Untimely pilgrimage to Phnom Penh

Untimely pilgrimage to Phnom Penh

A group of senior Nepali Communist leaders from UCPN (Maoist) and NC-UML are going to Phnom Penh next week, to learn about Cambodia’s peace process. Going on donor-funded junkets to virtually all post-conflict countries to learn from their peace process has been a thriving cottage industry in Nepal over the past decade. From South Africa to Northern Ireland, El Salvador to East Timor, Mozambique to Sri Lanka, Peru to the Philippines, there is hardly any post-conflict country that Nepali political, military and civil society leaders have not visited. Nor have they been deprived of opportunities to attend meetings on issues of peace-making in Geneva and Oslo, New York and New Delhi, and myriad other places.

Lack of exposure to the experiences of other countries is not a reason for the slow progress in Nepal’s peace process or constitution-making. It is therefore totally unnecessary and untimely for so many of Nepal’s senior political leaders to embark on yet another foreign junket at the very time when all of them should focus on full-time intense negotiations on the peace process and drafting of the new constitution right here at home.

Even as the Constituent Assembly deadline approaches yet again on November 30, the peace process is in gridlock, which has in turn blocked the constitution-writing. Surely the blockages are all homegrown, and the need is for the politicians driving the peace process and constitution-writing to be in Kathmandu negotiating with each other than learning from Cambodia at this late date. In any case, the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), which is sponsoring this event entitled “Nepal Peace and Reconciliation Initiative”, has no particular expertise or track record of resolving such conflicts, and it would be naïve to expect much to come out of this gathering.

But if the visit is to proceed, despite pleas from President Ram Baran Yadav and the Chair of the Constituent Assembly Subhas Chandra Nembang, let us hope that the Nepali delegation will learn something useful from Cambodia’s experience. And there certainly are many lessons we can learn from Cambodia.

The Legacy of Khmer Rouge

Many Nepali Maoists acknowledge that their movement was inspired by Peru’s radical Shining Path movement. As someone who lived and worked in Cambodia at the height of the Khmer Rouges insurrection during 1973-75, and who followed subsequent events quite closely, I have personally noted some eerie similarities between the Nepali Maoists and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, both in terms of their ideological convictions and the brutality of the methods they used during their respective ‘peoples’ wars’.

Indeed, there were striking similarities even in the counter-insurgency methods used by the Royal Nepal Army and Cambodia’s Lon Nol regime. Luckily, unlike in Cambodia, Nepal’s civil war ended through a negotiated peace agreement, and the country was spared the kind of genocidal bloodbath which Cambodia experienced following the victory of the Khmer Rouge.

When the triumphant Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, initially the war-weary people welcomed them with white flags. Within hours the intentions of the insurgents became clear. Cambodia moved from 1975 to Year Zero, as the Khmer Rouge wished to rebuild a ‘New Cambodia’ after destroying the remnants of what they considered the old, feudal regime. The whole country turned into a massive concentration camp, and ‘killing fields’, cut off from the rest of the world.

As Cambodia’s borders were hermetically sealed, initially it was difficult to know what exactly was going on. But slowly reports started filtering out of a horrific social engineering experiment.  All cities and towns including Phnom Penh were emptied out – with even hospital patients, the elderly, the disabled and children forced to evacuate at gunpoint. Many died or were killed along the way as they were force-marched to the countryside.

People were rounded up and killed for wearing glasses, reading books, speaking a foreign language, eating at the wrong time, or even for crying for their dead relatives. Former bureaucrats and businessmen, teachers and professionals were killed along with their entire families, as the Khmer Rouge regime felt that it could not count on their total and unquestioning loyalty. The regime went as far as to kill some Khmer Rouge sympathizers for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to be executed.

After emptying all cities and towns, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to dismantle the country’s intellectual and administrative structures. Religion was banned, money and currency were abolished, private property was prohibited, agriculture was collectivized.

Hundreds of thousands of people were executed; hundreds of thousands died due to starvation or disease. Out of the estimated national population of 7 million in 1975, close to 2 million citizens perished during the ‘new miracle’ of Democratic Kampuchea. In terms of indicators of human development, the situation of the Cambodian people worsened dramatically during the four-year reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Maternal and infant mortality rose significantly and life expectancy tumbled, as most hospitals were closed and doctors and nurses killed. The education sector was completely devastated with 80 percent of teachers killed and all schools closed for half a decade.

Museums of horror

The whole world today acknowledges the horrific disaster of the Khmer Rouge period, but many Maoist leaders of Nepal, including Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai, have denied that such inhuman atrocities could have happened under the rule of their ideological predecessors. Having instigated and experienced similar atrocities – although on a minor scale – during their Jhapa Andolan, most leaders of today’s UML/ML seem to be acutely cognizant of the destructive potential of Maoist radicalism.

I hope that for the Nepali visitors, particularly for the hardline Maoist leaders who still dream about capturing the state through ‘people’s revolt’, and turning Nepal into the Democratic Kampuchea-type People’s Republic, the first stop in Phnom Penh will be the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. A former high school turned into a Khmer Rouge security prison, it became a notorious torture and killing chamber where thousands of prisoners, including also former Khmer Rouge cadres and leaders, were exterminated. The museum chronicles in graphic detail some of the torture methods used, which are enough to send chill down one’s spine.

If the Nepali delegation has the time, I hope it would also visit Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of Pol Pot, including the grave where he is buried. They should also visit the notorious prison and torture chamber run by the one-legged Khmer Rouge General Ta Mok.

Peace in Cambodia did not come through a negotiated settlement but through the invasion by neighbouring Vietnam – certainly not a model Nepal would have wanted to emulate. Following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia restored the once-abolished constitutional monarchy. Presumably, neither the UCPN (Maoist), nor CPN-UML nor most other political parties in today’s Nepal would wish to reincarnate our defunct monarchy.

Cambodia is led today by a highly authoritarian and arrogant prime minister, Hun Sen, a former junior cadre of the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen is certainly not a role model for democratic Nepal. Lately, Hun Sen has been fanning the flames of ultra-nationalistic belligerence against neighboring Thailand, reminiscent of the Nepali Maoists’ anti-Indian tirades which achieved little good for our citizens, or even to the Maoist party.

The Hun Sen government has been very hostile to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal”, established in cooperation with the United Nations to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge for serious violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The Cambodian Government has also been quite hostile to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These have brought much international criticism against the current Phnom Penh government.

Economy matters

So, there is much Nepalis can learn, mostly about what not-to-do from Cambodia’s experience.  Among the positive things we can learn from Cambodia is how to create an investment-friendly atmosphere through pragmatic economic policies that have made the Cambodian economy quite vibrant. Cambodia’s economy grew by about 10 percent per year from 2004 to 2007, driven largely by an expansion in the garment sector, construction, agriculture and tourism. Its GDP contracted slightly in 2009 as a result of the global economic slowdown, but has climbed up to more than 6 percent in 2010-11.

Cambodia rose from the ashes of the devastation brought about by the Khmer Rouge, and its robust economic growth and infrastructure development is something Nepal should strive to emulate. But to accelerate completion of our peace process and drafting of the new constitution, the upcoming visit by our high-level politicians is an unnecessary and unhelpful distraction from the real job that needs to be done in Kathmandu, not in Phnom Penh.

Published in Republica Daily 2011-10-24

Link: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=37523