Today was the day on which we could all safely say that the war in Cambodia was over. Once before, Cambodian people had hoped that on 17 April 1975 when the Khmer Republic regime lost the war, “the war was over” and people came out to chant peace in the streets of Phnom Penh welcoming the arrival of the occupying Khmer Rouge forces.
That was the beginning of a tragedy. On 29 December 1998, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen championed a peace process to effectively end the Khmer Rouge political organisation and any remnants of armed militias in the Cambodian jungle.
Samdech ensured former Khmer Rouge fighters freedom, economic livelihood, property ownership and citizenship which enabled wholesale national reconciliation.
For the first time in Cambodia’s history of war and peace, the country began enjoying comprehensive territorial and political unity. Techo’s peace strategy was characterised by open-mindedness and compromise.
Without a strong figure who had the trust of the military, popular support, statecraft, clever diplomacy and charisma, Cambodia could still be fought between various political factions. We are all today thankful for peace.
As we look toward 2021, we can rightly evaluate 2020 as a year of success for Cambodia as the pandemic is well controlled with no fatality and low adverse economic impact.
November 2020 was a testing month but it also verified the competency and responsiveness of Cambodian healthcare system. The pause in some economic activities as a result of the pandemic, in particular the tourism industry, has been transformed into an opportunity to continue or start new infrastructure projects such as in Siem Reap, Preah Sihanouk and other provinces.
The pandemic has shown that the RGC, under Prime Minister Hun Sen, handles stress well amidst global uncertainty. Comparatively, Cambodia is ranked high in the world in containing Covid-19, despite making the applauded and risky humanitarian attempt to save stranded 2,257 Westerdam passengers and crew, which many countries had rejected. Cambodia won the hearts of those passengers for demonstrating international unity amid global fragmentation in the face of Covid-19 pandemic. After the Prime Minister made a trip to China in late February 2020, Chinese people went to social media Weibo and other platforms expressing praise and love for the Prime Minister’s show of solidarity. Some called him “handsome man walking against the current.” It was not bad to have the love of more than a billion people.
Overall, WHO stated that Cambodia “has made great efforts in mobilising a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach under the leadership of Samdech Prime Minister, including the establishment of national and provincial multi-sectoral committees to combat the pandemic.”
Cambodia’s well-coordinated response consists of surveillance, contact tracing, incident management, hotspot hunting and planning, non-pharmaceutical public health measures, risk communication, operational logistics as well as reliable, accurate and timely laboratory diagnostics. The result is that we have come out of 2020 with only 363 infections, amidst 80 million global cases.
Despite above successes, we must all remain vigilant for the future and be thankful for the other Cambodian social dimension which has become a norm among post-genocide generations.
The endowment of peace, which was laid by the Prime Minister on 28 December 1998, has placed a solid foundation for effective health measures in particular the gradual investment in health security system.
The unity and strong leadership has not wasted anytime in fruitless debates on how and what to respond to Covid-19.
Yet the threat of political conflict has always made peace fragile and the response to Covid-19 problematic. Stability and focus is indispensable in time of crisis. Peace has a low benefit to cost ratio when resolving social grievances. In contrast, conflict has an overall high cost when it comes to resolving frictions.
With a lasting peace, further advancement in science, technology and innovation will be made. We have seen that over the last 22 years, there is a strong growth in sport, education, industrial production, agriculture, sustainable energy and healthcare.
Economically, Cambodia has been transformed from entrenched poverty to a low middle income country with a much higher life expectancy.
The high cost to resolving social frictions has unfortunately been shown in the Arab world. We are sympathetic to the plight of people in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq which chose the Arab Spring in 2011 as a means to achieve rapid social transformation.
They have not emerged from the attempted democratic revolution despite nearly ten years of struggle. To date, more than 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of famine and cholera outbreak due to the war.
The crisis is also forcing people to leave their homes in search of safety. According to the International Organization for Migration, the Yemeni conflict has resulted in the displacement of some three million people.
By comparison, in Cambodia by the time the Khmer Rouge was overthrown on 7 January 1979, nearly a million people were already living in refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border.
In Syria, 500,000 have been killed, 14 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and 7 million more are internally displaced. Libya was one of the richest countries in Africa. Today 1.3 million people need humanitarian assistance and half a million people are displaced. Many have lost their lives.
Iraq was already in turmoil when the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East. The conflict in Syria and territorial gain of ISIS into Iraq destabilised this weak state. Since 2003, more than a million Iraqis have been killed.
In all these countries, the economies are shattered. Violence, kidnapping for ransoms and trafficking are rampant. Infrastructure is in ruin. The majority of people lack adequate healthcare as health centers and hospitals are destroyed and medicine is sporadic.
These countries have come fairly close to what Cambodia experienced in the dark years of the 1970s. Syria was one of the countries which sent legal officials to participate in Cambodia’s People’s Revolutionary Tribunal in August 1979.
The Syrian official’s name was Mohammad Hikmed Romane. He had been an appeals lawyer in Damascus and served as a civil party lawyer at the Tribunal. Citing the 1945 Genocide Convention, he said, “Genocide is the responsibility of humanity to prevent and deter.
I am personally affected by the Cambodian genocide and it is not dissimilar to the Nazi Holocaust.” Romane would not have envisioned that one day his country would experience the destruction of war as he had seen in Cambodia.
Before the Arab Spring, these countries were doing well in their development process. Now most people in these countries are wishing that the past could return, much like Cambodian people who dreamed of a return to the Sangkum Reastr Niyum under Prince Norodom Sihanouk while Cambodia was plunged from peace and happiness to war and genocide.
It has taken Cambodia forty years under a strong, smart and visionary leadership to come to this point. Cambodia could not imagine a better outcome of the war.
Peace and health have always had a positive correlation. These two social conditions are highly desirable but human beings have a strong tendency to change an existing status quo to resolve grievances and wish for the unknown. This has resulted in a cycle of war and peace and the worsening and improvement of public health accordingly.
War has profound impacts on human health directly and indirectly. As said above, in war many people are killed. War has several indirect consequences, including long-term physical and psychological adverse health effects, damage to the social fabric, destruction of culture, displacement of people, damage to the environment rendering natural resources unproductive and thwarted international health relief,.
War drains human, financial, and other resources away from public health and other socially productive activities, as well as fostering a culture of violence.
Many public health issues can be both a consequence and a cause of war, including infectious diseases, mental health disorders, vulnerability of population groups, disparities in health status within a population and decrease overall happiness of the population.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders and a violent culture are two of the most difficult consequence of war, as was the case of Cambodia.
As Cambodians we need to work harder to solidify peace and to prevent any return to political instability, civic unrest and war even in the contexts of unstable geopolitics, pandemics or disasters.
Kok-Thay ENG, Ph.D. Director of Cambodian Institute for Peace and Development