Washington Times Masthead

Keeping Cambodia on our side

By Richard T. Hines

Sunday, July 2, 2000

Remember Cambodia? I am sure many Americans thought of that small Southeast Asian nation for the first time in many years last month, when the 25th anniversary of the Kent State shootings was observed. For those of you who have forgotten, or who are too young to remember, a wave of campus protest was set in motion in the spring of 1970 when American troops entered Cambodia in pursuit of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. This was after years of "secret bombing" of Cambodia by American forces.

Five years later, contemporaneous with the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia was taken over by what was perhaps the most brutal communist rigime of them all, the Khmer Rouge. Led by a maniacal ideologue, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to institute the purest form of communism the world had yet seen, an effort that led to the deaths of up to 2 million people - more than a third of the total population of Cambodia.

This genocidal horror was depicted in the motion picture "The Killing Fields," but few Americans have given much thought to Cambodia over the past quarter-century. Some may even assume the nation has ceased to exist.

But Cambodia still lives, is progressing, and, if American policy-makers do the right thing, can thrive as a valuable friend and ally of the United States.

Recently, Sens. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, Arizona Republican, both Vietnam veterans, had the intelligence and courage to propose an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill that would have restored some direct aid to Cambodia. Sadly, not enough other members shared their vision. Rather than see their amendment buried under a plethora of counterproductive conditions, Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain withdrew it.

This aid is long overdue, and its extension would have been recognition of the real progress Cambodia has made toward establishing a stable and democratic government. In absolute terms, the aid is a small amount; but in its importance to the Cambodian people, it is of great significance.

This aid has been held up before now by a combination of factors, principally misinformation and inattention, but with a mixture of malice in some quarters. Mr. Kerry actually went to Cambodia to see the situation for himself and to bring back some current and accurate information for his colleagues.

That information should include the fact that Cambodia is now governed by a coalition representing parties that garnered more than four-fifths of the vote in a free election conducted with the participation of international observers. Cambodia has embraced the free market, and a free enterprise economy is growing steadily. Political violence, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge, is diminishing rapidly. Personal freedom, most especially freedom of religion, is flourishing in Cambodia.

There is still much to be done. A major government operation is the clearing of millions of land mines left in Cambodia by decades of war. (On average, there are 70 persons killed or injured each week in Cambodia by old land mines.) Health care, education and infrastructure are inadequate, particularly in rural areas. A small opposition party outside the coalition pursues obstructionist tactics and attracts attention from uninformed outsiders. Without doubt, Cambodia has a long way to go, but it is well on the way to national recovery. As Mr. Kerry has said, the perfect should not be made the enemy of the good.

A major point of contention has been the arrangement for the trial of the former Khmer Rouge leaders now in Cambodian government custody. Some foreign critics have pushed for an international court to try these defendants, while the Cambodian government has insisted it is fully capable of carrying out such a trial without foreign interference. On his visit to Cambodia, Mr. Kerry sought to break this impasse and negotiated a proposal to try the Khmer Rouge defendants before a court composed of both Cambodian and foreign judges, in an open trial before international observers. This plan awaits approval by the Cambodian National Assembly.

There are no remaining legitimate reasons fordenying Cambodia normal relations with the United States. Indeed, the arguments for normal relations with Cambodia are stronger than those for normal relations with China.

Does China respect freedom of religion, as does Cambodia? Does China allow freedom of the press, as does Cambodia? Does China allow opposition parties, power sharing, and free elections, as does Cambodia? Does China allow genuine free markets and free enterprise, as does Cambodia? We know the answers to these questions, and we know that the House recently approved permanent, normal trading relations with China. On any objective measure, Cambodia is a freer nation than China, so why does the United States not have normal relations with Cambodia? Why the double standard?

Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain are to be commended for taking the time and expending the effort to learn the true situation in Cambodia and to do the right thing for that small, suffering country.

One final point: I represent the Prime Minister of Cambodia in relations with the U.S. government, a fact of which many readers will be well aware. But my means of livelihood does not deprive me of my free speech rights as an American citizen. I truly believe the Cambodian government is making daily progress toward a free, stable, and prosperous country, and this belief is shared by a growing number of Americans who have taken the trouble to inform themselves. Moreover, it will be a country willing to be a friend of the U.S. in a vital strategic region.

An opportunity still exists to save the American position in Cambodia. Aid can be directed to regional and local governments for vital infrastructure rebuilding, health care delivery, and educational improvements. Aid for Cambodia is a policy of both virtue and prudence. The U.S. is obligated to relive decades of suffering caused, in part, by past American policy errors. Further, such aid is imperative if Cambodia is to be saved from total dependence on China, which has not stinted in its aid to this strategically important county. Our current policy is flawed both morally and strategically. We should restore direct aid to Cambodia.