Elizabeth Becker’s evasive response

[Elizabeth Becker replied to my criticism of her article on the draft NGO law (the post immediately following this one). This is my reply to her response. To read her response, see http://cjrenglish.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/response-to-anonymous-critique-by-elizabeth-becker/.%5D

First, to clarify: my earlier article appeared to be “anonymous” only because of a misunderstanding. I had contacted Agence Kampuchea Presse to seek some information on the number of publications in Cambodia. As a courtesy, I emailed my draft to AKP so it could see what kind of information I needed. I had not put my name on it yet because it was not finished, which I must not have made clear to AKP, and I did not realise that AKP would post it. This misunderstanding has unfortunately given Elizabeth Becker the false impression that the article was prepared by “the Cambodian government”.

As to the substance of the disagreement: I criticised Becker’s article for misrepresenting the content of the draft NGO law. A subsidiary criticism was that she also misrepresented how the civil war with the Khmer Rouge ended and the adoption of Cambodia’s constitution. Curiously, Becker’s reply all but ignores the draft NGO law and focuses instead on the Paris Peace Accords. To recall, my article pointed out:

Becker was wrong to assert that the draft law restricted the freedoms of speech and association.
She was wrong to claim that the law forced NGOs to comply with “vague criteria” in order to win “approval” to operate; the registration procedures are quite specific and not at all onerous.
Contrary to Becker’s assertion, “[t]he draft law does not allow the government to dissolve an NGO arbitrarily”.
She was wrong to claim that the law would “hamstring” NGOs, since it mandates nothing more difficult than registering and filing an annual report (which most NGOs do already), and obeying Cambodian law.
Her description of NGOs as Cambodia’s “last independent voices” was “laughable”, given the country’s large number of newspapers, magazines, radio stations, rebroadcasts of international radio networks and political parties.
Becker was wrong to say that the law requires international NGOs “to work directly with official agencies, essentially becoming an arm of the government”; all it requires is “collaboration” with the relevant government department and “notification” of local authorities when implementing projects.
Becker and her publisher were less than frank by presenting her article as “objective” journalistic analysis and only in passing, two-thirds of the way through the article, acknowledging that Becker is an interested party in discussions of the law, as a member of the board of Oxfam America.

On all of these specific questions of fact, Becker has absolutely nothing to say. All she can come up with is: “As far as the proposed NGO law is concerned, I believe the Cambodian and foreign NGOs are right in asking for serious modifications”. But the issue raised was not whether Becker believed what she wrote; the issue was whether her belief was well founded. As my article showed, and Becker’s silence confirms, her belief is not well founded.

As mentioned above, the role of the “international community” and the Paris Peace Accords was a subsidiary point. Still Becker’s defence of these points is illuminating in its own way. Some of her “defence” is in fact a retreat from her original assertions. She writes now: “The Paris Peace Accords made peace possible in large part by depriving the Cambodian factions of their foreign sponsors.” In her original article she claimed that the 1991 Paris accords “ended the Cambodian war and any further threat from the murderous Khmer Rouge”. Any rational person would read that as meaning that the civil war ended in 1991, which is obviously untrue. So Becker defends her original inaccuracy by changing it: the Paris accords “made peace possible” (seven years later!).

This is certainly a more defensible statement, but it is still an exaggeration, particularly when Becker goes on to claim that well, really, almost, the war wasn’t much of a war after 1991: “Critical was China dropping the Khmer Rouge. Without the Chinese, Pol Pot and his army were incapable of returning to power. Indeed the only major battles in Phnom Penh after the peace accords were between the forces of Prince Ranariddh and those loyal to Hun Sen.”

It is certainly true that there were no major battles with the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh after the Paris accords. But it is also true that there were no such battles in Phnom Penh after January 7, 1979. In fact, the last major battle of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh occurred when they seized the city on April 17, 1975. So it is hardly accurate to present the Paris accords as bringing a change in this regard.

Furthermore, Phnom Penh does not constitute the whole of Cambodia. Has Becker forgotten the ability of the Khmer Rouge to deny access to significant parts of the country to UNTAC forces? I would recommend that Becker turn to the maps on pages 324 and 325 of Raoul M. Jennar’s book Les clés du Cambodge. These show the KR confined to a few border regions at the time of the Paris accords — and active in more than half the country by March 1993. It was in March 1993, shortly before the elections, that the Khmer Rouge attacked an ethnically Vietnamese fishing village in Siem Reap province, killing 34 people, including eight children, and wounding 29. If Becker was in Phnom Penh in the mid-90s, she should be able to remember hearing the shelling in the mountains of Kompong Speu. In July 1994 the KR attacked a train en route from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, killing three foreigners and at least 13 Cambodians; this was, according to Becker, nearly three years after the Paris accords “ended the Cambodian war and any further threat from the murderous Khmer Rouge”. I can remember the panic that swept through tourists in the Siem Reap airport in late 1995, when a rumour circulated that the KR were about to attack the city; the rumour was false but it was not inherently impossible.

It is also misleading for Becker to write as though China was the only outside power that backed the Khmer Rouge after 1989, without mentioning the political and material backing from the United States, Britain, France, Australia and their friends, many of them participants in the Paris conference. Furthermore, long after the Paris accords, the Thai military, if not always the Thai government, continued its support for and collaboration with the Khmer Rouge.

Becker also backtracks on her original claim that the “debate” at the Paris conference “led to Cambodia’s Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of association and speech”. The Paris conference was not a parliamentary debate; it involved world powers and the Cambodian parties negotiating for the best they could get given the circumstances. Her new claim is a weak sarcasm, saying that the governments involved in the conference “would be surprised to learn” that the conference “had nothing to do with how the Cambodian Constitution was shaped” — a claim that has been advanced by no one.

The point is that Cambodia’s constitution was written and adopted in 1993 by the newly elected National Assembly. Obviously, the parliamentarians did not live in a vacuum. They were aware that most people consider a democratic constitution preferable to an authoritarian one; I am sure nearly all of them would have been aware of this even before the Paris conference. But it would hardly have been “democratic” for the Paris conference to prescribe the constitutional decisions of the National Assembly a year and a half before it was elected.

What is the relevance of this disagreement? I think it has to do with the view visible in Becker’s reply, when she states that the governments involved in Paris and the UN “ spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring peace and democracy to Cambodia”. What this says is that Cambodians, left to their own devices without outside interference, wouldn’t be capable of finding a formula for peace and democracy. They have to be “helped” through outside intervention that brings these things, rather like Father Christmas delivering presents to children.

This same patronising attitude towards Cambodians and their government is not general among NGOs, but it is more common than it should be. It feeds the idea that government regulations or laws are not really legitimate unless they are approved by NGOs. And of course, if you think that NGOs are the ultimate judges of freedom and democracy, then any attempt to regulate them, no matter how mild, appears to be an attack on democracy. Elizabeth Becker has been listening to people who are out of touch with reality.

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