Nation’s Success Means Loss of UN Stature

Closing her last-ever official visit to Cambodia, UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Rob­inson Thursday boarded a plane for East Timor.

For many observers here, that flight says it all.

Once a showpiece of international intervention, Cambodia has lost its place on the world stage to other nations, like Afghanistan and East Timor.

The question for many ob­servers, though, is, “Why?” While some see Cambodia’s diminished status as proof of success, others see it as an opportunity squandered. “This place is becoming just another Third World country,” one veteran human rights worker said recently. “And that’s too bad. Because you know who loses out? It’s the ordinary Cam­bodians.”

For some, Cambodia’s success, particularly at finding peace after decades of genocide and civil war, is its failure. “Many people have got the feeling that, well, now the government has put an end to the Khmer Rouge and armed struggle—and that’s it,” democracy ac­tivist Lao Mong Hay said. “It’s un­fortunate donors can’t wait a bit longer.”

One factor in the changing perceptions of Cambodia is the sweep of history. Cambodia was the UN’s first—and for a while, its largest—nation-building program. But as the UN’s stature in­creased, partly as a result of the Cam­bodian intervention, its mission crept and its interests dissipated—to places such as East Timor, the world’s newest country. And then there was Sept 11. The terrorist attacks in the US seemed to jolt the world into new, undetermined directions. The re­sulting intervention in Afghan­istan looks as if it might dwarf all previous efforts.

Even Robinson agrees “there is some truth” to the proposition that Cambodia is no longer the world’s feel-good story.

For Lao Mong Hay, who ad­mits to some “ambivalence” over Cambodia’s changing status, the war in Afghanistan has resolved international donors to prioritize stability over full recovery.

It is cheaper, easier and less time-consuming to focus on stability, especially when a major effort like rebuilding Afghanistan looms. “There are countries whose situations are more serious than Cam­bodia, yes. But I’ve got the feeling that the foreign policy of most countries is fo­cused on stability. And if Cam­bodia is going to have democracy and development, it’s going to be up to the Cambodians themselves,” Lao Mong Hay said.

Now, with the first five years of sustained peace in more than three decades, tourists have be­gun flocking to the nation, and the once-omnipresent Khmer Rouge have fallen by the wayside.

While it’s clear that more attention is going to more desperate nations, Cambodians ought to take solace in the work they’ve done so far to get Cambodia off the world’s crisis list, Robinson said.

“In comparison to five years ago, the situation is more positive. The human security situation is much better,” she said. “Cambo­dia is very fortunate to have a very vibrant civil society. It’s a sign of a maturing society.”


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