Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Conflict Continues: Transitioning into a Battle for Property in Cambodia Today

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Conflict Continues: Transitioning into a Battle for Property in Cambodia Today

Article excerpt

The sustainable reconstruction of countries emerging from long periods of conflict is a challenge that we ignore at our peril.

James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, 1998 (1)

This article describes the ongoing hybrid war crimes tribunal taking place in Cambodia--in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)--in relation to the simultaneous case of an urban eviction from an area known as Boeung Kak Lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. The article builds primarily upon anthropological fieldwork conducted in two-month blocks in 2011, 2012 and 2014 on justice and social healing in Cambodia. The problem of land rights had become evident to me, however, when I first conducted research in Cambodia in the early 2000s, on Buddhism and social healing. The more recent blocks of fieldwork included semi-structured interviews and less formal conversations with Cambodian and international staff at the ECCC. I also made regular visits to the Boeung Kak Lake area and got to know several key informants, including two community leaders, with whom I spoke on four occasions, and I accompanied residents on one protest in 2012. (2)

Presenting the ECCC and the Boeung Kak Lake eviction alongside one another is intended to highlight a fundamental hypocrisy in the liberal peace model. It aims to show how the liberal peace model in effect veils the bald political and material interests of global elites behind its humanitarian rhetoric and performance. Below, I shall first briefly outline the liberal peace model and the contradiction inherent in its neoliberal goals and humanitarianism, and explain how the notion of transitional justice fits into this model. I then note some of the effects neoliberalism is having upon land rights in developing countries in general and in Cambodia in particular. An outline of the ECCC, the recent history of the Cambodian judiciary and of the privatisation of property follows before I present the illustrative case of the Boeung Kak Lake evictions. Finally, I draw some brief conclusions about the international community's interests in peace to secure markets, and, under these circumstances, the impact that foreign justice interventions are likely to have on how impunity and injustice are experienced by ordinary people in a country like Cambodia.

Transitioning to peace, justice and 'order'

The liberal peace model provides the rationale according to which today's power networks in the global 'North' have been seeking to reshape troubled societies in the 'South'. Its progamme for peacebuilding conflates liberal politico-economic tenets with ideas for humanitarian societal reconstruction, which stress such things as strengthening the rule of law, civic trust and conflict prevention. (3) Some peace scholars focus on the humanitarian aspirations underlying the model, 'What one hopes to achieve by such peacebuilding is to erect the foundations of political institutions that could make for a lasting peace', (4) but note that most liberal peacebuilding operations of the past decade have failed in this regard. In this article I shall be focusing on the incompatibility of the humanitarian and the economic elements of the model. I argue that by coercing war-torn societies to join the global competition for profit, those who promote the ideals of the liberal peace in fact help sustain injustices, violence and exclusion in these societies.

Notwithstanding the humanitarian rhetoric, the liberal peace model in practice means that weak nations are being drawn into the global marketplace on terms that are dictated by and benefit the powerful but offer no protection for the most vulnerable. (5) The deepening of Cambodia's neoliberalisation, Simon Springer explains, has been 'on the one hand, led by the aims and ideals of the international donor community since the United Nations (UN) sponsored transition of the early 1990s ... and on the other hand, readily taken up by local elites as a kleptocratic means to enhance both their wealth and their hold on political power'. …

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