President Obama’s visit to Cambodia reminds me of harder, heartbreaking times.
Cambodia was the biggest challenge I have ever faced in nearly 30 years of government service, during which I have focused entirely and almost exclusively on what was once poetically known as Indochina.
- Vietnam's Defense Ministry, my negotiating partner for over ten years, was a strong, tough, truculent, obstreperous but rational counterpart.
- Thailand, whether it was the Foreign Ministry or the Defense Ministry, was understandable. Its positions and its process were all accessible and comprehendible.
But Cambodia was a large, gaping wound, a horrible vacuum, which had to be coaxed out of its long and morbid succession of crises, and could not always be counted on to commit a rational act, a comprehensible policy position.
I spent a lot of time during 1984 - 1986 talking to Cambodian survivors in Aranyaprathet, Thailand.
Cambodian survivors were not like Holocaust survivors.
- Holocaust survivors saw a modern, industrialized state, a cosmopolitan culture, implode, turn vicious and vindictive, and become unrelenting in its vigilance against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, non-Germanic blood.
- Cambodia was a singularly agrarian country, undeveloped except for some seaport nodes and typical Southeast Asian capital city centers of gravity. It was undeveloped, even primitive. Cambodians were stubbornly devoted to a Kingship. Many Cambodian survivors, unlike Holocaust survivors, had not seen better days.
- Holocaust survivors were the quintessential outsiders, scorned, discriminated against, scandalized, denounced by an insane ideology or racism and hatred, the product of a malevolent moment in western modernization.
- Cambodian survivors were attacked, reviled, butchered by other Cambodians, Cambodians who sided with a primordial vision of an agrarian utopia, a self sufficient paradise, the product of a corrupted Marxism mated with a violent nationalism. Cambodians devoured other Cambodians.
- Holocaust survivors had some last shreds of hope at the end of their ordeal -- Israel, family in America, a world vigilant against a re-armed Germany.
- Cambodian survivors had nothing. No real welcoming refuge, belated global sympathy, a life of despair in camps hosted by reluctant host countries, unattractive resettlement prospects.
These are the ghosts that were at the core of modern Cambodian politics and governance.
There was another Cambodia -- a government in exile, concocted as a marriage of convenience between non-communists and the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea -- the rump of the Khmer Rouge party government evicted from Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese.
That coalition was aimed at making sure the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia would not go unpunished. In many ways it seemed that the world united to protect the idea of sovereignty, not to guarantee the survival of the Cambodian people.
This coalition assembled along the borders with Thailand, along a large arc from Trat Province to SiSaKet. The coalition was composed of survivors, escapees, refugees, escapees. They were students, military officers and troops, government officials and functionaries, businessmen, middle class, and farmers. They were Overseas Cambodians, privileged elites, professors. They were thrown together in the camps and they coalesced on the basis of their own vigorous nationalism, their own identity as victims, survivors.
And, in my memory, they were hopelessly outclassed by their mortal enemy, with whom they found themselves in uneasy alliance. They were poorly organized, emotionally charged and motivated in a detached and dangerous way. They were strategically unprepared for the challenge, and politically infantile.
And from this soup emerged the Sihanoukist National Army, the organizational heir to the royalist power of the Norodom line. The Khmer People's Liberation Front, a paper tiger of nationalists intent on clinging to the embers of modernizing Cambodia. More about them in a moment.
From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, working the Cambodian issue, from the defense and security perspective, was -- in the U.S. interagency context -- a distressing assignment requiring one to explain why a country that had long been understood as strategically irrelevant should suddenly attract Defense Department attention, USG resources, diplomatic energy, and international investments.
And the truth is that for the longest time Cambodia was indeed an afterthought, a "side show" to use the dramatic metaphor William Shawcross selected as the title of his book on the Cambodian crisis.
But the challenge of actually resolving the impasse, and ending decades worth of internal conflict, pressed people to urge this course of action, to involve the USG in local Southeast Asian efforts to define a framework for achieving peace, and establishing a stable government on the basis of the ruins of a civilization with a range of highly factionalized interests groups intent on being part of this equation.
The Defense Department became invested in the peace process, providing Military Observes to the United Nations peacekeeping arrangement that emerged from the mix of regional and responding to the requirement for unique DoD air lift capabilities in association with efforts to position the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC).
And DoD ultimately agreed to a long argument on behalf of the idea of placing a U.S. Defense Attache in Phnom Penh as early as 1994, in the context of the establishment of the Royal Cambodian Government.
That outpost contributed to efforts, modest and non-lethal, to shape a national army from the assortment of non-communist forces that were involved in the long slog to peace:
- The Khmer People's National Liberation Front, a motley assortment of modernists, self-proclaimed democratizers, anti-Sihanoukists, anti-monarchists, artifacts of the last government in Cambodia under Lon Nol, headed by the aging Son Sann and his intellectual, French educated son, Son Soubert, and supported in the field by the KPNLF Armed Forces, lead by a range of former generals and statesmen, well armed during the height of the conflict but only marginally capable of anything more than brief (and frequently self destructive) military acts.
- The Sihanouk National Army, an unabashedly royalist-minded group devoted exclusively to Prince (the King) Sihanouk and his son, Prince Norodom Ranarith, who served as the CEO for the armed forces and the political wing of the ANS.
- The People Republic of Kampuchea, Hun Sen's government, which in the form of the State of Cambodia garnered for itself legitimacy as the force that bore the brunt of opposition to the KR, after having driven into Phnom Penh in 1978 as the leading edge to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and the core of the coalition that emerged under the protection of the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.
- The Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, the DK, shorn of the temporary coalition with the Non Communist resistance (NCR), yet capable of arrogating for itself a role in the formation of the coalition that assembled a government as the result of the UNTAC-supervised election through making (but not adhering to) guarantees to disarm and sequester itself in distinctive and controllable zones.
The challenge, for the Cambodians; the United Nations; the United States; the region in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, especially the former "frontline states" (Thailand, Singapore) and the architects of the original peacekeeping structure, the Indonesians; the international community was to adjust and torque the framework to accommodate all these players, sustain the basic equation for a coalition government, and assemble a respectable national army and a workable structure of government on the ruins of these bloodied factions.
The framework called for a quadripartite formula for all national level instruments of governance. Ministries would reflect the four parties that participated in the peacekeeping and electoral process under UN supervision.
Fashioning a unified national army, or a coherent, stable government, from this formula seemed impossible. The KPNLF, the ANS, and the proliferation of parties that emerged to contest in the election demanded a stake in the process.
I can only speak to the military side of the equation. Between 1995 and 1997, none of the elements that were allowed to remain armed, and to enter into the formation of a national army, adopted a form of thinking that would have enabled the creation of a single, coherent national military. The KPNLF and the ANS, and Hun Sen's own interests, continued to speak in terms of their own interests and sustained organizations, making claims for a fair and balanced equation for selecting senior generals, promoting general officers, and making defense policy and military strategy that served narrow organization (not national) interests.
There were serious centripetal forces at work here.
What I saw was a big part of the clump of Cambodians competing for influence, who sprung from the PRK and made up the core of the State of Cambodia -- the rubric under which the PRK competed for influence during the peacekeeping period -- taking ministerial control over the foreign ministry, for example, and functioning in a coherent, organized way:
- They retained the ministerial organization, the structure of departments.
- They functioned with a cadre-like set of staffing practices.
- They ran effective, organized meetings, and they deferred to a clear leadership.
- They took notes, sustained attention to key policy issues.
- They were familiar with modern, plenary session practices.
- They stood up well at diplomatic engagements.
What I saw of the monarchists, the Sihanoukist organization under the tight control of Norodom Ranarith and ultimately beholden to Norodom Sihanouk himself, was much less impressive:
- Ranarith was a cheaper, flimsier version of Sihanouk.
- He celebrated an old tradition of politics draped in modern vocabulary.
- His "process" was a soliloquy, conducted in Maoist sized arm chairs (with hounds).
- He possessed his father's inability to focus on an issue for any length of time.
The KPNLF focused most of its attention on coping with Sihanoukist politics. From that core sprung Sam Rainsey, given to a virulent form of Cambodian nationalism that translated into an unbridled anti-Vietnamese platform totally preoccupied with confronting Hun Sen and undermining his iron lock on national power by any means possible.
These patterns in many ways dominated Cambodian politics through the late 1990s and the early 2000s, from the conflicted efforts to define common cause through the Hun Sen coup against his own government in 1997, and the uneasy years after that focused primarily on coaxing Cambodia toward elections, away from violence as a political tool, toward a fair minded way of solving tough national issues, reintegration into the region (and ASEAN membership).
Following the factional fighting in July 1997, U.S. legislation prohibited bilateral assistance to the central government. Other legislation required the USG to oppose International Financial Institution (IFI) lending to the Cambodian government for all but basic human needs. A section on Foreign Operations in the Consolidated Approproations Act for 2003 included notwithstanding language allowing bilateral assistance for basic education, cultural preservation, and combating human trafficking.
U.S. military assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces ceased in 1997. From that time forward, the U.S. had invited a few RCAF representatives to multilateral meetings on humanitarian issues. Otherwise, support for the military and interaction with RCAF counterparts ceased. It was not until 2003-2004 that the interagency began to explore possibilities for resuming programs with RCAF. For example, the Congressional Budget Justification for FY04, the State Department proposed the use of IMET funds for human rights and rule of law training to help professionalize RCAF.
Beijing had six years to develop relations with the Cambodian military in a vacuum created by the U.S. suspension of military relations in 1997.
- During 2000-2003, Cambodian military delegations visiting China were promised that Beijing would help foot the bill for Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) demobilization.
- Beijing invested in the construction of military training and demobilization facilities, offered training to RCAF and promised unspecified hardware.
- Senior Cambodian government and military officials privately expressed frustration with the limits on US assistance and the legislative parameters imposed on USG assistance.
But by the early 2000s, the domestic situation in Cambodia changed. The dynamic of US-Cambodian relations improved and developed, after years of Congressional ire at Hun Sen, complex and restrictive legislation prohibiting direct USG assistance to the Royal Cambodian Government.
- Cambodia demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with the regional association on transnational crime and efforts to control the flow of illicit narcotics.
- Cambodia sustained its work with the United Nations Development Program's counter-mines efforts.
- Cambodia sent officials to the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok, and worked with the US Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF-WEST) on counternarcotics missions focused on the Mekong, Poipet, Koh Kong and the Gulf of Thailand.
- Cambodia expressed an interest in working with the US to gain a peacekeeping capability.
Cambodia began to evolve into a responsible regional actor. Cambodian demonstrated a willingness to take effective steps against terrorist threats.
- Cambodia made critical arrests of foreigners associated with JI.
- Phnom Penh crafted a new national policy on Islamic issues,
- Hun Sen defined his goal as seeking to exclude radical Islam, Wahibism.
- Cambodia cooperated in the destruction of its stocks of SAM-7s.
Party politics matured. Hun Sen became more strategic in his thinking about internal politics, and Norodom Ranarith factored himself out of the equation by failing to modernize his political organization, alienating friends and allies, and attempting to thrive on the fumes of diminishing Royal influence.
Old patterns endured, though. Cambodian politics remains a traditional capital city politics, remove from the interests of the countryside, highly personalized, potentially primordial with a tendency to resolving conflict through the application of violence. And while the drive-by politics that characterized Phnom Penh in the post-UNTAC period, through the late 1990s, has been somewhat civilized over time, the instincts for settling disputes in zero sum terms has not quite been bled out of the Cambodian system.
Civil society has adapted, and begun to emerge, perhaps slightly less hesitantly than was the case after the United Nations-sponsored election in the mid-1990s. Cambodian officials have had exposure to other ways of doing business, organizing for impact and effectiveness, conducting the business of government in accordance with standards of behavior and rule of law.
Young, better educated, increasingly more cosmopolitan Cambodian professionals have begun to articulate their interests, to act on what they know and have learned, and to make a difference in some meaningful if narrow ways. Cambodian officers have attended the Asian Pacific Center for Security Studies, have studied at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, have used IMET monies to study English, and have participated in other professionalizing, capacity building training experiences.
These have made some differences, though they have not necessarily dulled the old instincts, cultural preferences, and historical patterns when it comes to conducting politics, managing relationships, exerting influence and authority, and undertaking the responsibilities of governance and defense.
After almost a year worth of consultations with the Hill during 2003-2004, in 2004 DoD launched a modest effort to rebuild defense relations with Cambodia, focused on:
- Reintegrating Cambodia into a system of multilateral conferences on terrorism, transnational issues, humanitarian disaster response conferences, and seminars on regional security. Cambodian government officials were invited to the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
- DoD sought to utilize appropriate resources on bilateral activities including demining, engineering training, search and rescue and disaster response, medical seminars, peacekeeping, and excess property programs.
- In practical ways, the Department of Defense began planning a ship visit, and dispatched assessment teams to work with RCAF on facility development. DoD also continued to explore opportunities for training, using IMET, and for FMS supporting the development of a professional Cambodian military and relying on programs such as the Defense Resource Management program.
At this point, the Department of Defense continues to encourage Cambodia to adopt transparent methods of governance, to sustain commitment to the rule of law, and to hold fast to a democratic path.
Cambodia has assumed a larger role in enhancing regional stability and sustaining cooperation on counterterrorism and counternarcotics cooperation.
Cambodia has contributed demining troops to peacekeeping in Sudan, and volunteered for peacekeeping in East Timor.
Cambodia cooperates with the State Partnership Program, a structure means of pairing US National Guard units with Cambodian provinces for practical cooperation on humanitarian assistance capability development, for example.
Cambodia is being encouraged to use IMET and FMF resources for mainstream military purposes such as vehicle maintenance, logistics training, PKO capability development.
And Cambodia has agreed to place a defense attaché in Washington, 14 years after we opened a DAO in Phnom Penh.
This is lightening speed. I never expected to see this kind of transition in my lifetime.
I hope that we can remain united about what Cambodia represents -- an opportunity for the world to figure out how to rescue a civilization from oblivion, and the example of a brutalized people rallying and resurrecting a great nation.