Friday, May 06, 2005

Zimbabwe on the Mekong?

Cambodia Part 2

Not very many people pay much attention to Cambodia these days. Not even the 30th anniversary of the capture of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, ushering in a four-year reign of terror, elicited more than a few anniversary pieces on the op-ed pages of American newspapers.

However, there is one highly influential group in Washington that does pay very close attention to Cambodian affairs. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is one of several interest groups formally “dedicated to advancing democracy, freedom, self-government and the rule of law worldwide” created during the Reagan years.

Aside from being well connected with conservative think tanks, foundations and policy institutes, the IRI also occupies strategic positions in Congress. Its operatives are well placed in the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Appropriations, chaired by the Republican Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, that controls aid money to foreign countries.

We have already seen in Part 1 how this committee has blocked any American financial assistance to the International War Crimes Tribunal that is expected to convene later this year in Phnom Penh to bring the perpetrators of the last century’s second-worst genocide to justice before they die comfortably of old age.

To hear them tell, Cambodia is a second-tier member of the Axis of Evil and its longtime premier, Hun Sen, is a kind of junior grade Kim Jong Il without nukes. Cambodia, they argue, is in the same class as such dictatorships as Zimbabwe or Myanmar. It is an absurd comparison that nobody in Asia shares.

Myanmar is run by a junta of army officers, who ignored the results of the only election held in Myanmar in 1991. Cambodians have held three general elections since the first one was organized under the auspices of the U.N. in 1993. Hun Sen does not win elections with 99.9% majorities. His party received about 47% of the last vote, which translated into 73 seats in parliament. The opposition secured 50 seats.

Cambodia has three major political parties. The largest one is the Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen; the second goes by the French acronym FUNCINPEC and the third is the Sam Rainsy Party, headed by one Sam Rainsy. But as far as IRI is concerned there is only one legitimate party in Cambodia, the one led by Mr. Sam.

Forming a government in Cambodia is not easy. The people who drafted its constitution made the same mistake Americans made in Iraq. They required a two-thirds majority in parliament to form a government. It is complicated by the number of posts to be distributed: seven deputy premiers, 15 senior ministers, 28 ministers and 135 secretaries of state – the largest cabinet in the world.

It took one full year following the 2003 election before Hun Sen was formally installed (he headed a caretaker government in the interim). During that time IRI operatives in Cambodia and Washington constantly counseled the two opposition parties not to cooperate with Hun Sen in forming a government even though his party clearly and fairly won.

Rainsy was born into the French-speaking elite of Cambodia. He spent more than 25 years abroad, living in France and running an accounting service before returning to Cambodia in 1991 after the U.N. brokered an end to the Civil War. He is urbane, well connected and sophisticated. He fits in well in the drawing rooms of the Heritage Foundation.

Hun Sen is the son of a peasant and an ex-guerilla fighter. Who joined the Khmer Rouge army and rose to be a regimental commander. He defected to Vietnam and was installed as a minister during the occupation. He has cultivated Cambodia’s farmers, who make up the bulk of the population -- and electorate -- who return the favor by voting for his party.

Hun Sen is no angel. It is fair to say that surviving the many trials his country endured since the end of the Vietnam War required a certain amount of ruthlessness. Rainsy fled the country earlier this year after parliament voted to strip him of parliamentary immunity, leaving him open to defamation suites. But Hun Sen has also brought much needed stability and the beginnings of prosperity

It is a slippery slope from advocating freedom and democracy around the world, as President George W. Bush did in his second inaugural address this year, to trying to influence, some might say meddle, directly in the politics of other countries. The IRI and its allies long ago crossed that line in Cambodia.


Blogger Da Man said...

It should be up to the Cambodians to account for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Why am I not surprised to hear the the 30th anniversary of the start of the killing went unnoticed? Because the Western mainstream media were among the Khmer Rouge's biggest supporters, at first.

May 31, 2005 at 5:05 PM  
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