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Cambodia - Introduction

The name Kampuchea, or Kambuja, is traditional. It first appears in Cambodia about the tenth century in reference to the people, the "Kambuja," born of Kambu. In modem times, the name has passed into European languages; in English as Cambodia. The term Khmer, a native ethnic term, is both current and relevant.

Hun Sen, who has held power since being installed by the Vietnamese in January 1985, has not had a real political rival. Cabinet members talk steadily about presumed democratic reforms, while ignoring a quasi-coup in 1993 and a real one in 1997. Corruption has become part of everyday life in Cambodia, in fact it has reached “pandemic” proportions. Corruption, particularly within the judiciary, has been marked as the single biggest deterrent to investment in Cambodia.

The Cambodian government has reported that its military force is too large, poorly equipped, and not well trained. For many Cambodian soldiers, the military is more of a social welfare program than a full-time job. Many soldiers live in their own homes rather than in military housing, are farmers or engaged in other trades, and have not seen active military service in years. The government’s spending on defense has been high in relation to Cambodia’s other needs. In 1999, military spending consumed nearly half of the Cambodian government’s revenue and was higher than its spending on health, education, agriculture, and rural development combined.

Cambodia has often been a “meeting ground” and occasional “collision point” for the great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam) and civilizations (Indian, Chinese) represented in South East Asia. More recently, it was significantly shaped by the French colonial era and the years of American involvement in Indochina. Amidst these many influences, Cambodia has maintained its independence and retained its distinctive Khmer cultural heritage.

Cambodia's history, however, did not augur well for fair and open elections. After gaining independence from France in 1954, Cambodia held regular elections for its national assembly, but vote-buying, fraud and intimidation regularly marred these exercises. With the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk in 1970, the new military government of Lon Nol's Khmer Republic began usurping political power. By the spring of 1973, this government had suspended most basic civil liberties. Widespread corruption, along with a mismanaged war effort against radical Khmer Rouge (KR) rebels and communist Vietnamese forces, bankrupted the nation and alienated the population. The government and the army gradually disintegrated, and on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) represented “year zero” in Cambodian history, a radical attempt to erase the past and build a new society from ground-up. A generation of Cambodians was literally wiped off the face of the earth. As much as 20 percent of the population — more than one million out of a population of 7 million — was murdered or died as a result of disease and starvation. Virtually every one with any education was either killed or fled the country.

The extreme human rights abuses that occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime continued to shape Cambodia. For nearly four years, a policy that included mass murder of skilled and otherwise educated members of society, destruction of the family unit, forced evacuation of cities and the complete abolition of private property, the financial system and religion systematically violated a proud and ancient society and terrorized its people. By design or neglect, over one million Cambodians are estimated to have been killed. Government took the form of party fiat, and compliance and loyalty were enforced through systematic terror.

This was followed by years of protracted instability, uncertainty and violence. Tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees found safety in the U.S., Canada, France, Australia and elsewhere. Many of these Cambodians have since renewed ties to their “home” country, providing an important resource that can help strengthen Cambodia’s wider global connections.

The Vietnamese invasion and installation of a puppet regime in Phnom Penh to replace the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 led to continuation of the civil war and to a massive Cambodian resistance movement based in neighboring Thailand that included an unlikely coalition of royalist, republican and KR elements. The civil strife of the 1980s allowed for little rebuilding, particularly in the political arena. One-party rule and tight restrictions on political expression under the Heng Samrin government ensured that political life in Cambodia remained dormant and, that the Cambodia people remained alienated from their government.

Despite a decade of relative calm, Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries as it slowly builds a market-based economy and took tentative steps toward more democratic governance. Social and economic indicators are among the lowest in Asia. Cambodia also wrestles with serious global concerns, including those related to environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS, trafficking in persons and child survival.

Cambodia’s geographic position at the center of mainland South East Asia will help shape its future. Starting from a lower economic base, Cambodia aspires to duplicate the relative economicsuccess of its much larger neighbors, Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east. Some of the same dynamics that contributed to the rise of radical Islamic terrorism in southern Thailand and Indonesia could be present in Cambodia. From a more long-term perspective, China looms as the big neighborto the north that is increasingly making its presence felt across South East Asia and beyond.

Stability in Cambodia has important implications for its neighbors, even as instability could provoke a cycle of violence that would inevitably involve other countries. In particular, Cambodia’s emergence as a democratic and economically viable state will strengthen its role in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other international groupings. From a U.S. point of view, a stable and successful Cambodia would serve to strengthen regional cooperation, support more open society, ensure political stability and contribute to economic growth.

Yet significant challenges face Cambodia, both economically and politically. There is anoverwhelming reliance on the garment industry for private sector income receipts, with the tourism industry the most rapidly growing second sector. Foreign aid primarily accrues to the government, which has yet to make much progress in reducing poverty reduction or improving social indicators.

Cambodia’s appearance on the list of potential “transformational development” countries represents genuine progress. A generation ago, Cambodia reached its nadir as a “failed state”. For most of the following two decades, it was viewed as a “fragile state,” ravaged by uncertainty, volatility and low level violence. Now the challenge is for Cambodia to move further up the continuum of “transformational development” countries -- a task that requires steady progress in a range of areas related to governance, the provision of social services and sustained economic growth.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:31 ZULU