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IA-Forum Interview: Tyler Moselle

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International Affairs Forum: In a recent article on the government of Cambodia you ask what humanitarians should do when the governing elite is unresponsive to the needs of the population. Explain briefly, what’s wrong with Cambodia in 2009?

Tyler Moselle: There is a minority ruling class that runs the Cambodian government. It’s a mixture of power from the military establishment, to power from oligarchic families basically. They have this mixture of what I like to call “graft in international aid” where they receive aid from foreign governments and international development organizations and they play this game where while they’re receiving aid, they promise to do certain things. They usually don’t follow up on those promises, and then they use the money to support whatever objectives they’re trying to carry out.

The minority that’s ruling Cambodia is fairly unresponsive to different rural development projects and to the majority of other people in the country, whether it’s Buddhist movements, rice paddy farmers, or educators. Also, they are incredibly anti-democratic, yet aid continues to flow into the country because we don’t want it to turn into a failed or failing state. So, they’re this unique regime that we can’t really fix because we have no adequate mechanism to do so.


IA-Forum: In the article, you offered four possible responses to a callous and corrupt government, and concluded that “doing nothing” was most likely as the one to occur. Why the pessimism?

Mr. Moselle: Even a regime like al-Bashir’s government in Sudan, where it’s on record in places like the United States and with certain U.N. organizations, claiming that there’s been genocide there. Still, there has been no international or military intervention in the country to remove the regime, to solve the humanitarian crisis, or to resolve the problem there. Now that’s a worst case scenario. On the spectrum of worst case scenarios, then you slide a little bit over, and you have other examples like Cambodia or Burma, where there’s not necessarily a genocide occurring, there’s not necessarily a severe humanitarian catastrophe occurring. Also those countries, particularly Cambodia, are not resource rich; we don’t have a high degree of economic interest in the country. Therefore, the probability is low that any major industrialized democratic country will want to intervene, and want to force the cards of the regime.


IA-Forum: Chevron has discovered oil offshore, which by some estimates, could bring over a billion dollars to Cambodia in the next decade. Would that kind of wealth make it harder for NGOs to work there?

Mr. Moselle: Not necessarily. That’s a very complex situation because in some cases that wealth may help develop a professional class in the country, which will then turn and help attract different NGOs who want to work with these budding organizations to develop civil society, economic development, or prevent corruption to the education system. There are a wide variety of responses. So, if we look at other historical examples, we could see that where a country starts to develop more wealth, sometimes they become more rigid and hostile to foreign NGOs, to foreign governments being involved. But other times, they become more open because the money is spread amongst different parts of the society, which, in turn, attract foreign NGOs to come and work with them. So, it’s not a clear case that all of the oil wealth will go to single-handedly buttress the regime. We just don’t have enough information about what would happen.


IA-Forum: Another option in dealing with corrupt governments is to “take it to the streets”. Neighboring Thailand is struggling with this option now with various factions fighting against corruption and claiming democracy is being abused. Could Thailand’s troubles have a destabilizing effect in Cambodia?

Mr. Moselle: That’s a great question. Historically Vietnam intervened in Cambodia to stop the genocide under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. So, there are other interesting historical precedents for spillover in the country. Thailand’s case is much different than Cambodia’s because of the ruling regime in Thailand. Its power structure is different than that in Cambodia. So, there’s potential that there may be student resistance movements, student protestors, or increased Buddhist monk networks that are more active about protesting, similar to Thailand. But the level of activism is more thoughtful and more democratic in Thailand than it is in Cambodia. We also have to realize that Thailand didn’t experience a massive genocide within the last 30 years of its history. When the intellectual class was killed in Cambodia, there were serious ramifications throughout the generations in the country that would have the potential of preventing educational prerequisites, which could lead to developing a more robust civic culture and to then protest against the government.


IA-Forum: Why not pursue sanctions? What strength does the U.N. have in this situation?

Mr. Moselle: Sanctions are actually the most likely and probably the most effective in this situation. But part of the problem with sanctions is that if you create a more intense sanction system against Cambodia, because a ruling elite runs the country and it is so corrupt, the sanctions may actually hurt the majority of poor people in the country because then the wealth that’s available in the country may be concentrated even further within the elite. There have been very few case studies that humanitarians can point to and say, “this is where a sanction could be most effective or not effective”. This is why I’m fairly skeptical about the whole situation in Cambodia–we don’t know how to deal with this type of problem. It’s not severe enough to be something like Sudan, and yet, it’s not mild enough to be something where people will generally not do anything and just hope that there will be positive developments in the country. It’s this weird kind of gray area in the middle category, similar to Burma. I’m not saying it’s the same as Burma with the severity, but it starts to fall in that category.


IA-Forum: Since Cambodia has natural resources such as oil, is this a country that’s about to be an emerging democracy with a stronger possibility of improvement in these areas we’re discussing? Do you see this as kind of a “country on the cusp”?

Mr. Moselle: Yes, it is a country on the cusp. It could either seriously go backwards and take a turn for the worst with this newly acquired wealth, or it could make a transition where the wealth starts to trickle down to different parts of the economy, and they start to rebuild and regenerate something that can be at least a more stable and civic-based democratic culture. Now that’s not guaranteed because the most hopeful institution would be the educational system. Right now in Cambodia, most students have to pay for lessons. It’s very corrupt and it’s very systematic. So, the education system, which would be the most hopeful institution for creating a new generation in conjunction with the wealth, is key to rebuilding the society that, at its core, is broken.


IA-Forum: What do you think is the one resource or contribution that would positively change the educational gap, be it internal or external?

Mr. Moselle: Well, I think it would have to be internal. I’m a skeptic of external humanitarian interventions. In general, solutions have to come organically from within the country. There can be aid, there can be elements to try to push, to try to help support things, but in general, they have to be fairly sensitive and mild. Otherwise, you get this backlash. With that being said, if you were to think of a responsible way to contribute from an external environment, noting that you can’t do much on the inside, you could try to identify key progressives within the educational infrastructure in the country.

Also, you can try to work with them in a mild fashion, either through NGOs or giving them some type of support, maybe more funding for a better school system, etc. and create ideal templates that Cambodians can then look at and say, this is something possible that we can replicate. So, you show them what an example could be of having a more productive, non-corrupt, true education system.

The major problem is that since we’re dealing with Cambodia, we have to deal with the history of the country, and the trauma that it experienced during Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Still, there are members of the Khmer Rouge who are government officials, who are deeply imbedded in the ruling classes of the society. Cambodians, I think, get this picture that may seem very absurd. They’ve heard of the Khmer Rouge, they’ve heard of these things that happened in the late 1970s, but then they see members of the Khmer Rouge still walking around the streets, and there’s no sense of justice. The reality is that most people who think about humanitarian issues, they want a short-term, quick fix. You can’t have a short-term quick fix in a society that’s been so traumatized on such a deep level like Cambodia has.


IA-Forum: Regarding the U.N.-backed trials that are underway to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders from the Pol Pot era, how effective do you think they will be?

Mr. Moselle: That’s a great question. Take South Africa as a precedent: Truth in Reconciliation committees, different commissions that they set up. They were successful in the sense of trying to provide some sort of collective catharsis for this experience. Now we can debate back and forth how useful they were, but nonetheless, they gave some relief to some of the tension there. There hasn’t been a corollary in Cambodia. That may be something interesting to look at as an informal justice mechanism.

Now to the specific U.N. cases. If some of the actual leaders are indicted for crimes where there is clear evidence, and people feel that the process was transparent, justified, and legal, then that may bring some sense of justice to the situation. But we have to look at the basic fact that this is almost 30 plus years after a lot of these things occurred. The Truth in Reconciliation Commissions were within 10 years of when the transition from Apartheid took place. So, the generation that was left over and traumatized from Cambodia may get some sense of justice from this. But the younger generation, who is watching this spectacle, because it’s fairly narrow, the leaders that they’re trying, the U.N. cases, my sense is that the majority of them who are uneducated about the situation, may view them as too removed and detached from their own personal experience to be relevant.

IA-Forum: And you think the children of victims still might be a bit removed?

Mr. Moselle: I think so. You have to remember that the educational apparatus is so damaged in Cambodia that there hasn’t been a systematic kind of understanding of what happened in the country to be passed down to the next generation. So, it’s by word of mouth. It could be somewhat apocryphal in some situations. There are oral stories and oral memories which are going to have an effect on people. But I think it’s going to be fairly isolated. These trials don’t try to heal the core of the country and the people who suffered. So, they don’t get to the core of the problem-they skirt around the fringes of the problem.


IA-Forum: In 2008, Human Rights Watch listed several pressing issues for Cambodia – from a lack of freedom of expression and land confiscations to stalled judicial reforms. In reports on Cambodia by various human rights groups, the word that often comes up to describe how the government operates is “impunity”. Is the pressure being brought to bear on Cambodia by international humanitarian groups enough to change this?

Mr. Moselle: It definitely helps. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, some of these big internationally recognized human rights organizations admit to playing a kind of “blame and shame” game for countries. Their reports help raise consciousness about certain issues, but as external observers, collectors of data and information, and commentators, they’re not reaching into the core organs of the society and the government to really try and change and shift things around. When you’re dealing with an issue like Cambodia where a minority elite run the government, corruption is very endemic, and there’s no independent judiciary to check that ruling elite, unless you change it organically from within the country, unless you have some chief justice who is adamant about stepping out and really criticizing government leaders, then these commentaries, the data from human rights organizations is helpful. But it’s not going to be strong enough as a catalyst for change.


IA-Forum: So many humanitarian crises have occurred in the world in recent years. Now with the deep economic woes affecting people around the globe and people focusing on their own financial survival, do you think there’s a kind of “humanitarian fatigue” in the world in developed nations?

Mr. Moselle: I don’t know if it would be fatigue necessarily. If we just think of it in two segments, post-Cold War-you have the history of the international community trying to fix various places, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, then Iraq and going forward in kind of a post-9/11 world. Where are the major successes? When you ask that to most people, they would say, “well, maybe Bosnia and Kosovo”; with an underlined “maybe” three or four times. But there's no kind of consensus on what the international community has done well in humanitarian situations. Milder cases like helping when there are earthquakes, typhoons, or droughts, things like that, then donor money is useful, and it has been successful.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily an issue of fatigue for donor countries, but there is this sensibility, for instance, most recently there was a donor conference in Tokyo to help Pakistan, which many countries around the world view as a core state that’s failing. It has nuclear weapons, the majority has some at least predilection towards Islamist ideology, problems with India, borders Afghanistan, there’s Taliban influence there, Al-Qaida cells there, Kashmir issue. It’s a volcano ready to erupt. The donor community was able to raise $5 billion dollars in Tokyo. Now there are a lot of countries that didn’t want to donate, so there’s evidence, even recently, of some countries not wanting to donate to certain situations.

Now is it because of just Pakistan? Or is it because of an overarching fatigue, as you mentioned? I’m not sure, but I think that the core of the issue is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West collectively has tried to develop some way to build up and cultivate failed and failing parts of the world. And it’s only been roughly 20 years. So, we’re looking at it in a very small window. I don’t think policymakers, economists, or development thinkers have a strong sense of how to go about doing this. So it may look like fatigue, or it may look like ad hoc kind of ways to go about it, but there’s this general sensibility that the West doesn’t know how to do this.


IA-Forum: You call yourself a “pragmatic humanitarian”. How do you define that?

Mr. Moselle: A pragmatic humanitarian is someone who has some natural connection with other humans as a normative, emotional element-whether it’s fellow citizens or fellow humans across the world, which transcends religion, national identity, ethnicity, etc. and has a philosophical base, maybe in kind of a Kantian philosophy where you try to transcend these things or come up with something higher. That’s where I viewed the basic humanitarian connection personified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other values like that.

But those are ideas, and most of them are quite utopian. So, that’s where the pragmatism comes in. In order to connect and to reproduce those humanitarian values, you have to think of a pragmatic way to do so. We haven’t thought of a pragmatic way to do so. We have no pragmatic solution for these types of things. The recent example of Iraq was sold partially by the neo-conservatives on a humanitarian ground, and that’s turned out to be a disaster. Right now, those humanitarian reasons and motivations that led us into Iraq have turned out to create vast amounts of destruction.

Similarly, during the French Revolution, the humanitarians, the idealists, the revolutionaries, they had this grand vision, and they ended up slaughtering many of their fellow Frenchmen. They killed the elites; they did a lot of damage to the society. If you’re a pragmatic person, I think the idea is to go slow, to always maintain a sense of skepticism about our own rational ability, even in grand policy projects, to actually change the world, and to recognize we have trouble even changing the things we don’t like about ourselves as individuals.

So, how can we go about with these grand projects, and try to change whole societies? A lot of humanitarians want to fix the world. They want to change everything that’s wrong with the world according to their own vision. That may turn out to be just as dangerous as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, as the French Revolution was very destructive, as the justification for invading Iraq was very destructive. So, I would say it’s kind of a mixture between David Hume’s philosophy and Socrates’ philosophy of always questioning ideas, rationale, and the motivations for doing these things. And having the connection to humanitarian issues, but not being overly zealous.

IA-Forum: Thank you.


Tyler Moselle is a Research Associate and Program Manager at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School where he works on state-building, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and national security.

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