Cambodia Winks at West, Leans Toward East

In 1993, with thousands of their peacekeepers and civilian personnel working for the UN Trans­itional Authority in Cambo­dia, the international community watched and monitored Cambo­dia’s first ever free and fair elections.

It was the most expensive operation then undertaken by the UN, and the outcome was praised for bringing a fledgling democracy to war-wracked Cambodia, which had endured more than 20 years of conflict and dictatorship.

After 12 years experimenting with a taste of democracy, Cambo­dia’s leaders appear set on ever-clos­er political and economic ties with countries that have largely forsworn democracy, particularly China, historically Vietnam and most recently and controversially, Burma.

Prime Minister Hun Sen last week expresses his support for Bur­ma’s military dictators in a simmering inter-Asean dispute over the Rangoon junta’s suitability to assume Asean’s rotating chairmanship.

Cambodia’s circle of authoritarian and anti-democratic friends is not a concern, say Western and Asian diplomats, but the drift does raise questions about the direction the government is choosing for the country.

“Cambodia, as a small country, has to balance its interests. But Cam­­bodia cannot ignore the big players in the region,” an Asian dip­lomat said on condition of anon­ymity.

In March 2003, Chinese De­puty Premier Wu Yi visited Cam­bo­dia and signed off on a raft of pacts designed to promote trade be­tween the two countries.

By the end of 2004, China was the single largest investor in Cambodia with $80.4 million worth of projects. Previously hold­ing the number one spot, Ma­lay­sia is now a distant second at $23.2 million.

Jimmy Gao, president of the Chi­nese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, said Cambodia lends itself to Chinese business for a variety of reasons—particularly proximity, cultural affinities and close political relations be­tween the two countries.

“More and more Chinese companies are coming to look at in­vest­ing in Cambodia,” he said. “[Cambodia] is one of the most favorable countries in the area.”

In contrast to China, Western countries, Asean countries and Japan contributed less than $13 million in investment.

As the Asian diplomat describ­ed it, the “carrot” Western and other countries employ to continue their in­volvement in Cambodia is aid money, to the tune of around $500 million annually.

But these two influences often act against each other when ap­plied in Cambodia, said Koul Panha, president of the Com­mit­tee for Free and Fair Elec­tions.

Whereas donor aid funding is used to improve quality of life for average Cambodians and implement reforms to create more dem­o­cratic institutions, Chinese and Viet­namese interests often im­ple­ment projects that benefit themselves and the ruling elite.

The current crop of Cambo­dian leaders were also schooled in com­­­munism during the Cold War and, at least at that time, be­lieved in the need for a tightly con­trolled society.

“The way they control the coun­try is because they have Chinese training, Vietnamese training,” Koul Panha said.

“To control Cambodian society, they think they need to be strong. They say the West is trying to undermine them,” he said, ad­ding that ordinary Cambodians do not share their leaders’ sentiments.

“They do not accept this ideology,” he said. “People trust the West.”

What the government needs now more than anything else is investment, the Asian diplomat said, adding that aid from the West and other donors is welcome as long as there is no interference.

And the donors know bet­ter than to interfere, the diplomat ad­ded.

“The West will weigh in with their aid, but I’m not sure Cambo­dia will just accommodate what the West wants to achieve,” he said. “[The government is] letting things happen as long as [the West doesn’t] interfere.”

Pointing to the last Con­sultative Group meeting in De­cember, the di­plomat noted that even though re­form was slow to nonexistent, in­ternational aid was not cut. If they did slash aid, donors know, they could lose their last toe-hold of in­fluence in the country, the dip­lo­mat added.

“If they pull out, it allows other countries to move in,” he said.

A Western diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn’t believe Cambodia was moving closer to the Chinese or Vietnamese models, and he felt progress was being made.

“It’s not unusual for most donor aid to be Western aid and business investment to come from major players in the region,” the diplomat said.

The two, Western aid and Chi­nese big business, can work to­gether to help the country get back on its feet, the diplomat ad­ded.

Such rosy optimism is lost on the opposition, who said Western and other donors are bankrolling the government as it cozies up to dictatorial governments, which it is imitating more and more.

“The government doesn’t have close relations with democratic countries because they don’t want democracy applied,” Sam Rainsy Party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said.

The government is simply be­ing pragmatic, co-Minister of De­fense Tea Banh said, adding that Cambodia wants to maintain relations with all countries, regardless of their ideologies.

“Generally, we make friends with every country,” he said.


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