Tue, 04 Feb 2003

The root causes of Cambodian riot

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, Asia News Network, Bangkok

The rampage on Preach Norodom Sihanouk Boulevard last Wednesday will become another fixture of the love hate history of Thai-Cambodian relations. Only this time it severely hurts Cambodia's image and international standing.

Cambodia is an emerging democracy. The riots do not bode well for Prime Minister Hun Sen's aspiration to see his country playing a leading role in peace and security in the region and being a hub of foreign investment. It is apparent that no amount of apologies and compensation will be able to bring back the country's goodwill and reputation. Over the weekend the Thai leaders were quick to blame Hun Sen for inciting the riot ahead of the July election in order to whip up nationalist sentiment.

But that conclusion ignored the complexity of Cambodian society and its often violent history. The process that pushed the estimated 200 to 300 young Cambodians onto the streets and turned them into dangerous predators, culminating in an orgy of looting and burning, must be comprehend in all its aspects.

The Cambodian Foreign Ministry said that the riot by "extremists" had been unexpected and got out of control. As it turned out, they were not extremists but members of a scared generation from Phnom Penh's higher education institutions.

They are in their 20s looking for jobs and starting families. Without good vocational training, their prospects are bleak. Some are so desperate that they have to buy diplomas from the obscure private universities that are mushrooming in the capital.

While they credit Hun Sen with bringing stability to Cambodia, they are frustrated that benefits have not trickled down to them, unless they are in CCP circles. They have a strong sense of national pride yet at the same time can easily feel threatened.

Cambodian sociologists have studied this young adult population and concluded that without reform in higher education they will face unemployment. That alone could turn the frustration and pentup anger of the youngsters into anarchy.

If the anti Thai sentiment among Cambodians is taken as one major reason for the riot, one needs to ask if Suvanan Kongying is popular with young women and men in Cambodia. Like other Thai film and music icons before her, she was used to manipulate anti Thai feelings to benefit those in power. The difference is that this time it ran amok.

Anti foreigner campaigns in Cambodia have a long history. Since the Vietnamese troop withdrawal from Cambodia in 1990, Vietnamese citizens residing there have always been the favorite whipping boy, although no incidents have approached the burning of an embassy.

In the past two elections in 1993 and 1998, both ruling and opposition parties picked on Vietnamese living in Cambodia. They wanted to push the Vietnamese back across the border because they have stolen resources and dominated the economy.

Many have attributed the rage to the growing Thai presence and business dominance as it was symbols of Thai economic dominance -- Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Samart and Shin telecommunications, the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel -- that were destroyed. In fact, Thai investors have been dwarfed by China, South Korea, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore

Overshadowing "Thai economic dominance" has been the political uncertainty and bickering between the CCP and Funcinpec that followed the end of the Cambodian conflict in 1991.

The outcome of the 1998 election made Hun Sen the undisputed leader of Cambodia. Under him, Cambodian political and economic life has changed dramatically. As the newest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Cambodia shines as a new democracy, even though the cabinet members are still from the old regime.

Through his diplomatic finesse, Hun Sen, who served as Cambodian foreign minister from 1979 to 1985, has turned Cambodia into a chessboard of major power players. He has singlehandedly turned archenemy China into the country's new best friend.

Walk the streets of Phnom Penh, and one can quickly notice the conspicuous presence of Chinese businesses and things Chinese. Puotonghua or Mandarin is the most popular foreign language after English.

It was understandable why China was worried over the incident. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Li immediately sought the views separately from both Thai and Cambodian envoys in Beijing.

The Cambodian government has been quite sensitive towards any suggestion that it is under China's influence.

Finally, Hun Sen told his party last year he would stay on as leader and run in the upcoming election -- much to the chagrin of his colleagues. Other party heavies hold grudges against him. His ultimatum to them was any opposition to his plan would see him quit the CPP and set up a new party.

To understand what happened last week and its implications for the future, one must piece these jigsaws together. Anyway, this will not be the end of it.