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Cambodia 25 years on: Leadership Without Regrets

Do you remember Cambodia's 1998 elections and the post-election violent crackdown?
Yes, of course I do and for more reasons than most.  Apart from the fact that I had worked to help make sure the elections took place, I also witnessed live-fire on protesters including two badly injured maybe dead monks by Wat Langka pagoda. 

It’s hard to believe but it is now 25 years since I landed in Cambodia.  I had left Rwanda and was supposed to be on my way to Haiti.  Fate however intervened.  I saw a job in the Cambodia Daily one day, applied for it and started work the next day.  I joined the work of Human Rights from the fields of Human Resources and Development.

Sadly I have to say that 25 years on, the work of Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia is needed as much today as it was 25 years ago – more so in some areas, less so in some.  Why is this?

Humanity has proven to be exceptionally able to learn, to adapt and to improve.  So it is unusual for there to be no clear progress in areas where it is within the gift of man to do better.

Let me explain my take on Cambodia back in 1997-8 when I first arrived. It was in the aftermath of the armed confrontation that saw the First Prime Minister deposed. There had been killing and chaos in the streets of Phnom Penh.  Everyone I encountered thought that Cambodia’s hard won ultra- expensive peace and democracy were in mortal danger.

What I saw in the months that ensued was a remarkably united determination not to let this happen.  The international community, local organisations, and politicians all wanted the 1998 National Elections to go ahead as planned. They hoped that they would lead to restoration of an elected government with a national assembly made up of representatives chosen entirely by the voters.  I was close to top leadership and co-ordination in action, people working together.  One of the projects I personally led was working directly with the police and military on the strict neutrality of their personnel throughout the election process.

Senator Solarz

Today as we head in to elections later this year, I am sorry to say that such leadership and co-operation is sadly lacking.

Conduct of elections is not the only area in the last 25 years to have encountered similar backsliding from noble aspirations of the Paris Peace Accords and UNTAC era.

Senator Stephen J Solarz leading the US observation mission (who I met) referred to the "Miracle of the Mekong" that such an election was possible after the 1997 conflict.  

Sue Downie and a few of us in the affrays respectfully disagree.

Perhaps the most significant of these noble aspirations was the inability of the “Khmer Rouge trial”, established to apply international standards of justice, to achieve one of its key aims of instilling such standards in to the domestic system of law enforcement.

Yes, we know!
Now it is not all bad news over the last 25 years.  The government is correct to point this out.  Economic growth has been spectacular even if it has increased inequalities.

The problem for people like me is that we believe that more could be achieved, and equally important that those improvements that are accomplished, could be made more permanent, instead of slipping back.

Perhaps the biggest best funded project of this era was one to train teachers in all Cambodia's schools how to teach human rights. It evaporated when the external funding ended. I had an unusual impact on this project.  I noticed that the practice class, to observe the newly trained teachers apply their new learning, was with fellow teachers, not with actual students who were in the grounds playing. It took a little persuasion to have this put right, not just for that training but the entire project.

After my stint in “human rights” I moved across to work with Cambodians living with disability.  My NGO and others in the then Disability Action Council made some remarkable strides forward.  Based on what our clients clearly expressed, the “Pity Me, Handout, Punished for Past Sins” mentality was pushed aside.  In its place we had self-help groups working on their solutions and willing to advocate for changes that would make their lives better.  Indeed they succeeded in working constructively with authorities to end what one minister described as “evidence of broad-based malfeasance” in the administration of veterans’ pensions.

Yes, we can do!
The innate ability of people to help themselves is for me the most appropriate approach that should be adopted throughout Foreign Aid.  It isn’t.  If one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups – poor people living with disability – can do it then so should everyone else.  Peculiarly they are seldom encouraged and allowed to do this.  Some would blame an over-paternalistic government yet in truth many in the international community are equally to blame.  How many international agencies and NGOs are there still operating in Cambodia despite being here for decades?  How many have exit and handover strategies, plans, and operations?  How many keep importing their own “experts”.  How many are committed to “localisation”?

Our children's advocacy group proved that disabled people can do for themselves, here dancing and performing, not the typical image of pity, helplessness and waiting for handouts that is portrayed in Cambodia.

Localisation of Foreign Aid has been talked about for decades.  It has featured in a series of “Aid Effectiveness” debates.  Indeed USAID’s recent new Administrator Samantha Powers has re-pledged to bring more of it about.  Yet somehow despite all the talk, actual full localisation is rare.

Here in Cambodia we do have successful examples of it. I could name some as well as the three of my international NGOs successfully transitioned in to local ones.  Although one fell by the wayside after 8 years solo, one of our original clients Kosal has replicated it.  He is disabled himself and has overcome many obstacles to be a late developer in life.  He now runs his own small NGO providing English and Computing classes in a remote part of Battambang province. 

The other two localised NGOs are doing well even if they have suffered cut-backs because of the Covid pandemic and with less funding from donors available.  There are two keys to the success of localising NGOs.  One is the same model of collective leadership that we imbued from grassroots-level upwards. The other is a functioning governance structure, i.e. an active and interested Board of Directors.

My third localised NGO is in Mondulkiri also the second of Cambodia’s provinces I visited back in 1998, after Kratie.  I’ve been fortunate to work in all provinces of Cambodia except one (Prea Vihear) and unusually for many Country Directors, I have lived and worked in three. Along with a Cambodia Daily reporter, we were the first foreigners in Pailin after the Khmer Rouge there ceded to the government.

It was in Mondulkiri that I first met Cambodia’s indigenous people.  Many at that time were still leading traditional lives, living off the land, with limited modernity.  In those days Bousra was not accessible by road, only by rough track. You had to ford through streams.  When torrential rain suddenly descended in us the streams became torrents. We could not cross them to get back to Sen Monorom.  We were stuck. Then a Bunong family gave us sanctuary, as well as too much of their potent wine, as my colleagues discovered the next morning.  So began my long association with ethnic minorities to this day. Yet that association has witnessed unrelenting destruction of their way-of-life.  Deforestation and land concessions have been imposed on a massive scale for agro-industrial purposes. They come with mass influxes of outsiders.  It means that the Bunong are now a minority in their own province.  The process has gone on despite indigenous people’s traditional lands supposed to be protected by Cambodia’s and international laws.

I regret failures.  Could we have done more to prevent their losses and with it the threat to the existence and culture of these distinctive people?

Regret is an essential human characteristic.  It is a negative feeling.  Guilt and shame accompany it.  Usually when a person feels them, it leads to self-analysis and lessons learned, then to changes in behaviour.  We resolve not to repeat the same mistakes.

You can see my human resources professional background.

I posed a question earlier in this article after saying that Human Rights Defenders are needed in Cambodia as much in 2023 as they were in 1998.  The question posed was “Why is this?”

Well let me venture to suggest one explanation for it is that the Cambodia Government and the ruling party are either devoid of regret or they are very good at concealing it.  They rarely if ever accept that either they are at fault or they could do things better, unless of course it is the Prime Minister who points it out.

Well I won’t be around in another 25 years. Time is not on my side but it is on Cambodia’s youth.  If the next 25 years are to be better for them and for all in Cambodia, then regret must no longer be buried.  And maybe in 25 years Human Rights Defenders will have been confined to history.


John Lowrie is a now retired Human Resources, Development and Human Rights Practitioner

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