Several senior political figures, many experts in economics and also of other areas of finance and commerce, international experts who have experience in working in other countries which have faced serious crises, some prominent journalists and many people working in the people’s movements, and the civil society are all predicting the possibility of imminent catastrophic conditions in Sri Lanka. There have been public media discussions in many forums which have also pursued the same theme. While no one could predict what it is going to be like and how it would be possible to get out of such a situation, everyone has agreed that the emerging situation should be seriously studied and the ways to face it must also be discussed with earnestness.
Under such circumstances, it would be useful to study some of the countries that have faced such circumstances particularly in Asia. In this short article, I wish to draw attention to what took place in Cambodia and what are the consequences of that country’s catastrophic fall.
Due to various political crises that prevailed in Indo-China in the middle of the 20th Century, a period of unrest developed in Cambodia. This period of serious unrest finally gave rise to the takeover of power by the Pol Pot regime. The measures that the Pol Pot regime introduced for the purpose of trying to overcome the situation of poverty in the country by way of rapid development in terms of an agricultural revolution brought about one of the greatest catastrophes known in history. The result was that at least one seventh of the population, i.e. over one million people, perished due to the collapse of the economy which produced a situation of starvation. In these starvation conditions, more people from the financially better off classes who were not used to physical labour died more than the poorer peasants. The reason was that the poorer peasants were used to a hard life over centuries and also their consumption levels were very low. They have learned the art of surviving with little. However, it was those who were used to a more comfortable living and had different styles of consumption who began to perish on a large scale. Some of them managed to escape and most of those who escaped that way did not ever come back to be settled in Cambodia anymore as Cambodia has failed to recover to any significant degree from the major catastrophe that came about in their country.
This author has talked to many Cambodians who had survived after that period of living under the Pol Pot regime. They told stories about whole families being lost, that in Cambodia meant large families because they still have the concept of family not in terms of a nuclear family but a larger family of close relatives. They also told stories about how they themselves had eaten everything that came their way like, for example, leaves from trees which had no nutritious value at all. Some people talked about eating insects. All that they cared for was not for health but to quench their hunger. In some areas where the food shortage was worse, people recall how even some of their family members were forced to eat the flesh of some persons who died due to starvation.
What Cambodia clearly shows is that once a political situation goes out of control, it brings down the economy as a whole. Once the economy breaks down, where it will end cannot be predicted by anyone. Thus, when a political crisis goes to its heights and it has begun to affect the economy seriously, that is the point at which the people should awaken to the truth. That is a moment of truth. If it is ignored, what might happen, no one could predict.
The political result of the Cambodian tragedy under the Pol Pot regime was that it produced one of the largest refugee crises in Asia. When the Pol Pot regime fell, the people just took to the streets that were leading them out of Cambodia and brought them to the borders of Thailand. In Thailand, due to international intervention, large centres for refugees were established and for many years, large numbers of persons took refuge in these camps. In the camps, everything was rudimentary and even basic facilities for learning for children were not available. There were volunteers who came from abroad, particularly the Cambodians who have been abroad, and they did enormous amounts of voluntary work even to attend to matters like education, health, and hygiene.
The politically collapsed Cambodia paved the way for Vietnam to come into the political life of Cambodia who in fact played an initial role in trying to put back the basic infrastructure of the economy such as even rebuilding the paddy cultivation and such rudimentary tasks. The Vietnamese influence in the Cambodian situation gave rise to all kinds of political fears in other countries as this was the period of the Cold War. Some Western countries began to fear that Vietnam might spread their influence to other neighbouring countries like Thailand and that this may strengthen the communist forces in the region. These and other factors led to the formation of four factions which began to fight one of the bitterest civil wars known in the region. Cambodia came to be known as the country with the largest number of landmines. These landmines were mostly laid in order to protect themselves from the attacks of other factions. Results later were all kinds of accidents which caused deaths and also the loss of limbs.
For nearly 10 years, this civil war continued till the leaders of these factions realised that without the intervention from the developed countries, it was not possible for them even to establish a legitimate Government and to end the civil war. The result was the agreement to allow a UN nation known as the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) which brought in a huge amount of international officers who worked in various areas to assist Cambodia to be brought back into some kind of normalcy. One of the main objectives of the UNTAC was to have an election conducted with the direct control of the election process by the then UN with the view to establish a legitimate Government for Cambodia. That mission was accomplished. However, the loss caused to Cambodia meant that it has lost almost all the intelligentsia in the country and even finding primary school teachers to teach the young became a difficult task. Everything had to begin from the very beginning.
That of course is not a task that could be accomplished in a short time. Now, 28 years after the UNTAC’s mission, Cambodia is still poor in infrastructure at every level. In the levels of the economy, healthcare, education, and everything else. It would be a long journey to come back to anything that may be called normal.
Such crises also give rise to extremely unscrupulous persons to exploit the situation. One of the worst results of such a catastrophic situation is the loss of an idea of who holds land legitimately. People who lost their lands during the period of the Pol Pot regime and the civil war and who fled to other countries, sometimes send their young ones to look for the properties that they have earned prior to the crisis. These lands were already occupied by others who did not want to leave. Any attempt to regain the lands from the present occupiers to those who really had the land titles would have itself caused another civil war. Thus, that matter remains one of those that can never be settled.
These similar examples from other countries need to be studied and taken seriously at a time when Sri Lanka is facing the possibility of very weak times.
(The writer is the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Programmes Director)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.