April 27, 2008
Cambodia is a sweet, slow moving country about ten years behind Vietnam. It still lives, however, in the shadow of its past Khmer Rouge in several senses. First and most prominent to me is that it has an over reliance on foreign funding. Many developed countries applaud the UNTAC agreement as helping to establish some level of governance in the country, but the reality is it did what it could, then wiping its hands clean in the interim period, post conflict and pre Cambodian self rule.
The Cambodia People’s Party has almost absolute power in the country, giving the strongest opposition party Sam Rainsy Party a hard time. The foreign community has poured tens of thousands of dollars into the local community, through international NGOs and partner NGOs within the country. They work closely on a number of core issues, mainly on human rights, advovacy and capacity building on development, youth, education, and so on. This has created a sort of buffer effect for the Government. Whenever a particular issue emerges, the international community acts as an in between for the Government and local NGOs. Donor aid is lucrative and so good relationships have to be maintained between them.
It is the strength of the CPP party that bulldozes its way through, perpetuating corruption within Government and not having to answer for any of its mismanagement practices. They are still very popular amongst the rural folk, because they never fail to promise greater development to their local communities. They also invoke the past – bringing up their ability to correct the mistakes of the Khmer Rouge regime – to instill fear amongst the people (forgetting that many of the leaders within Government were themselves party to the violence instated). Note: The Khmer Rouge Tribunal is taking place right now, although money from the Cambodian Government is running out.
Visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, one can only envision the torturous cries of the people. One particularly poignant story told was that of a friend whose relatives were completely wiped out during the Khmer Rouge years, and wanting to experience fully what took place, camped out on the corridors and rooms of Tuol Sleng alone. Imagine the kinds of emotions coming upon him that night; the terror of the mind, the rising sadness of a fast-fading memory.
What perturbs me is the divide between the foreigns and locals, even if they are fighting the same cause. Although all work incessantly on transparency, human rights, democracy and so on, the international community tends to adopt a slightly elitist attitude. They hang around the same posh pubs and restaurants, whilst the locals go to different pubs and eateries. Sometimes I really wonder which community it is that runs the country apart from the CPP (at local levels).
They are still a very cermonial country, with the Royal Palace taking the primary spot of property in the city of Phnom Penh. And the parks, a heritage of the French, are peppered all over the city, creating a relaxing environment for locals to hang around and take wedding pictures at. These are long strips of grass with benches and flowers, near roundabouts and wide roads with cars that go at snail pace – another reason why there are no accidents despite the horrible driving there!
Restaurants and little boutique shops are shaped out of old bungalows along little roads, and are the most quaint places to stop at. I can understand a foreigner’s fascination with this place – a hub for tourists to hang out and chill. The arts community is really quite creative as well. This is the right country for someone who wants to spend a couple of months finding him/herself, with relatively cheap cost of living.
Whether or not foreign aid in Cambodia is sustainable is the question nigging at my mind. I’m not sure whether this model works, but having said that, numerous Cambodians have been individually equipped with skills and expertise. Also the rise of local groups and organisations working on developmental issues is impressive. I just hope they will be able to sustain themselves in the long run. Reliance, or over reliance, on the foreign community is perhaps not the best model.
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