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Oil wealth could save or ruin Cambodia

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Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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I VISITED Cambodia last week at the invitation of the East-West Center in Honolulu, through a program supported on the ground by the United Nations Development Program.

The first trick with Cambodia is to somehow square what appears to be the fundamental gentleness, kindness, and courtesy of the Cambodian people with the absolute hideousness of a good part of its recent history. The 1975-1979 period included the horrors of rule by the notorious Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians.

A good number of Khmer Rouge are still around in the country. The current prime minister, Hun Sen, was himself a Khmer Rouge military commander in the 1970s.

One of the current controversies in Cambodia is the usefulness of the upcoming trials to be conducted by a mixed international and Cambodian court. One argument for the tribunal is learning what happened in the dark days of the Khmer Rouge will inoculate the Cambodians against repeating the bloodbath. Another is that the Cambodian national court system will be strengthened by the exercise.

In my view, "digging up bones" is both expensive and risks reopening old, severe wounds that have begun to heal.

I found the overall Cambodian situation fragile in the sense that it could easily fall back into disorder and violence. Cambodians have little or no confidence in any of the country's institutions, a sign of a state at great risk of failing.

The monarchy, a strong element in Cambodia's past, is in a sorry state. The retired king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, is old, ailing, and out of the country. The current king has little force; the crown prince, even less.

The dominant figure in Cambodia now is Prime Minister Hun Sen, close to a dictator even though the country does have elections. He maintains support in the interior of the country by passing out largesse. But he is hated, despised, and feared by many of Cambodia's middle class and intellectuals in the capital, Phnom Penh.

The parliamentary opposition includes the royalist FUNCINPEC party, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a corrupt, frivolous reprobate, and the Sam Rangsi Party. Mr. Rangsi was described to me as an eternal oppositionist. Who would name a party after himself anyway? Anyway, Cambodia's politicians didn't look like much to me.

The courts are weak. Buddhist clergy have virtually no structure to them. Cambodia's military is low paid, part time and fractionated. There is little or no coherent private financial and economic leadership, particularly given that foreigners own a lot of the economy. Even higher educational institutions have lost their credibility with the creation of many for-profit private universities.

Cambodia's economy operates on very shaky ground. It follows behind the horses - or let's say, the tigers - of its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The two primary earners now are garment exports, 90 percent to the United States, and tourism, largely from other Asian nations. Both sectors are largely owned by foreigners.

Coming up to save or ruin Cambodia is oil. Chevron-Texaco has found 700 million barrels offshore in the Gulf of Thailand, with more likely to come offshore and probably onshore. It will be worth an estimated $1 billion a year starting in 2010 or so. The oil could serve as a powerful engine of development for one of Asia's poorest countries. Given the fragility of its institutions and its horrendous recent history of practically matchless mayhem, the advent of oil could also set off another round of awfulness.

It is up to the Cambodians. They are capable of gentility and resilience. They are also capable of some of the worst behavior of modern times. It doesn't matter much to the rest of us, but for the 14 million Cambodians it is literally life or death. And it is their choice.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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