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Michael’s Travel Diary

Friday, 22 Jun 2007

Location: Cambodia

MapYet another interesting week working for the Royal Government of Cambodia. There was a very important conference at my office called the First Cambodia Development Forum to coordinate foreign aid with local demands (my office is the hub for all foreign aid and investment entering Cambodia). As you’ll see from the pictures, when the international community and the RGC get together there is a huge divide, both physically and conceptually. My internship is very special in that I can move freely from side to side.
There are a lot of issues at play here. We (the West, the World Bank, the European Community, etc) have been trying to ‘fix’ Cambodia for a long time. It has no doubt been a frustrating process, with a lot of broken promises on both sides. Now we’re demanding less corruption, better governance, human rights, and many other positive things in exchange for our high levels of donor assistance (both grants and loans, but mainly grants).
From the Cambodian government’s point of view (as some of my colleagues have explained to me), things are a heck of a lot better than they’ve been since about 1477, and there needs to be more patience and less demands. When you talk to them, they’ll tell you that compared to twenty years ago, modern Cambodia is paradise. These are people who were all traumatized in some way by decades of war, and don’t necessarily have the sense of urgency that the West has to keep pushing forwards.
I’m not here to judge either side, although I did have reservations during the first day about the whole setup. For five years in Thailand I told my volunteers that we’re not here to show people our way, we’re here to learn theirs. Now I’m in a room full of people telling the locals how to do it better, why they’re wrong, etc. All of which is so contrary to the culture here, where you don’t criticize people to their face, you make subtle implications.
So I sat down with a random Cambodian at lunch to get his opinion. It turned out that he is a human rights lawyer who runs an NGO here. He was forced from Phnom Penh in ’75 and spent some time in a Khmer Rouge prison before escaping to the Thai border and joining the anti-communist resistance. At one point he was sent to a guerrilla training camp in Malaysia they called ‘Camp American Cry’, since the training was so tough both the recruits and their American officers often broke down in tears. When the Vietnamese reclaimed most of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge he, like so many people I meet here of a certain age, came back and tried to rebuild the country. How does he feel about the conference? He said the West is like a father who has to scold his children for their own good. If the donor community doesn’t keep pressure on the RGC, the situation will never improve.
None the less, when the conference resumed that afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the Cambodian ministers wouldn’t rather take the Burma route and not have the West around giving orders all the time… After all, it’s the wealthy people in power who have the most to lose from good governance, and (as one US official told me) even though they nod their heads at the conference doesn’t mean they’ll sign the papers next week.
As for dinner at my neighborhood pub and a mission to photograph the inside of a ‘lady bar’, I’ll let the photos tell the story.