Cambodia (February 1998)
by Dylan Hendrickson, Conciliation Resources February 1998

With less than six months to go until the next scheduled elections, a climate of extreme political uncertainty reigns across the country. Following the violent ousting of Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh by his coalition partner Hun Sen in July 1997, fighting between forces loyal to the two leaders has intensified along the Thai-Cambodian border. Rebel Khmer Rouge forces have rallied behind those supporting Prince Ranariddh resulting in a military stalemate while attempts by neighbouring countries to broker a diplomatic solution have so far been unsuccessful. In the face of Hun Sen’s intransigence regarding an agreement that would allow Prince Ranariddh to return and contest forthcoming elections, the continuing viability of the internationally-sponsored peace process is more than ever in doubt.

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The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements gave rise to UN-sponsored elections in Cambodia two years later which saw the winner Prince Ranariddh forced into a shaky power-sharing arrangement with his former enemy Hun Sen. With the latter effectively maintaining control over the administration and the armed forces, governing became a delicate task of cooperation and compromise. Despite much initial progress, in the absence of genuine reconciliation between the two parties the coalition began to break down.

With the stakes surrounding control of the government growing day by day as elections approached, both sides began to jockey for position by arming themselves and seeking alliances with other political groupings including the Khmer Rouge rebels. Using this as a pretext, Hun Sen’s vastly superior military forces struck quickly in July 1997 seizing control of the government. In the aftermath of the fighting in Phnomh Penh, many of Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party and government officials fled the country. The extra-judicial executions of key military leaders loyal to Ranariddh as well as the subsequent decision of other FUNCINPEC people who had remained in the country, to work with Hun Sen, have left the party deeply divided.

Most opposition politicians have now returned to Cambodia, though Ranariddh himself is faced with the prospect of a trial before an impartial court if he re-enters the country.While an official amnesty from King Sihanouk would clear his son’s name, to ask for this would be an admission of guilt which Ranariddh so far has been unwilling to do. He has instead chosen to remain outside the country in the hope that international pressure can be brought to bear on Hun Sen. So far this strategy has shown few fruits in a climate of increasing international ambiguity over the peace process in Cambodia.

With few notable exceptions the 19 countries which were guarantors of the Paris Agreements seem to be opting for ‘stability’ over the principle of democracy in Cambodia. The failure of Ranariddh’s people to live up to the vast expectations placed upon them when they entered the government has, in the climate of increasing cynicism regarding Cambodian politics, led to a hands-off approach to political developments there by the international community. While it is firmly behind the forthcoming elections and is providing significant funds to organise them, the international community has shown less concern as to whether the elections will be genuinely free or fair. The UN is urging the warring parties to agree to a ceasefire so that, as in the early 90s, all refugees can be repatriated before the elections. Underlying this approach is a dangerous assumption that elections represent a panacea for the country’s political problems.

Few people, either donors or local politicians, are addressing the difficult question of how the government which emerges following elections – which will likely be another coalition – can avoid the same pitfalls as the previous one. Insufficient attention is being paid to how the country’s weak political institutions can be strengthened. Outside Phnomh Penh it is likely that pockets of insecurity will remain across the country for a long time to come. While an ailing Pol Pot has effectively been marginalised within the Khmer Rouge, those in power remain as ready as ever to protect the lucrative economic activities in their zones by military means.

Meanwhile the reconstruction effort continues despite the decision of one major donor – the USA – to cut all but non-essential humanitarian aid in an effort to place pressure on Hun Sen. While Cambodia has continued to receive record amounts of aid in the past few years, the recent political instability has led to a ‘wait and see’ attitude among many other major donors. The humanitarian needs in Cambodia nonetheless remain prodigious with the well-publicised case of some 60,000 refugees in Thailand overshadowing a much more substantive and intractable problem of internal displacement which is not being effectively addressed. With an estimated 50% of prostitutes and 8–10% of soldiers testing HIV positive, the country has another health, social and economic problem that will incapacitate it even if the fighting stops today.

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