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Cambodia Then and Now

Dinner Address by Gareth Evans to AsiaLink Conversation, Phnom Penh, 4 September 2010

Cambodia first made its claim on my heart and mind in 1968.

I was travelling across Asia, as so many young Australians have, to study in the UK, and spent a few fantastic days here, staying in a very downmarket hotel near the Central Market, drinking beer and eating noodles in student hangouts, and taking a wild ride in a share taxi up to Siem Riep -- scattering pigs, chickens and children in villages along the way-- to confront the majesty of Angkor Wat.

I had similar experiences in a number of other Asian countries, but there was something very distinctive about Cambodia. In later life I kept on running into a number of those young men and women I had met in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Nepal or Afghanistan – or people exactly like them. But I never again met any of the young Cambodians I had spent time with, or any of their contemporaries. The sad and horrible truth is that they all died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – executed outright as middle class enemies of the state, or worked to death through malnutrition or disease out in the fields.

As the horror of the genocide unfolded, and then the protracted misery of the civil war which followed it, I made a pledge to myself that if I could ever do anything for the wonderfully kind people of this country to relieve some of that misery then I would certainly try hard to make a difference.

The opportunity to do so came after I became Australian foreign minister in 1988. The ongoing conflict in Cambodia had defied solution, despite some serious international efforts being made, not least because of its extraordinary multi-layered complexity. Within the country there were four contending groups: facing Hun Sen’s governing party, a fragile coalition of FUNCINPEC royalists, Son Sann’s KPLNF and the Khmer Rouge; at the regional level a face-off between the ASEAN countries, supporting the coalition, and Vietnam, supporting Hun Sen; and at the major power level, a stand-off with the US supporting the non-communist coalition partners, China the Khmer Rouge, and Russia Hun Sen.

The solution which unlocked the conflict was based on a very simple, but until then unthought of, idea: give an unprecedentedly central role to the United Nations, not just in peacekeeping or electoral monitoring, but in the actual governance of the country during the transitional period, and by that means give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support from the Khmer Rouge, which would then wither on the vine.

The idea was suggested to me in outline by an old friend, US Congressman Stephen Solarz, who had been unable to win support for it in Washington. It had no more immediate appeal for a senior Australian diplomat who sat in on our meeting in New York, whose advice if I had relied on it, would have continued to leave it stillborn: “I have to say, Minister, that it is the greatest load of poppycock I have ever heard”. But I decided to ignore the gentleman in question and do some detailed testing of the water – and the rest is history.

It is important to make the point very clearly that the success of the peace process which then unfolded was not attributable to any one individual or country. It was a classic example of cooperative problem-solving diplomacy, involving multilateral processes and institutions. More specifically it involved Australia working ‘lips and teeth’ with Indonesia; huge amounts of consultation at all stages; the UN as a central part of the solution; a series of multilateral conferences convened by France and Indonesia as critical parts of the process; and the eventual total commitment of the Permanent Five members of the Security Council to ensure its effective implementation. And it also involved a huge amount of courage and commitment by the key Cambodian players: not least Hun Sen himself, the now King Father Norodom Sihanouk and his brother – happily with us this evening – Prince Sirivudh.

What resulted was a win-win situation for everyone involved – except the Khmer Rouge. The success of the Cambodian peace process has influenced profoundly my own approach to conflict prevention and resolution. It taught me that if you listen hard enough to what people tell you about their perspectives and what really matters to them; if you come up with creative -- and well thought-through and documented -- ideas about how to accommodate those different perspectives and interests; and if you can just get all the players in the same room for as long as it takes – there are solutions to even the most intractable international problems.

One of the lessons that many of us drew from Cambodia and other regional problems is the need for better standing intergovernmental machinery which brings all the key players together – including at head of government level – to find cooperative solutions for difficult and apparently intractable problems that arise for all countries across the spectrum of economic, security and social (including environmental) policy.

This perception was at the heart of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s idea for an ‘Asia Pacific community’, which -- despite some controversy along the way (not helped by the ‘c’ word which made the proposal more grandiose and EU-sounding than it was ever meant to be) -- is now very close to realization, with initial agreement now reached for the East Asian Summit (now consisting of the ASEAN countries, plus China-Japan-ROK, plus India, Australia and New Zealand) to be joined next year by the US and Russia.

ASEAN’s insistence on being a central part of these institutional processes sometimes generates a little unhappiness from other key players, but it ensures that there is brought to these deliberations not only the perspective of major powers like Indonesia, but quite small ones as well,, which can be an important corrective in many contexts.

Which brings me back for a few final words to this country whose hospitality we are now enjoying. When we set in train the UN peace plan for Cambodia in 1989 it was with a three part agenda, the hope being to deliver not just peace, but democracy and human rights as well.

I suspected at the time that we were being a little optimistic on the latter two objectives. While we could reasonably hope that the Khmer Rouge would indeed wither on the vine, as indeed they did, within a few short years, it seemed very likely that it was going to take rather longer to establish a flourishing liberal democracy. Though not because of any lack of enthusiasm on the part of ordinary Cambodians -- their extraordinary commitment and courage in exercising their right to vote in 1993, in the face of very real threats of physical attack at polling places all over the country, one of the most moving spectacles I have ever witnessed.

That caution has proved well justified. There have been some serious bumps along the way in Cambodia’s democratic process, and remains some very much unfinished institutional reform business – not least in relation to the judiciary.

But that said, it is important – and accurate – to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. The economic success story is a tremendous one, there is a spirit of confidence and vitality in the air, and Phnom Penh looks and feels ever more different, and vibrant, than the city struggling to find its feet I knew twenty years ago. And that is a great credit to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his team, including Minister Naron, who obviously have an intense commitment to the future of Cambodia, and the majority of Cambodians strongly behind them.

Those whose tastes run to gloom and pessimism have much to be disappointed about in this country. To me the most delightful evidence of that was hearing from Hun Sen this morning that Cambodia is now making a really significant contribution to UN peacekeeping in various parts of the world. From receiving blue berets to stabilize the country to sending blue berets to stabilize other countries is one hell of a full circle to turn!

It has been a great pleasure and privilege for all of us to have this opportunity to visit, or revisit, Cambodia, and see for ourselves how dramatic and encouraging the transformation of this country has been. This AsiaLink Conversation has been a wonderful couple of days, giving us all the chance to make or renew many friendships, and to receive much new information and many new ideas.

For the opportunity to do all that, and above all, again, to see for ourselves the vitality and richness and to sense the bright future of this country, I express my gratitude, and that of all of us here, to AsiaLink’s Sid Myer, our Cambodian co-host CDRI’s Larry Strange, and their excellent staffs, for bringing us together.