, as they are necessary until elections are held in order to allow daily life to continue.

What is needed immediately, said Sok An, is a cessation of military supplies to all parties and a strictly controlled cease-fire. This would create conditions in which the country could move towards elections and the installation of a new government.

China has announced that it ceased military supplies in September 1990, but Sok An said there was evidence of arms continuing to reach the Khmer Rouge, who had in the past year acquired a large number of tanks, escalating substantially their military capacity.

On the impasse over the Supreme National Council, Sok An rejected claims that the State of Cambodia was not respecting the Jakarta agreement. It was the Coalition that had moved its position dramatically — originally not even proposing Sihanouk as a member of the SNC and subsequently demanding that he become a presiding 13th member. The Cambodian government had even agreed to this change provided parity was maintained through the addition of Hun Sen as the 14th member and vice-chairman.

Sok An concluded by stressing than an Australian move towards independent recognition and normalisation of relations with Cambodia would be a far more valuable contribution than continuation of the protracted process of trying to conciliate with the Khmer Rouge.

Many Australians agree with this view and are urging the government to take a new line. The Australian Cambodia Support Committee, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid and agencies such as Freedom From Hunger, Community Aid Abroad and APHEDA have urged this course. Australian journalist John Pilger has made a similar call in letters to the newspapers and in his third film on Cambodia (not yet shown on Australian television although screened in over 30 other countries).

We simply cannot allow the Khmer Rouge to retain tacit backing and support from the UN and to hold the peace process to ransom while the people and government of Cambodia remain isolated and unsupported.