Cambodia Celebrates a Fragile Recovery


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The four-lane road that runs six miles from downtown Phnom Penh to the airport has a new coat of asphalt, and fresh paint brightens buildings and billboards in every corner of the Cambodian capital. A revived Phnom Penh is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its "liberation" -- Jan. 7, 1979, when Vietnamese troops and a group of defectors from the Khmer Rouge routed the murderous Pol Pot government.

Ten years ago, Phnom Penh was a ghost city, largely emptied during the four years of rule by the despotic Khmer Rouge, who called their government Democratic Kampuchea. Between April 1975 and the end of 1978, more than a million Cambodians were killed or died of disease, starvation or overwork during the Khmer Rouge drive to build a self-sufficient agrarian economy.

Phnom Penh billboard celebrates 10th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

Today, a family of four clinging to a small motorcycle may brush shoulders with a merchant climbing into his new Toyota sedan. The capital's streets are crowded with a growing number of bicycles, pedicabs, motorcycles and even automobiles.

Imported sodas and beer crowd two Phnom Penh shops.

Those with money to spend can find an abundant supply of soap and shirts from Thailand, cans of Coke and Heineken from Singapore and Japanese boom boxes in Phnom Penh's markets and stores. One of the new restaurants in the center of town serves up disco music videos from Dubai with its Chinese and French food.

Cambodia's leaders and its military have become more experienced in the past 10 years, says Khieu Kanharith, editor of the weekly newspaper Kampuchea, and that has given the country more self-confidence.

"That's why now we are beginning to liberalize our economy," he says, "especially, for example, import and export policies and agricultural policies."

The Vietnamese-backed government has always tolerated a substantial private sector -- in part because it was not strong enough to develop an economy completely controlled by the government, in part because it wanted to distance itself from the harsh policies of collectivization Cambodians had come to fear under the Khmer Rouge.

Now Phnom Penh is actively encouraging entrepreneurs and even seeking private investment from abroad.

But Cambodia is still tormented by a guerrilla war. And the uncertainties of war limit investment. A three-party resistance coalition -- made up of the Khmer Rouge, Prince Norodom Sihanouk's followers and a group headed by former Prime Minister Son Sann -- is waging a guerrilla struggle against the Phnom Penh government and its Vietnamese sponsors.

Nevertheless, one overseas Khmer investor has put up the money to complete the luxurious Motel Cambodiana on the bank of the Tonle Sap River. And Western residents of Phnom Penh say another Asian investor is planning a factory to make toothpicks and disposable chopsticks in Pursat province, west of the capital.

The economic boom is new.

"It realy only began after people started to believe the Vietnamese were leaving," one foreign relief worker says. The boom started to show in early 1988 and took off about the time of the first major Vietnamese withdrawal last summer.

The flood of foreign consumer goods in the markets masks the limits of Cambodia's own factories and workshops. The country must import 50 to 60 percent of its clothing, shoes and other basic consumer goods, says Kanharith. Luxury items, like electronics equipment, are all imported.

Siem Reap market vendors display an abundance of vegetables.

Yet, for Cambodia, which 10 years ago needed massive amounts of outside aid just to avoid starvation, the major accomplishment is in agriculture. Foreign relief workers say the 1988 harvest is likely to come close to the target of 2.6 million tons of paddy (unhusked) rice -- enough to feed the country's 7 million people.

The increase in food production is partly the result of introducing "green revolution" rice strains in some areas. These varieties can produce a ton and a half of paddy per acre instead of the half ton per acre given by traditional strains.

But part of the credit for increased production must go to economic liberalization -- paying higher prices for rice, breaking up the country's cooperatives and giving the land back to farm families.

"Before, each family could own five hectares (12.35 acres) of land," Kanharith says. "But now they can own as much as they like, on the condition that they cultivate this land. At the same time, before, the state held a monopoly of tractors and agricultural machinery." Now the government plans to sell farm equipment directly to individual farmers, he says.

Each gain seems balanced by a continuing problem.

As recently as five years ago, most of the country's motor vehicles were patched together from the parts of several buses, cars or motorbikes discarded during the Khmer Rouge years. Now they come in from Singapore by the shipload through the ports at Koh Kong, Kep and Kompong Som, paid for with earnings from exports of rubber, timber and other commodities.

Yet most of the roads the new cars must drive have continued to deteriorate during the past 10 years. The official news agency SPK says just 500 miles of roads have been paved since 1979. Many of the country's 1,200 miles of main highways seem to have more potholes than pavement, and side roads are sometimes in worse shape.

The number of private international agencies with development and relief programs in Cambodia is growing. Yet the country's needs -- as much as $500 million a year in development aid if it is to move beyond bare survival to real development -- can be met only by governments and major international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank.

And neither Western governments nor the large international organizations have indicated any willingness to provide more than token assistance until Vietnamese troops are withdrawn from Cambodia and the warring Cambodian factions reach a political settlement.

"We want to stop this bloodshed," Kanharith says. "If you want to rebuild your country, it's very important that we reach some agreement acceptable for all."

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 8, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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