U.S. Aid Helps Turn the Killing Fields : Cambodia: Improved living standards will blunt the most powerful weapon of the Khmer Rouge--poverty.

Kassie Neou, a native Cambodian, taught English in Phnom Penh until the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover, when he was arrested and tortured; he eventually escaped to the United States. He became executive director of the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights in Phnom Penh in 1992

The United States has done something right. Something important and wonderful.

This thought struck me one black, cold night more than two years ago as I lay unable to sleep under the temporary coconut-leaf shelter that I and two aides had erected in a secret area near a war-torn rural village in the Thmar Puok district of Cambodia. I needed to find out for myself what was happening in this area near the Thai border, where the civil war between government troops and the Khmer Rouge was often fiercest.

Thmar Puok was one of the areas along the border to which U.S. Agency for International Development money was channeled through local non-governmental agencies from 1989 to 1993 for rural development projects, such as de-mining abandoned roads and rice fields, providing vaccinations to children and preventive care to villagers who had been without medical care for 20 years, providing care to farm animals, promoting access to school and vocational training for women and girls, building tertiary roads linking remote villages and drilling wells to provide clean, potable water to villagers for the first time in their lives.

Hoping to learn the impact of this aid from those most truly affected, I had set out to talk (undercover) with the villagers living in an area often under the on-and-off Khmer Rouge control. What I found was that the most powerful weapon of the Khmer Rouge--the insufferable poverty of rural people and their belief that they were being ignored--had been neutralized. These villagers were seeing improvements in their subsistence living standard, a lessening of their suffering and an increase in their hopes for a better future.

The United States had done something right by its infusion of AID funding, and in contributing 30% of the $2 billion the United Nations spent on the peace process leading to the May, 1993, Cambodian elections. Part of that sum went to help educate and encourage Cambodians on exercising their democratic rights. And more than 90% of registered voters--54% of them women--cast ballots, often while facing threats of death.

The new 1993 Cambodian government established a monarchy with some quasi-democratic processes, struggling to incorporate the many battling disparate political elements and to avoid slipping back into full-fledged civil war. It was and is a difficult and flawed balancing act.

For centuries, Cambodians lived under autocracy. Democracy is still exotic and new. The imperfect beginnings of democracy established in Cambodia are fragile, shaky and still developing. Think of it as an infant that must still be nurtured, guided, held by the hand as it learns to walk, so weak and unknowing that it could still fall into danger, even die. For this child to grow up and become strong enough to walk on its own will take some years. If those who helped this infant be born suddenly walk away, it could quickly perish.

Very soon, Congress will decide whether to give more AID money to Cambodia. At a time when the United States is properly striving to cut needless expenses, a vote supporting this aid is frugal in the best sense. After investing so much to begin a democratic process, to throw it all away by slashing funding now would be the purest wasteful extravagance. If autocracy, corruption and war would soon reclaim Cambodia, there is nothing to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power. And in the end, America could end up spending more--for the wrong things.

In Asian philosophy, there is no shame in doing something wrong that you did not know was wrong. That is why the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights emphasizes education, especially for schoolteachers and government officials (including police and military) about civic laws and duties. We must also teach conflict resolution to respected village elders, where education about democracy is most important of all. But it will take time before a democratic culture can be cultivated into the very flesh and blood of the Cambodian people.

The United States has done something right. Something wonderful and important. Don't waste the money already spent, don't waste the foundation for progress already created, by thinking "case closed" in Cambodia. The success of the struggle for democratic change in Cambodia holds the potential of bringing greater democracy throughout Southeast Asia and Asia itself.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°