Café No Problem

Victor Mallet

  • The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945 by David Chandler
    Yale, 396 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 300 04919 6

The Cambodian peace agreement reached in Paris last October is nothing if not ambitious. ‘Cambodia’s tragic recent history requires special measures to assure protection of human rights,’ says Annex Five, which outlines principles for a new constitution. ‘Therefore, the constitution will contain a declaration of fundamental rights, including the rights to life, personal liberty, security, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, assembly and association including political parties and trade unions ... The constitution will state that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy on the basis of pluralism.’

To read David Chandler’s painstakingly researched history of Cambodia and its turbulent politics since 1945, and to visit present-day Cambodia, is to understand the enormity of the task facing the United Nations as it attempts to bring peace to the country and to prepare for elections by May next year. The key to success is not the questionable commitment of the outside world to the democratisation of Cambodia, however worthy the efforts of the UN and the hundred or so charities already working there, but the determination – also questionable – of the Cambodians themselves. They need to overcome a number of obstacles. Many unskilled Cambodians were either killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and the Vietnamese invasion of 1978 or have fled the country to find a better life in America or Europe. Many officials of the lame-duck administration installed by the Vietnamese and led by the former Khmer Rouge commander and ex-monk Hun Sen – one of the four main factions under the peace plan – have abandoned the thankless task of running the country and decided to make money instead. They sell government houses for dollars and watch with resignation as hardwood trees are chopped down by their Asian neighbours. The interregnum is a dangerous period of asset-stripping.

Cambodia also lacks plausible leaders. As Chandler makes clear, the erratic Prince Sihanouk, a Francophile gourmet and amateur film-maker, has political skill and experience but does not have vision. The most conspicuous obstacle to progress in Cambodia, however, is the fatalism of ordinary people, a trait traditionally attributed to Buddhism yet strikingly similar to the passivity and dependence in the face of adversity displayed by long-suffering Zambians or Tanzanians. ‘Cambodians are at one and the same time ambitious and indolent,’ a British diplomat, quoted by Chandler, concluded in 1949. ‘More evolved than the Laotians, they lack their sense of reality and are a classic case of a people who are trying to run before they can walk.’ Six years later, the British view was little changed. ‘The Cambodians are not brave when faced with firmness on the part of the authorities,’ the Legation reported. The theme of Cambodians allowing terrible things to be done to them by their enemies or by their fellow citizens runs through the country’s history. As Chandler notes, in a comment on the decline of Sihanouk’s authority shortly before his overthrow in 1970 by Lon Nol, whose rule was a prelude to the terror of the Khmer Rouge, fatalism below cannot be a permanent substitute for leadership above. ‘The amalgam of trust, fatalism and laissez-faire that had held the kingdom together had dissolved ... The prince was probably aware of this but avoided the issue by lavishly entertaining foreign visitors – Princess Margaret of Great Britain and, a week later, the President of Nigeria – and by pouring himself into his films.’

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