If Lao Mong Hay had a say in the matter, the international donors’ meeting in Tokyo would begin with donors asking Cambodia’s leaders three questions:
“What kind of Cambodia do they want to have? A baby is born; in 16 years, what kind of person will he be? What kind of citizen will he be?” asked Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
Those are questions he says the government could not answer.
“There’s no vision, as such,” Lao Mong Hay says.
And by giving money to Cambodia without demanding results, or vision, Lao Mong Hay says, Cambodia’s benefactors are as complicit in Cambodia’s problems as the country’s government.
Lao Mong Hay is not alone. While some donors say they are doing their best to monitor Cambodia’s reform process, many critics see next week’s donor meeting as much a report card for the international community as it is for the Cambodian government.
“This is a moment of truth,” opposition leader Sam Rainsy said this week.
Some critics have argued that the outcome of the donors’ meeting has long been determined, and that donors have already ignored Cambodia’s problems.
“The donors up until now accepted that nothing had happened. I think that the focus of donors was only financial. They should have discovered earlier that there are areas like judicial and political reform,” Peter Koppinger, of the NGO Konrad Adenauer Stiflung, said.
Even though the donors have improved their performance in recent years, Koppinger said they need to do more to “allow Cambodian ownership of the reform process.”
But World Bank Chief of Cambodia Country Office Bonaventure Mbida-Essama disagreed Wednesday, saying critics disregard Cambodia’s “high-level of commitment to reform.”
For instance, most recipient nations do not bother to send their prime minister to such meetings, said Mbida-Essama, whose agency will chair the meeting.
. Prime Minister Hun Sen left Cambodia Wednesday saying he was “optimistic” that requests for more than $500 million would be met. After last year’s meetings, donors gave about $500 million.
“We need $500 million. But we don’t know what the donors think about that. As you know, the economic situation for many countries seems no good, so it could affect the donations. But I still have incentive, like the Buddhist monk asking for food,” Hun Sen said.
If recent interviews with some donors are any indication, the international community is not likely to deny the Cambodian government much.
While all the donors interviewed said they recognized there are “problems” in the government, they said the government still is doing its best.
“We must be realistic in our expectations. Overall, the balance seems positive,” Mbida-Essama said earlier this week.
Japanese Ambassador Gotaro Ogawa, after seeing Hun Sen off at Pochentong Airport Wednesday, echoed Mbida-Essama’s comments, and said donors should have patience with the country’s reform efforts.
“We are always encouraging reforms with regards to governance, and things seem to be progressing. Each issue is in a different context, and each has different degrees to it. I would tell my government that Cambodia is still in the midst of efforts that only started a few years ago,” Ogawa said.
After meeting fellow donors at the World Bank office Wednesday to finalize the donor meeting’s agenda, French Ambassador Andre-Jean Libourel said his government was “listening” to the Cambodian government, but had not decided on how much aid to grant.
Some critics say the donors ignore Cambodia’s corruption and poverty because they have already invested too much in Cambodia to acknowledge a setback. For the first part of the 1990s, Cambodia was essentially governed by the UN and bolstered by several billion dollars of assistance, and foreign aid has continued every year since 1991.
“They have to pretend that Cambodia is still a success story,” Sam Rainsy said.
But donors have raised their concerns, and are trying to be realistic about the progress of reform—especially where it concerns the land law and the Khmer Rouge draft law, Mbida-Essama said Wednesday.
The government promised last year that it would pass both the war crimes tribunal law and a land reform law. Although the government ratified the Khmer Rouge draft law in January, the Constitutional Council quickly struck it down on a technicality, and it has remained dormant ever since.
Hun Sen had said the Khmer Rouge law would be presented to parliament before he left for Tokyo. But Minister of Cabinet Sok An told Reuters this week that the government was too busy and would deal with the draft law after the meeting.
A land law has yet to appear on the government’s agenda.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong said he did not expect donors to bring up the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Tokyo. “Normally, at the [donor meeting] they never even raise the question about the Khmer Rouge at all,” he said.
However, Mbida-Essama said donors will probably ask Cambodia to account for itself on land law, Khmer Rouge and several other matters.
“Yes, the donors are urging the government to move fast on this. We want to be reassured that the will to reform is still there, because reforms have lagged a little bit. It is possible that we have reached a stage of reform where vested interests are starting to be threatened,” he said.
That does not mean that donors will put Cambodia on a timetable—although “we are debating that,” Mbida-Essama said, adding that the donors will have to consider whether there is a “new dynamic” at work. Critics should take care not to get bogged down in the legislative process and lose sight of the desired outcomes that the legislation is designed for.
“These laws have to be applied after they are passed,” he said.
Mbida-Essama said he did not know how much donors were considering giving the country this year, in part because Cambodia finds itself in the middle of regional and global politics.
That is part of the problem, Lao Mong Hay said.
“Who is controlling whom? I think our rulers have been able to manipulate donors because donor countries are not united. Each country has its own foreign policy objectives. The French, for instance, probably don’t care about our system of government. The Japanese are not too keen on human rights. And what is the US interest? Economics. The World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund] have become their own special interest groups. All of them have failed to recognize the reality,” he said.
Mbida-Essama said his agency has given Cambodia a thorough investigation, and has not yet decided on how much aid to give the country. Critics, he added, expect miracles that not even so-called developed countries could handle. In fact, he said, some donors are considering scaling back their demands and instead “prioritizing” their reform agenda.
“The donors recognize the reform program is very ambitious. It’s truly ambitious. Many are saying it can’t work. It would be difficult in any country to undertake such a wide range of reforms,” he said.
It’s comments like that, Lao Mong Hay said, that are most disheartening.
“They don’t realize that Cambodia, unlike other former Communist countries, has the same rulers, has the same policies, the same lies. So now, we reach the end of this term, and what have we done?”