Friday, 31 August 2012

Political Perspectives #4: Thoughts on Cambodia

This is the fourth in an occasional series of posts on the various political perspectives of those involved in activism in the Bath/Bristol area. The views expressed are those of the respective authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Standing Stone.

Thoughts on Cambodia

by Dave Stephens


During the summer of 2012, I spent 2 months working for an NGO in Cambodia. I’ve always believed in the power of aid to help the developing world, and so it only seemed natural to spend some time working with those at the receiving end. The experience I had, worthwhile though it was, was not what I expected. Naively perhaps, I believed when I signed up to do community development, that I would be out in the field building houses and wells or visiting communities facing threats from illegal loggers and other rights violations. Instead, I found myself in an office most of the day, fine-tuning grant application forms to make sure they contained all the right buzz-words to get international donors to sign on. Pursuing grants, it turns out, is big business in Cambodia. The experience as a whole has left me skeptical of the role aid plays in the developing world.

The good thing about me being in an office most of the time was that it gave me time to start thinking, and reading, about NGO’s in Cambodia and the wider political situation in which they operate. In particular, I thought a lot about how much they can actually achieve in terms of helping Cambodia to develop. My conclusion is that they can achieve depressingly little. This is because many of the NGOs are incapable of, and all too often unwilling to, address the fundamental problems this country faces. Chief of which is corruption and an ineffective political system which keeps the population in a bind of powerlessness and poverty. To understand how this situation came about and why it is persists, it is necessary to understand Cambodia’s history and in particular, how the legacy of the Khmer Rouge still haunts the country today.

Fall from grace.
Cambodia today is a complex and often times strained mix of its ancient history on the one hand and it’s relative newness as a country on the other. Once a mighty power in the region, the Khmer empire dominated much of Southeast Asia; including modern day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The famous temple of Angkor Wat is just one of the hundreds of ruins that remain from the once great city of Angkor, the seat of power in the Khmer Empire. The city was the largest in pre-industrial history with over a million inhabitants and covering an area larger than Manhattan.  

Angkor and the Khmer empire went in to decline in the 1500’s and the jungle reclaimed the city. It would remain lost through Cambodia’s dark ages until its rediscovery by French explorers during the colonial era. From 1887 to 1953, Cambodia formed part of French Indochina along with Laos and Vietnam. Although this period was relatively prosperous, the nation lacked sovereignty and real leadership as the French manipulated and installed puppet kings and altered the borders on several occasions. After a brief spell of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Cambodia eventually became an independent country in 1953, officially as the Kingdom of Cambodia.

For the first time in over 500 years, Cambodia was an independent nation, not under occupation by far off lands, or under siege from its neighbors. This period was short lived however, the Vietnamese war spilled over into Cambodia and tensions in the eastern provinces rose until 1970, when General Lon Nol lead a military coup which ousted the king. This period also saw the infamous illegal bombing of and invasion by the USA in their attempts to cut off the Viet Kong and their Cambodian counterparts, the Khmer Rouge. It is widely agreed that the US involvement in the Vietnamese war, and the subsequent bombing of Cambodia which forced 2 million Cambodians to become refugees, gave the Khmer Rouge great support amongst the rural communities. This support was turned against Lon Nol’s government and in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh.

3 years, 8 months, 20 days.
The genocide that happened during the Khmer Rouge regime, in power for less than 4 years between 1975 and 1979, was off the scale. The systematic, indiscriminate and totally wanton destruction of Cambodian society was beyond brutal. There are few examples in human history where human suffering has been so total, so unrelenting and so widespread. I of course knew of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s’ subsequent civil war before I came here, but it’s only when you are here, when you visit the mass graves and memorials on the killing fields, see the torture chambers and the prisons and hear firsthand accounts of life during those years, that you can even begin to understand the implications of that time, and how it’s after-effects still have an unspoken stranglehold on Cambodian society today. It wasn’t just that two million people died under the Khmer Rouge (a quarter of the population at the time), it was that the entire social system was either destroyed or subjected to radical upheaval. Intellectuals, nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians; anybody who was educated, or suspected of being educated, was executed. Cambodia was intentionally driven back to the Stone Age. The nation was cut off from the rest of the world as all foreigners were expelled (and in some cases killed as well), the economic system was decimated, the infrastructure left to crumble and the entire population forced to work in communal labor camps for no money and insufficient food. The attempts by Pol Pot to build a perfect agrarian society resulted in starvation and disease that killed millions and left the survivors traumatized.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was a hollow shell of a society. Almost everyone required to re-build had been killed or had fled. The situation was made worse by the ensuing civil war, waged between 1979 and 1993 between the new Vietnamese installed government of Cambodia, and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (still recognised by some governments around the world as the legitimate government of Cambodia). Many Cambodians, who had fled to escape the Khmer Rouge and the civil war, were trapped in refugee camps along the Thai border, some for as long as 15 years. All this meant that the Cambodians (what was left of them) were woefully ill-equipped to rebuild their society, and, given the political instability, few aid organizations from outside Cambodia were willing to get involved in the re-construction. 

The more things change.
It wasn’t until the Vietnamese occupation ended in 1993 that Cambodia really started on its project of re-building itself (or perhaps more accurately, building itself). With the assistance of the UN, the royal family was re-instated and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the first election in the country’s history. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge (though he left the party before 1975), was elected prime minister. He has been prime minister ever since and the CPP have had an overwhelming majority at every level of government throughout the course of post-war Cambodia.

Hun Sen and the CPP have turned Cambodia, in all but name, in to a one party state. In a society that is naturally deferential and that even before the Khmer Rouge came to power, was used to having no say in how it was run, this wasn’t too difficult to achieve. Driving around the country, it certainly feels like a one party state, CPP banners can be seen every few kilometers or so down all the major roads. Every town and village I visited, even remote ones a long way from the major highways, has had at least 1 CPP poster hanging from the wall of an official building. The faces of the party leadership and the royal family depicted smiling and proud, reminiscent of portraits of Kim Il-Sung. Other political parties exist, and there are members from other parties in government, but these parties are mostly focused on regional issues. A level of dissent is tolerated in Cambodia, enough to make it look like the government is democratic, but not enough to form a serious threat to the ruling party. Where protests do happen, or parties are formed that have the potential to threaten the CPP, they are quickly quashed, often with force.

A general rule of thumb to follow when looking at the names of parties, governments or countries, is that there is an inverse correlation between uses of words like ‘democratic, republic, people’s’ and how democratic, republican or people-led they actually are. The CPP is no exception, they are fantastically corrupt. Much of the CPP’s funding comes from international aid organizations and, increasingly, foreign investors. In the case of aid, in order to get the aid from donor representatives, the CPP pledge to reduce corruption, invest in public services and infrastructure and allow NGO’s to work in the field to aid social problems without let or hindrance by the Government. In reality this is subterfuge. The government pockets much of the money, spending it on lavish houses for itself and its cronies (often inviting the representatives of the donors to stay in their guest-suites). They also constantly harass any NGO that is seen to be acting politically, refusing to bribe the relevant officials or criticizing the government (such as Global Witness, which was kicked out of Cambodia last year (1). The lack of free speech is a big problem here. Despite it being protected by the constitution and its praises being sung in many of Hun Sen’s long and rousing speeches; many are threatened, arrested and beaten for criticizing the government. This sometimes even results in death, as was the case for leading illegal-logging activist, Chut Wutty (2).  Whilst in Phnom Penh I spoke to another volunteer for a human rights NGO who told me about several incidents of people being locked up without a fair hearing for criticizing the government. Even though we were in a roof-top bar full of westerners, as I spoke to him he was checking over his shoulder and leaning in close to me before saying anything particularly critical.

Sign at Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh

In the case of foreign investors, the government has been making Economic Land Concessions (ELC’s) to individuals and corporations left right and centre. As much as 45% of the land in some provinces l of Cambodia has been bought by private developers and logging and mining corporations, often despite the land being in supposedly protected areas given their environmental sensitivity and/or being the means of subsistence for rural communities (3). The people on these lands are routinely evicted with little notice and inadequate compensation. The government is able to do this as many people don’t have title deeds to their land, such documentation having been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. The judicial system of Cambodia is almost as corrupt as the government and routinely finding in their favor whenever eviction cases are brought before them (4). However few cases even make it that far, the police and the army have been brutal in evicting people and several protesters have recently been killed defending their homes. The Cambodian people are simply threatened and intimidated off their lands without recourse (5).

The simple fact is however, after all that the Cambodian people have been through, they have little spirit to fight, to protest against a corrupt government that has a stranglehold on their country. Furthermore, with no modern history they can call their own, they struggle to identify themselves. Tensions still exist with their neighbors, especially the Vietnamese who they perceive as influencing their government and slowly occupying their country again. Feeling largely disenfranchised, they don’t know how to respond, how to define themselves or who they are. For the most part though, they just want to be allowed to get on with their lives in peace, something most of us take for granted, but for people here would be a real luxury.

The problem with the arrangements the Cambodian Government has is that the cycle of externally funded corruption is self-perpetuating. The Cambodian Government gets almost all of its money from external sources, be they aid agencies or corporate investors. There is income tax, but few Cambodians earn enough to pay any and those that do are well connected enough to bribe their way out of significant contributions. Thus the governments’ internal revenue is negligible. This means that the government isn’t financially accountable to its own people and as such has no incentive to protect their interests. Worst of all, the corruption is so endemic in Cambodian society that it has become the norm, including for NGO’s. In many cases, NGO’s have become workshops for getting grants. Modern, western-style buildings with SUV’s parked on the drive filled with rooms of paid staff (many of them expats of western-level salaries) filling out application forms and giving training sessions on proposal writings, fill spaces between the run-down wooden huts of average Cambodians. Such NGO’s, that obediently follow the governments’ directives (which include a recent law explicitly stating that NGO’s are required to be apolitical (6)) are, of course, encouraged. They provide legitimacy to the government’s claims to helping address the issues faced by the poor, and allow revenue to flow into the country that is less scrutinized than that flowing straight to the government.

An open ending.
What’s so distressing about all this is that Cambodia needn’t be a poor country; its resources are plentiful, more than enough for it to drag itself out of poverty. The people here are poor, yes, but they aren’t destitute. Their poverty is not from lack of available resources, it is a political poverty. It is a poverty caused by a government system that knowingly ignores its peoples’ needs, that cuts them from their means and drives them from their homes in order to line its own pockets. It’s a poverty that is ultimately maintained by the silence of the NGO’s and aid agencies supposedly there to help alleviate said poverty that know full well what’s going on, and yet do nothing about it in order to be ‘apolitical’ (as if such a thing were possible or even desirable) and often time, more cynically, to maintain their revenue stream.

The hegemonic view of international development for the last 50 years or so, has been that by spreading democracy you will automatically spread rights and freedoms and prosperity. There’s an element of truth to this, but the idea of democracy being spread is somewhat backwards. We think of democracy as having a vote, and of having a vote as being a way to get the leadership you want. In reality, the vote is only one of the rights of a functioning democracy, along with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial etc.

Given the political nature of Cambodia’s poverty, how can NGO’s possibly do any good if they are themselves apolitical? Sure they can aid in infrastructure construction and invest in farming equipment for rural communities, but if they are obliged to stand mute as the communities they work with have their lands acquired and their homes and livelihoods destroyed by an ELC, then what long term good are they doing? NGO’s are used as a political tool, they are thus political, and until they abandon their pledge to be apolitical and stand up to and condemn a government which requires them to be apolitical, they will continue to be ineffective. And in some ways they may be making things worse by creating false hope for communities, diverting them from protesting and making them dependant on the continued support of NGO’s.

As for my skepticism of aid agencies and NGO’s? I still thing aid overall is a good thing, but it should be scrutinized with the same degree of healthy skepticism that governments and corporations are (or aren’t as is all too often the case). NGO’s and aid agencies are institutions which dish out vast sums of money, the majority of it with the best of intentions. But it’s inevitable that it’s going to attract corruption, the reputation and privilege we extend to aid agencies in our culture almost guarantees a low-scrutiny environment which malevolent people can take advantage of. But it’s not so much an issue of money for me. Aid agencies and NGO’s need to be financially accountable, yes, but in my view it is more important, given the nature of the organisations that they are, that they are morally accountable, that they stand by their principles and their goals no matter what governments try to push them in to. They should speak out against those who work against the principles of their organisations, no matter who they are or how powerful they are. To do anything less is to fail to help the people these organisations were set up to help in the first place.

Recommended reading.

Political Perspectives Series:

Part 1. What is Anarchism? (B.A.R.F.)

Part 2. What is the Zeitgeist Movement? (Bruce Galliver)