Two Cambodian officials are in Europe to plead for help in ending their country's civil war. Tony Kahane reports
TWO Cambodian government ministers have been in Europe for the past two weeks for a series of meetings that could determine their country's future. Having first visited Belgium, Holland and Ireland, they have been in London this week on an unofficial visit the first ever to the UK of members of the Cambodian government led by Hun Sen.
Cham Prasidh is vice minister in the council of ministers, the Cambodian cabinet, and Keo Samouth is vice minister for planning. Now aged 39, Cham Prasidh was deported to Battambang and Siena Reap provinces to work in the fields, during the period from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot were in power. Since then he has progressed through the Cambodian foreign ministry. He is close to the prime minister, Hun Sen.
Keo Samouth is of an older generation. Born in Prey Veng province in 1929, he studied economics before joining the ministry of planning. Under the regimes of both Sihanouk and Lon Nol he worked in the ministry's statistical and economic institute. Like Prasidh, he was sent to work in the fields under Pol Pot, during which period four of his eight children perished.
The main purpose of the officials' trip has been to discuss the development needs of their country. The tour has been sponsored by a number of European agencies, including the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and Christian Aid in the UK, and Trocaire, the Catholic development agency, in Ireland. All of these fund projects in Cambodia.
The trip comes at a critical time for Cambodia, with the country in serious economic decline. This has been aggravated by the continuing civil war, where the Khmer Rouge, by selectively targeting their attacks, have managed to inflict considerable damage on poor rural areas. Their latest reported successes include cutting off the town of Kompong Speu, only 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh, and capturing and briefly holding the central provincial capital of Kompong Thom, 130 kilometres north of the national capital.
Aid agencies around the world, including CAFOD and Christian Aid, have continued, throughout the long war, to help in the provision of schools and hospitals and other necessities for the people of Cambodia.
Although desperately important for Cambodia, aid is not the only answer. A powerful diplomatic initiative is urgently
needed to break the long sequence of inconclusive peace talks. Otherwise the Khmer Rouge, who have been deliberately stringing out negotiations in the hope that the government will continue to weaken, are likely to make their planned comeback. Another bloodbath will then be almost inevitable.
In this connection, the Cambodian ministers have also had meetings with national government and EC officials. Their visit to Dublin coincides with the EC summit there. In Belgium, they met EC development officials, and had talks at the Belgian foreign ministry and ministry of development.
Hopes for a major diplomatic initiative come from two sources, and for Cambodia's ' sake it is imperative that at least one of them succeeds. The first is an enlarged Asian initiative. Japan — not known in recent times for bold foreign policy moves — is now keen to add its considerable weight in joining Thailand, Indonesia and Australia in formulating a strong agreement.
The other potential source for a diplomatic move is the EC. With the positions of individual member countries now moving to a more sympathetic stance, it is from this arena that a major initiative may spring.
For a decade now, supporters of the church aid agencies and the many other nongovernmental organisations who take a similar view, have been pressing the British government to adopt a different line in its attitude to the Cambodian government. In recent weeks, the British government has given discrete signals that it may be changing its stance on the UN seating issue.
At present a "coalition", which includes the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk's grouping, holds the seat, but the signalled shift is to vote instead for the "empty seat" formula. Such a move would be welcomed by those who have been arguing for a change, but it would be too little, and also too late (the issue will come before the UN only in the autumn) to do much for Cambodia.
The visit of two high-ranking Cambodians to Europe is an opportunity which should be seized upon by all the governments concerned. They should act quickly and boldly, in a common move of EC and non-EC European countries, to avert another catastrophe in Cambodia. There would be no excuse this time for the west if Pol Pot returned to power.
Tony Kahane works as a journalist with Christian Aid.