Cambodia: A Shattered Society 
by Marie Alexandrine Martin, translated by Mark McLeod.
California, 398 pp., $35, July 1994, 0 520 07052 6
Show More
Cambodia’s New Deal: A Report 
by William Shawcross.
Carnegie Endowment, 106 pp., £27.50, July 1994, 0 87003 051 5
Show More
Show More

Cambodia’s recent history is one of breathtaking tragedy; by comparison its immediate future looks small and venal. Today Cambodia resembles many of the striving, corrupt, developing nations trying to make up for time lost behind the Iron Curtain. Something other than this was expected. The nation that bore the horrors of the Khmer Rouge seemed ready for a kinder if not a more prosperous transformation. This is the country that fought one of the most savage civil conflicts spawned by the Cold War and barely survived two consecutive Communist regimes (the second imposed by neighbouring Vietnam), before becoming the beneficiary of the most ambitious peacekeeping mission ever attempted by the United Nations.

That mission – the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or Untac – offered the promise of an immediately brighter future. Its mandate was grandiose, dictated by the Great Powers who had been behind the Cambodian war and had then negotiated its conclusion in the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991, which led to the creation of Untac. Untac’s aims were to return and resettle the 350,000 refugees across the border in Thailand; to disarm all the Cambodian political groups and reconcile them to working together to rebuild their nation; to provide economic support and political supervision to that end; and to organise free and fair elections resulting in a democratic government. All in a year. Needless to say, Untac did not deliver everything it promised. That it accomplished nearly half of this list is remarkable.

William Shawcross, who has already written two important books on Cambodia, Sideshow and The Quality of Mercy, argues in his slim study that the UN mission ‘conducted a brief, profound and very welcome social revolution’. The French professor Marie Alexandrine Martin writes in her full-scale history of modern Cambodia that, on the contrary, the peace mission favoured ‘Phnom Penh’s profiteers, the Khmer Rouge utopists, the Chinese businessmen of South-East Asia, the annexationist neighbours’. She believes that this last group will triumph. ‘In the short term the partition of Cambodia between Thailand and Vietnam – though unofficial – seems certain ... Was it worth spending two billion dollars to come to this?’ Shawcross believes that the Paris Peace Agreement and the resulting UN peacekeeping mission were successful because they ended the Great Power manipulation of Cambodia. To Martin, this is wrong: the peace accords merely cleared the decks for local powers to interfere.

In his previous books on Cambodia, Shawcross concentrated on international intervention, from the American bombing ordered by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to the uses of international aid and sanctions during the Vietnamese occupation. Martin, on the other hand, has spent her career dissecting Cambodian society from within, always using a French historical framework. When she predicts the unofficial partition of presentday Cambodia she adds that it is ‘reminiscent of the situation in 1863 when the French installed their protectorate and between them Vietnam and Siam reigned over divided Cambodia’.

Martin believes Cambodia’s civilisation is ‘shattered’, but it is clear from her provocative first chapter that she finds Cambodian society insufferable. She highlights what she describes as Cambodian traits: a tendency to lie, to crush individualism, to gossip, to adore flattery, to manipulate, to raise children as anti-intellectuals, to respect reputation and position in a rigid social hierarchy and to fear being found out to be less than others. She writes that ‘Khmer parents have so often repeated to children that they must be right in all circumstances and superior to others that, when they grow up, they naturally become arrogant,’ and quotes an unnamed expert as saying: ‘Cambodians are not rational; they are passionate, and they let hatred blind them.’ I wonder whether a Cambodian author making such a sweeping condemnation of the French character based in good part on anonymous experts would ever have been published.

Martin moves on to tell the basic story of Cambodia’s tragedy. Cambodia wins independence from France. Prince Norodom Sihanouk rules through the Sixties. The Khmer Rouge become a political force with the backing of the Chinese. Sihanouk is overthrown in 1970 and agrees to back the Khmer Rouge in order to return to power. The Prince is the figurehead in a war against the American-supported regime in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge win, lock up the Prince and oversee their murderous revolution. The Vietnamese invade and occupy Cambodia in 1979. The international community sides with Sihanouk, with the Khmer Rouge and other anti-Vietnamese Cambodians and imposes sanctions on occupied Cambodia. After ten years, the Vietnamese withdraw and two years later a peace agreement is signed in Paris. Martin’s version sifts out most of the influence of international politics and reads as if Cambodia and its leaders freely made a string of very bad choices. There is little evidence of the suffocating climate Cambodia lived through, with the Vietnamese wars raging next door, the United States drawing the line against Communism across its paddy-fields and then Asian Communist movements fighting their own dogmatic battles over Cambodian bodies.

By the time Martin reaches contemporary Cambodia in her last chapter, it is no surprise that she roundly condemns the international peace plan, doubting that any good could come from it. She claims that all ‘objective’ Cambodians doubt that the Vietnamese ever actually withdrew, and mentions that the refugees who returned received only temporary help. Martin asks rather plaintively whether they will ‘starve in the country or beg in the city’. Nothing is spared her wrath. She says the Cambodian people cannot have confidence in the May 1993 elections because the country was not entirely free of political murders. She gets many small and large details wrong, from calling a key American representative a senator to claiming that opening up Cambodia to the outside world only ‘serves Westerners’ plans’ when it is the Cambodians who have lobbied to open up their country since the Western world closed it off in 1979.

Cambodia is now officially a constitutional democracy; the elections overseen by Untac brought an orderly transfer of power from a government imposed by the Vietnamese occupiers to one elected by the people; the refugees on the Thai border were repatriated despite Martin’s doubts; and some headway was made towards rehabilitating the country. Of Untac’s aims only the repatriation and the elections were realised to everyone’s satisfaction. The refugees were resettled in the most thorough operation in the history of the UN’s refugee commission and the majority were back in time to vote in the elections, a day that might have come straight out of a Cambodian epic. During the weeks leading up to the election, Khmer Rouge soldiers had roamed the country-side in jeeps threatening to harm anyone who turned out to vote. On the eve of the ballot, there was torrential rain across the country. The omens were not good. But at dawn, festive crowds of Cambodians appeared at the voting stations, and to the astonishment even of the UN peacekeepers, nearly 90 per cent of those eligible voted.

Despite the provisions of the peace plan, however, the UN never even got close to disarming the Khmer Rouge, whose henchmen were still in a position to terrorise potential voters. The Khmer Rouge had briefly pretended to support the peace mission, then opted out, refusing both to hand over their weapons and to take part in the elections. Today Pol Pot and his army still rule over a swathe of Western Cambodia. Ignoring the results of the elections, they have demanded key positions in the new government as well as their own army and complete control of the territory they occupy. The Cambodian Government, however, has at last given up on its fruitless attempts to compromise with the Khmer Rouge. In revenge, the movement has returned to its old terrorist tactics, murdering Cambodians and foreigners alike. In October it executed three tourists on the grounds that they were ‘spies’.

William Shawcross nonetheless believes that the power of the Khmer Rouge has been reduced and that Pol Pot, though he is still free, has lost most of his important patrons and is finally an outlaw in the international community as well as in Cambodia itself. For 15 years the international community had maintained political neutrality on the Khmer Rouge. Despite the fact that Pol Pot had been universally condemned for the well-documented mass murders, indeed genocide, committed during his four-year reign, his political party had been treated simply as one of Cambodia’s four competing factions. Until the peace plan was completed, Pol Pot’s party represented Cambodia in nearly all international institutions including the UN. Khmer Rouge officials travelled freely around the world and were treated as top diplomats. The movement received official aid or support from countries like China and Thailand because it was fighting the Vietnamese occupation force and the Cambodian regime that succeeded it.

The UN has also failed to rid Cambodia’s institutions of corrupt practices; to encourage the rational development of its economy, which appears to be at the mercy of avaricious businessmen anxious to profit from the country’s long isolation; and to establish procedures that protect human rights. Although this is the first democratically elected Cambodian government in decades, it seems overwhelmed by a majority of corrupt officials, whose efforts far outweigh those of the good ones. Two prime ministers lead the coalition government: Prince Norodom Rannaridh, one of King Norodom Sihanouk’s sons and the head of the Royalist Democratic Party, who won the most votes in the election; and Hun Sen of the former Communist Party. Hun Sen’s party is the stronger, the more corrupt, the more repressive and is largely running the country.

It makes for a disappointing ‘peace’. Newly wealthy Cambodians, freed from twenty years of Communism and isolation, buy luxury cars while the poor in the countryside fend off bandits and poverty. Foreign governments are torn between the desire to strengthen the Cambodian Army to enable it to defeat the Khmer Rouge once and for all and the fear that any aid will be squandered by corrupt government officials. Newly formed Cambodian human rights groups continue to uncover atrocities that were supposed no longer to be taking place.

Any balance sheet measuring how peace is faring in Cambodia would have to reflect these very mixed results. The countries which drew up the peace plan should have been much more realistic. The combination of Communist economic policies and ten years of Western sanctions, imposed with the aim of forcing Vietnam to withdraw, so crippled the economy that rehabilitation will take many more years than envisaged. Disarmament is crucial but treating the Khmer Rouge as if it were no different from any other political group does not work. The UN could have done more for Cambodia by staying longer and being leaner. On the other hand, many lessons have been learnt, not all of them negative. One of the more unexpected successes was that of Radio Untac: ‘For the first time,’ William Shawcross writes, ‘Cambodians had a free and unbiased source of information and nearly the entire population became avid listeners.’ There are limits to what peace missions can achieve but one thing is clear: in future the UN should have a much greater role in shaping the plans it will be required to implement.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences