Cambodia used to be one of the more prosperous countries in Southeast Asia. But it began to decline at the end of the 1960s as a result of corruption within the central government
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2007 10:27:57 -0700
Cambodia - starting from scratch
by Eric Beauchemin
Cambodia - starting from scratch
Cambodia used to be one of the more prosperous countries in Southeast
Asia. But it began to decline at the end of the 1960s as a result of
corruption within the central government. This eventually led to a
series of peasant revolts and the emergence of the Khmer Rouge.
The government was trying to take more than its fair share of the
wealth from the rural regions to improve the cities and increase the
wealth of a small number of rich Cambodians. Peasants responded by
exporting their main produce - rice - to neighbouring countries.
"The government tried to stop this," explains Michael Vickerey, a
leading Cambodia scholar, "because they earned income from taxation
The first revolutionary outburst was in a rural area in Battambang
Province in 1967, when peasants fought against government officials
trying to collect their rice crop. In the ensuing years, there were
more and more explosions of rural violence."
The Khmer Rouge gradually expanded their control over the country. In
1970, King Sihanouk was overthrown, not by the Khmer Rouge, but by his
own supporters, led by General Lon Nol. That same year, the United
States invaded Cambodia to try and expel the North Vietnamese who were
hiding out in the border region. Washington intermittently bombed
their camps, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. Hundreds of
thousands of others fled to the capital, Phnom Penh.
The chaos resulted in growing support for the Khmer Rouge, who marched
into Phnom Penh in April 1975. Their leader, Pol Pot, began a radical
experiment to establish an agrarian utopia. That meant forcing
virtually everyone out of Phnom Penh and other cities and towns. Tens
of thousands died during the mass exodus. By the end of the Khmer
Rouge rule in 1979, one million people - or one in eight Cambodians -
had died of starvation, disease, exhaustion and executions.
Despite the mass killings, Cambodia was not a failed state, at least
not initially, argues Michael Vickerey. "By 1977, you can start
talking about the Khmer Rouge project having failed. I think some
Khmer Rouge realised that it was failing, but they couldn't draw
lessons from their mistakes and start changing what they were doing.
Instead they blamed it all on foreign (i.e., Vietnamese) saboteurs.
They began an anti-Vietnamese pogrom and invaded Vietnam in 1977."
"This is what led to their overthrow," says Vickerey. "The Vietnamese
responded by invading Cambodia. Because they were much stronger, they
eventually won. So in the end, the Khmer Rouge project failed and
Cambodia became a failed state. Everything collapsed. In the last
months of 1978 and early 1979, the Khmer Rouge army just fled
everywhere. There were a few months of total anarchy until the
Vietnamese re-established some kind of political and economic
The Khmer Rouge eventually retreated to the jungle and, with the
support of the United States and other Western powers, continued to
fight the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government for another decade,
effectively blocking the country's recovery. Nonetheless, the
government was gradually able to reassert its power over the country,
drawing Cambodia back from complete state failure.
According to Vickerey, "by 1981, the internal administration was
almost entirely under the Cambodian government. There still was a
strong military presence, but they were mainly fighting against the
rehabilitated Khmer Rouge along the border."
The Killing Fields had a profound effect on all of Cambodian society.
According to Thida Khus, the Executive Director of SILAKA, a local
management and administration training association, "the main problem
is that people do not trust each other. People lost a sense of
security. They believe anything can happen at any time. So they think
only in terms of short-term gain, trying to get as much as they can if
they are in a position of power."
Corruption is indeed widespread in Cambodia, but that has always been
the case, asserts Vickerey. "In the pre-war system, and this goes back
to the pre-French Cambodian government, officials were not paid
salaries. Corruption was the normal way that officials lived. The
French made some moves to provide salaries so that officials would not
be corrupt, but this never took over completely. After independence,
the same things continued, and in spite of efforts by governments with
modern ideas, old practices still continued."
After the Vietnamese finally withdrew in 1989 and elections were held
in 1993, the Cambodian authorities began modernising their laws, but
there is still a huge chasm between legislation and reality, says Yong
Kim Eng, the president of the Khmer Youth Association. "Laws exist on
paper, but they aren't enforced. Powerful men in the military and the
government still do what they want."
It took years for Cambodia to become a failed state, and it will take
many more years for it to be reformed, believes . "We're in a nation-
building phase. We now have a state apparatus. We have a government
with separation of powers. But after more than a decade, we're going
forward and backward at the same time. By that I mean we're a country
that came out of the killing fields, but we emerged so quickly from
oppression, hardship and communism that it's difficult for people to
adjust to being a so-called democracy with respect for human rights."
Compared to other countries in the region - such as Burma and Laos -
Cambodia today finds itself in a relatively good position: there is
greater freedom, social services are improving, and the government
exerts control over the territory. But the events that led Cambodia to
become a failed state and their consequences are issues which all
Cambodians still need to confront, believes Thida Khus.
"I think the important thing for Cambodian society and the Cambodian
government to understand is that we are considered a failed state. I
don't think people even realise that we have failed. It's in the
interests of everybody to really pull ourselves up and do some real
painful reform, social reform and soul-searching."
And that is likely to take a few decades, says Chea Vannath. "It's
just a natural process of growing pain. That doesn't make me sad or
happy. No, it's just the facts that we need to face."
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