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[Six Questions]

Six Questions for John Scott-Railton on Cambodia


While completing a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, John Scott-Railton helped develop “participatory mapping” projects aimed at protecting the fragile property rights of poor families living in Phnom Penh. While there he became an advocate of transparency in Cambodia’s natural resource management. Scott-Railton, now a doctoral student at the University of California-Los Angeles, has traveled extensively in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia. I recently asked him six questions about the political situation in Cambodia and the role there of the international community. (Note: For a look at the apparel industry in Cambodia, which is promoted by industry as the “anti-sweatshop country,” see my piece in the January issue of Harper’s.)

1. In theory, Cambodia has emerged as a multiparty democracy with political freedoms. What’s the general state of democracy in Cambodia?

Faltering. You can still find opposition members in the National Assembly, but the ruling party has overwhelming political, social, and military power. The stubborn few parliamentarians who refuse to play along have been stripped of immunity. Right now several face prosecution. The royalists were the last rival to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), but they split in 2007. Many suspect the CPP orchestrated the breakup. In the 2008 elections the party further consolidated its power, facing only a hodgepodge of smaller parties vying for a few seats.

Radio and television are tightly controlled in Cambodia. Public dissent can also be dangerous. Journalist Khem Sambo and his son were publicly gunned down in the run up to the 2008 elections. He’d been investigating high-level corruption. A local human rights group has documented at least 40 extrajudicial killings by police, soldiers and officials in 2008 alone. I’ve witnessed the fear of Cambodian colleagues who have received threats. It doesn’t really matter whether these acts were sanctioned by the regime or were committed by party loyalists for personal reasons: Cambodians can see that violence happens to dissidents. It doesn’t take many deaths to make many feel it is prudent to keep criticisms to themselves.

2. What’s the status and impact of the genocide trials?

After years of negotiation, the UN managed to orchestrate the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, aka the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The first trial just wrapped up. Kaing Geuk Eav, prison warden of notorious S21 prison, faces a life sentence. The verdict should be handed down in January.

The calculated barbarities of the Khmer Rouge touched every family in the country. Cambodians yearn for the airing of testimony and the public trial of those responsible. But many clearly weren’t satisfied by the limited opportunity for victims’ testimony, or the slow pace of the proceedings, which are not expected to end before 2015. After waiting three decades for justice, it’s easy to see why many are impatient. Cambodians see the high-profile accused perpetrators are old and frail. One already has died in custody. It’s anybody’s guess how many will be alive to face potential life sentences.

Many Cambodians aren’t convinced about the independence of the process. The trials have been plagued with financial trouble as donors struggle to negotiate funding amid corruption allegations against trial officials and concern about the impartiality of the proceedings. They have also been subject to a great deal of interference from the regime. This has led many to believe that the trials will not address the links between powerful figures in the current regime and the Khmer Rouge.

3. How’s the economy doing? Is there a risk of the “resource curse”?

Cambodia’s natural resources (old growth forests, precious and metallic minerals, and oil) are disappearing into the opaque maw of the ruling elite. Take forestry: Over 30% of the country’s forest cover disappeared in the first half of this decade. But accurate maps of what the regime sold and to whom remain hidden behind the tinted windows of the Forestry Administration.

In the 1990s, so-called anarchic logging was the problem. Under substantial international pressure, the government shut down those small operators. But logging didn’t even pause. It just became a military operation, under the pretext of developing the forests for agriculture. Global Witness has shown that close associates of the Prime Minister were involved in these dealings. Cambodia banned their reports and kicked the organization’s team out of the country.

The discovery of oil came relatively recently. Proven reserves are capable of generating an estimated $1.5 billion plus peak yearly revenue. When rights were negotiated in a secret bidding process, Chevron got the largest bloc. Whatever Chevron paid for the privilege doesn’t show up in the national budget. I don’t think anyone expects oil revenues will do much for the average Cambodian.

4. What’s the role of the international community, especially the United States?

The regime has been dependent on Western aid from day one, and knows that allowing the international community access to policy-making is a good way to raise revenue. The regime sees new revenue on the horizon, including from Chevron, and it has responded by closing some of these doors. The international community is having a hard time adjusting to this.

I’m not sure that the U.S. thinks that our assistance is effectively promoting democracy at the moment. Direct aid to Cambodia was blocked until 2007, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge era. In a quid-pro-quo, the US agreed to restore direct aid in exchange for greater protection for opposition leaders and civil society freedoms. It was an interesting move, but not very effective. Several vocal parliamentarians have had their immunity stripped. Although some U.S. congressmen have voiced some strong concerns at home, we haven’t frozen the aid.

Many suspect that U.S. competition with the expansion of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia helps explain why aid continues to flow. Although its ambitions aren’t clear, China has worked hard to make itself a more attractive partner to the regime, offering aid and investments with fewer strings attached. The U.S. knows this isn’t exactly a hard sell, and may be reluctant to use aid to foster democracy when it is trying to keep a seat at the table. The regime has loosened the conditions on its aid by encouraging two powers to compete for influence.

5. What about the World Bank? Has it played a positive role?

Many feel that the Bank hasn’t consistently monitored its projects on the ground, resulting in a lot of waste, and a lack of accountability. But the Bank’s strategy may be changing. Partly in response to corruption, it has frozen funding for several projects in the past few years. This fall, it scrapped a massive, underperforming land-titling program. It also officially protested the epidemic of Cambodian government land-grabbing. Many observers hope the Bank will seek much more accountability from the government in the future. It can certainly improve its relationship with civil society groups in Cambodia by becoming more accountable and transparent itself.

6. Cambodia is flooded with international NGOs. What sort of impact have they had?

The record of NGOs in Cambodia is very mixed. If you want to see successes, look at the sectors where aid compliments the government, like public health, education and infrastructure. True, the projects are sometimes wasteful. But this is money that the regime doesn’t have to spend, and progress it can take credit for. The picture is different in sectors key to the regime’s revenue and political control. Organizations working on governance, natural resource management or civil society keep getting out-maneuvered. Some great people have dedicated themselves to Cambodia for the long haul. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of well-intentioned Westerners who show up without the background, experience or language to match the regime’s politicking. This plays into the regime’s efforts to paint international campaigners as clueless meddlers. Resentment of foreign influence and national pride continue to alienate many Cambodians from the NGOs.

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