Painful transition for Cambodians

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 December, 1995, 12:00am

I REFER to the article headlined, 'Turmoil returns to Cambodia' (South China Morning Post, December 15). It gave some insight into what is going on in Cambodia, a country trying find its way towards democracy after having been a completely closed society for many years.

This has been a nervous period of transition for everyone in the country since the arrival, in 1992, of the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC).

Pro-democracy supporters are nervous, constantly afraid that the old world of terror may return. Anti-democratic forces are nervous too, fearing that democracy may succeed and they may lose their grip on society.

The inner emotional level of expectations and fears is very intense. Many Cambodians find it hard to cope with this state of affairs, as hardly anyone has any real understanding of how democracy works. I have heard a number of anecdotes which may strike readers as not being that unusual within the context of Asia.

In the 1993 elections the FUNCINPEC party won a majority and State of Cambodia (SOC) a few less seats. One very senior SOC politician who later became a minister asked: 'Do you know of any country, where a party gets a little over 50 per cent of votes and 100 per cent of power?' After UNTAC's intervention many newspapers began to be published. One published satirical cartoons consisting of the bodies of dogs with the faces of some leading politicians. One Cambodian asked if politicians were depicted in this way by cartoonists in other countries. He was clearly outraged.

It was known that judges in Cambodia had no real independence. When some UN officers discussed this matter with a government minister, the minister declared that he would 'make the judges independent'. UN officials organised classes for judges, tutoring Cambodian Supreme Court justices in the basics of criminal law and procedure. During one of the classes, one of the judges asked what the officials meant by cross examination.

When a group of provincial judges was told not to rely on so-called confessions to the police (usually people were convicted solely on this evidence), one judge remarked, 'In that case, judges should be given motor-cycles'. Asked why, he said. 'If we do not trust police evidence, we have to conduct the investigations ourselves. For that we need to travel.' On one occasion, a group of UN officers travelling on a road in a remote part of the country, found a group of people who were preparing to shoot a man tied to a tree. When asked why they were doing this, the group members said that the man had harassed a girl. 'Can't you give a lesser punishment than death?' the officers asked. 'There is no such thing', replied a spokesman for the group. 'Either, he is killed or goes unpunished.' The incident led to further investigations and building of a jail by UNTAC in this area, to prevent summary executions. Under a special decree made by the head of UNTAC, the UN police arrested four persons for election-related serious crimes.

When they were produced in court the judge declared that he had been told by the justice ministry not to hear the cases. Two UN officers contacted the justice minister to verify this. He confirmed his instructions, further saying, 'If he does not obey I will punish him'.

Such episodes are common. Those who wish to promote democracy in Cambodia, must understand the confusion and fear felt by people living in a violent society and facing the problems of any nation which is trying to replace one political culture with a new order.