≈Ambassador Margaret Adamson will return to Canberra later this month after more than three and a half years at the helm of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh. She spoke with Mark Worley this week about her experiences in Cambodia.
Question: How do you measure how Australia’s interests are advanced by the contribution of tens of millions of dollars in aid to Cambodia each year?
Answer: In terms of Australia’s national interest, we want a region where we can do our business, whether that be on a diplomatic or commercial level, or whether that be in terms of managing security and other threats to our common well-being. Those are, fundamentally, our agenda objectives and clearly part of that, when you are looking at a post-conflict country, is the country emerging as a country where the rule of law is in good shape.
It is often asked of us how we measure the impact we have on the law and justice sector. People ask if we are genuinely seeing movement toward a stronger and more independent judiciary. Obviously, there is a long way to go in what is a complex area to engage in. When you have had the length of conflict and difficulties that this country has experienced, it has had to start again from scratch. There are commentators who criticize the extent and pace of reform. But when you look at the scale of the task, it is important to focus on progress, and to encourage more of this.
Q: Do you believe, however, by focusing on Cambodia’s positive achievements you run the risk of sending mixed messages to a one-party dominant state that also receives criticism from a wide range of international actors?
A: Frankly, I am of the view that if one focuses on the negatives in a country in this particular phase of its development, then you are not going to achieve positive outcomes. But while we focus on positive change, we should at the same time deliver encouragement and firm messages in areas where more progress needs to be made.
There do need to be more opportunities for the expression of views without fear of being prosecuted for defamation or disinformation. The narrowing of democratic space we have seen over the last few years is concerning. But again, we have only now seen important steps being taken forward in terms of filling in the some of the gaps in the legal framework. We need to continue to encourage and look towards good implementation of these laws. The need for more democratic space has certainly been registered [by us] and in the recommendations emerging from the 2008 elections.
Q: Prior to the annual donor meeting in June, you were engaged by NGOs who recommended a moratorium on economic land concessions until adequate safeguards are in place to protect human and legal rights. What is Australia’s position on this issue, and do you believe Australia is doing enough to promote the importance of human rights to the Cambodian government?
A: In terms of human rights generally, our messages are clear. We engage at a number of levels here, and these messages [supporting human rights] are definitely communicated…not just to government, but also to civil society and the business community.
This embassy is located next to important national institutions [to our north], while [to our south] there used to be Group 78. An embassy could not prevent the eviction of Group 78. But what we could do was urge fairness and equity in terms of secure land tenure here and elsewhere. Secure land title is still complicated throughout Cambodia as a result of the dislocation during the Pol Pot era. There are unfortunate developments occurring in other parts of the country too, so while concerned and sympathetic and making active representations on land tenure issues throughout that period, being next door [to Group 78] didn’t make them any more or any less of a concern to us.
In the agricultural sector there is a lot of scrutiny because of the economic land concessions issue. We will be anticipating that there will be a credible review of the economic land concessions [by the government], and coming out of that will be an expectation of more transparency in terms of the granting of these concessions.
Q: What do you think is the single most important obstacle that Cambodia will have to overcome to continue its social and economic growth?
A: In a single package, the rule of law may sum it up, because it underpins so much in terms of the successful operation of national institutions. To me, it encapsulates the practice of democracy and a vibrant, well-functioning and confident society. It encapsulates the police acting as the protectors of the people and being competent in the discharge of their duties. It also encapsulates the judiciary acting with independence, and an effective national effort to combat corruption.
The other issue that is also very important, and that will impact on Cambodia’s future is the sustainability of the Mekong River basin. The sustainability of the Mekong has many factors encapsulated within it. It is the future of agriculture, the future of the fisheries, but it is also the continued thread of Cambodia’s intangible heritage. As someone said to me recently, “if the Tonle Sap stops reversing because of the failure of the Mekong, then the nation’s identity will be at risk.” Not just because they won’t have so many fish to eat but because the water table also supports the Angkor temples, and they are on the flag of Cambodia.
Q: How has Cambodia changed during your three years at the Embassy, and how do you expect it to change over the next three ?
A: I have been here on both sides of the global economic and financial crisis, so I have seen the country move from being a very fast and high performing growing economy, to one that has suffered during the global crisis, and to one that is now emerging.
The impact of that crisis was more troubling than what was initially expected. The analysts suggest that was because the economy was too narrowly based, so there were some impacts there. But now we are seeing the agricultural sector coming through and the banking sector was solid throughout. These two sectors fundamentally held the economy up and positioned the country to move forward. In terms of other change, with the progress being made with the Khmer Rouge tribunal, we have seen the country move from [being] skeptical about the whole point of having these trials, to a country that is, while not quite glued to, certainly closely in touch with the trial.
I expect to see…the bedding down of the economic growth and diversification, and the emergence of a much more confident nation. I think we will see a more demanding population, in terms of what they expect of the government and in terms of opportunity and the rule of law.