Paper 1 - January 2000
Nature and Causes of Conflict Escalation in the 1998 National Election
Caroline Hughes with Real Sopheap
English 99 pp. $7.5 / Khmer (forthcoming) Foreword The research study conducted by the Cambodian Centre for Conflict Resolution on the "Nature and Causes of Conflict in the 1998 National Election" has been a most challenging project for both CCCR and the Cambodia Development Resource Institute. The study began in January 1999, two months after the opening of the new National Assembly, and five months after the first democratic multiparty election organised by Cambodians in three decades. The election itself represented a significant achievement for the Cambodian people, and was an important step in the process of democratisation in Cambodia. At the same time, the conflicts which emerged around the election process had costly consequences for the country, leading to mass protests and violence in Phnom Penh, and a three-month political crisis before a new government was formed. The fact that these conflicts arose is a symptom of many things, among them a long legacy of war and conflict, inexperience in running a democratic election, and also the fact that democratic processes are not yet sufficiently developed or well respected in Cambodia.
The conflicts and escalation of conflict which surrounded the 1998 election highlighted problems in society which are not uncommon to postconflict societies. They also revealed the weaknesses of the structures and institutions of state which, in more established democratic societies, serve to mediate conflict. This study was undertaken on the premise that understanding the nature and sources of conflict is a first step in preventing its recurrence, or at best, in managing it in a peaceful and sustainable way. It is precisely in the current peaceful interim period, before the commune election scheduled for 2000, when reflection and consideration of better solutions and new patterns of interaction are possible. This is also the time when political parties are most amenable to dialogue and alternatives, and when the best hope for making sustainable change lies.
The main purpose of the study on the "Nature and Causes of Conflict in the 1998 National Election" was to draw lessons from the national election of 1998 in order to improve the electoral process for the commune election due in the year 2000. The study itself challenged CCCR and CDRI in many ways. It approached a complex and highly sensitive topic which had only recently polarised much of Cambodian society, and which still evokes bitter and emotional debate. The researchers constantly encountered conflicting facts which required verification, divergent interpretations of situations, and unclear boundaries between respondents perceptions and reality. Under those circumstances, the study does not attempt to give an authoritative version of the "truth" of any conflict situation, or to apportion blame or responsibility. Rather, it attempts to compare the various perspectives from which different groups observed or understood the events of 1998, as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of the conflicts which arose between them. A particular emphasis is placed on those factors and perceptions which reduced the authority of political processes to resolve or mediate conflict, or which caused conflicts to escalate.
We challenge our readers to approach the study and its findings in the same spirit of understanding, and to look beyond the conflict itself to the symptoms and the dynamics underlying it. Many of the sources of conflict which this study illuminates are remediable. It is not easy, but it is possible. In this regard, the study offers a message of hope. The fact that it addresses conflict in no way diminishes the fact that the election was a historic step for Cambodians. The 1998 election could not have happened without the commitment of the Cambodian government or of the many individuals who persevered against tremendous obstacles and who put aside their differences to work together in the interest of the people. These are signs of promise for the future.
Conflict is not necessarily a negative process. It can generate positive change and improvement. Even the most intensive conflicts are capable of being managed in a way that is both peaceful and sustainable, given the right combination of procedures and institutions. But what contributes most to peaceful conflict management is the attitudes of key stakeholders, the quality of their leadership, and the skills they bring to processes of negotiation and problem-solving, both with adversaries and within their own constituencies.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the authors of this study, Caroline Hughes and Real Sopheap, for undertaking this difficult and scholarly task with the utmost care and impartiality. I would also like to thank all our respondents and interviewees for contributing their views and perceptions openly, for a better understanding of the issues surrounding the election of 1998. Although the study will not satisfy all our readers questions on the 1998 election, we will consider it a success if it manages to inspire some of you to conclude that the quest to understand and manage conflict peacefully is a worthy and attainable one.
Eva Mysliwiec, Director of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, and Co-Chair of the Cambodian Centre for Conflict Resolution, January 2000