Cambodian Inroads

Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Cambodian Inroads

Reflections on Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

Kenneth Quinn has had a long and distinguished diplomatic career, spending nearly 32 years in the US Foreign Service and becoming one of the most decorated officers of his generation. He is one of the foremost experts on Indochina in the United States and is widely acknowledged to have been the first person to discover and report on the genocidal practices of the Khmer Rouge in 1974. Twenty-five years later, while serving as US Ambassador to Cambodia, he played a pivotal role in the capture of the last remaining Khmer Rouge general. He is currently president of the World Food Prize Foundation, an organization devoted to recognizing and rewarding advancements in the quality and availability of food throughout the world in order to combat malnutrition and poverty. Senior Editor Gina Kramer recently spoke with former Ambassador Quinn about US-Cambodian relations, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and the challenges of policies of engagement with Southeast Asian nations.


Throughout most of your career, your area of specialization has been Southeast Asia. What is the nature of the United States' engagement and relations with Cambodia?

Right now the United States' aim is to support the process that has helped Cambodia turn away from several decades of genocide, mass murder, and killings--severe traumas unlike those undergone by almost any other country in recent history. The United States also aims to help Cambodians rebuild their society and pick up the broken pieces of their political and social systems. It has been a long and arduous process, but one in which I think the American people can feel that the money they have contributed in terms of support for UN peacekeeping, humanitarian and economic development assistance, infrastructure-building activities, and support for human rights has really paid off. Cambodia is a very different country today from what it was ten years ago, and its society is certainly much different from that which the Khmer Rouge almost destroyed in the 1970s.

There was discussion at one point of tying the United States' aid to Cambodia to terms of conditionality--protection of human rights, development of democratic governance, the free market system, and toleration of opposition figures. You voiced opposition to this policy. In your view, what are the benefits and drawbacks of conditional aid?

Sometimes when aid is made conditional, you may work against your goals. Often this stance may be perceived by the target government as a threat, The approach of both the Bush and Clinton administrations--which I think has paid off--was to influence the government so that it did those things necessary to arrest Khmer Rouge members responsible for genocide; built human-rights organizations; addressed the most pressing social problems; installed open markets; allowed the opposition to operate; and maintained freedom of the press. And in fact, Cambodia now has probably the most open economic market and investment system in all of Southeast Asia, as well as a free press.

I did favor conditioning aid and other improvements in our diplomatic relations with both Cambodia and Vietnam to human-rights improvements. In fact, I personally included this conditionality in our "Roadmap to Normalization" policy, which we presented to both countries in 1991. This policy resulted in over 2,000 political prisoners being freed in Cambodia and a number of high-profile political prisoners being freed and allowed to leave Vietnam. Once our Agency for International Development (AID) mission was set up inside Cambodia, all of the programs it carried out were humanitarian in nature, and none went through the government. Any withholding or conditioning of that aid only meant that we would be taking assistance away from the Cambodian people, who had already suffered enormously and, in my view, did not deserve to be further deprived of what little help we were providing.

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