Ambassadors Archive 1

Cambodia: Ambassador Ron Eng


By Hugh S. Galford 

Mention Cambodia and most people will conjure images of pure, unmitigated hell: Pol Pot, the Killing Fields, endless war and destruction. Cambodian Ambassador to the US, Roland Eng, is frustrated by this general perception of his country. 'The realities in Cambodia have changed, but outside perceptions have not.' While not denying his country’s recent past–impossible for a man who has suffered because of it–Eng is more concerned with looking to the future.

The youngest ambassador in Washington–he is 43–Eng has experienced more than most people ever do. Born in 1957, he was sent to France for a year’s studies in 1968. His father, a royalist and deputy in King Norodom Sihanouk’s regime, came to France in 1969 on official business; it was the last time the two would see each other. In 1969, the war in Vietnam reached Cambodia, and Eng was persuaded to remain in France.

He was able to maintain contact with his family until the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975; from then until the early 1990s, Eng had no news of his family. Focusing on his studies, Eng received his Baccalauréat in Marseilles in 1976, and a Degree in Public Administration from Aix-en-Provence in 1980. He later obtained a Certificate in Public Relations from London in 1989, and a Certification in Public Administration from Paris in 1991.

While in France, Eng worked as a motorcycle messenger for a construction company and as a photographer for a French fashion magazine. In 1979, he volunteered his services to the exiled King Sihanouk, serving as His Majesty’s Private Secretary in various countries until 1983. At this point, Eng’s career took two distinct paths: he helped a friend open a restaurant in the south of France, and he became involved in FUNCINPEC (the United Front for an Independent, Neutral and Peaceful Cambodia). Between 1983 and 1990, Eng served as head of FUNCINPEC’s Administration, Information, and Humanitarian Aid Departments in succession.

In 1991, Eng served as Ambassador for the Supreme National Council of Cambodia to the United Nations, coordinating UN activities in Cambodia with the Cambodian authorities, and helping to bring about the peace accord and general elections. He ran for Parliament, winning his seat for Kampot. He served in Parliament for two years, holding the post of Minister for Tourism. Eng retired from politics at the end of his term, in 1994.

'I helped liberate my country,' Eng says; 'now I wanted to liberate myself.' He established a private consulting group within Cambodia, wanting to suggest paths that Cambodia should take both domestically and internationally, and to help bring much-needed financial assistance to the country. His self-liberation campaign was short-lived, however; he was in business for only a few months. The King called him back to reopen Cambodia’s embassies in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. 'I oversaw everything,' Eng tells us. 'Re-establishing diplomatic ties, staffing the new offices, even renovating the old buildings.'

As varied as his duties were, Eng was the perfect choice for the job. In 1993, as a member of FUNCINPEC, he had worked in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border; he therefore knew Thailand and the situation there very well. The refugee camp, Eng says, was daunting. 'At the time, it was the largest refugee camp in the world. There were over 400,000 refugees along the border in Thailand. I was there lobbying for an improvement in conditions.' He was also there looking for his family, and to help others separated by war to find their families. It was during this time that Eng discovered the fate of his family: all nine members–his parents, five sisters and two brothers–had died during the Pol Pot regime and its aftermath.

It was also at this time that Eng, though single, became a father: to seven adopted children from the refugee camp. In the ensuing years, that number has grown to 68. Having lost his siblings, Eng first adopted five girls and two boys. 'But in the camps, children would come and beg, ‘Take me, take me,’' he says. 'You can’t turn away from them.' His children have grown so numerous that Eng has established a Foundation in Phnom Penh to see to their well-being. The 'kids' range in age from two to 26. 'Some of them have gotten married,' Eng says, adding with a smile, 'I’m going to be a grandpa soon.'

Eng was named Ambassador to the US in 1999. He hopes for a constructive approach towards Cambodia from the new administration. Cambodia, Eng notes, is still seen by most people as a pariah state. 'This isn’t true anymore,' he says. 'If it were, I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t spend ten years of my life fighting the Vietnamese to then represent a repressive state.' Cambodia’s overarching priority now is to rebuild the country.

'Cambodia was a victim of war; now it’s a victim of peace, too. I mean, if you have 20 years of war, you’re not 20 years behind, but 40: your development was stopped for 20 years, while the rest of the world was moving forward for those 20 years.' His country must reach self-sufficiency. 'Only two percent of the roads are paved, only 11 percent of the population has access to clean water, only 30 percent have electricity.' The war damaged not only Cambodia’s infrastructure, but its human resource reserve as well. 'In 1968, we had 8,000 doctors. Now, we have less than 100, and many of those have gone overseas. Within the country, we might have 20-30 doctors.' And this for a population of 12 million. Happily, Cambodia’s intellectuals are slowly returning home; fully ten percent of the Government’s Cabinet are individuals who hold dual citizenship.

Cambodia has received money from the World Bank in order to implement reforms. 'The World Bank is very pleased' with Cambodia’s progress. China is also a large donor; moreover, 'all the Chinese grants and loans are unconditional,' Eng says. Assistance from the US, however, 'is less than $20 million. All of it goes to NGOs…none of it goes to the central government.' Eng feels that the US can, and should, play a larger role. 'The US can do so much, so much,' Eng says. 'A drop of water in an empty glass means a lot.'

Cambodia’s main strength, in Eng’s opinion, is its open, progressive outlook. The country has opened up through both economic reforms and greater political freedoms. Eng says that 'the two must be parallel. When you talk about progress, prosperity, and development, if you don’t have a minimum of political freedom, you can’t progress.' While Cambodia is still one of the poorest nations in the world, there are hopeful signs. Since independence and self-rule in 1993, the economy has grown by five to six percent per year. Cambodia has also received Generalized System of Preferences and Most-Favored Nation status with its main trading partners, the US included.

In the past year, tourism has increased 40 percent, with Americans topping the list of visitors for the first quarter of 2001. There are top of the line hotels in the country, as well as a booming business of smaller hotels and guest houses. The country is tapping ever more business travelers, as well as 'educational tourism.'

The main tourist attraction is Angkor Wat, the massive complex of temples in what was once the country’s capital. Built between AD800 and 1200, Angkor boasts more than 700 temples, 100 or more of which are open to tourists. The grand scale of Angkor is underlined by Eng, who says that as Minister of Tourism in the early 1990s, he was able to visit 45 temples at most. 'You really must see Angkor Wat at least once in your lifetime,' Eng says. 'It’s such a mystical place; you can visit 50 times and have 50 different experiences.' In the ninth century, Eng says, Angkor was the largest capital in the world, with a population of over two million. Researchers are still trying to figure out how such a city could exist, with a sophisticated irrigation system, three crops of rice per year, and a system to bring water from the low-lying regions to the top of the buildings, where reservoirs were situated. In addition to the engineering feats, Angkor offers a dazzling architectural array. Each king had temples built, all in varying styles. The main temple, Angkor Wat, is a three-level structure, 1.5 x 1.3 km in size, surrounded by high walls and moats, and covered in bas-reliefs.

The country has a 'very open-minded, pro-business government.' Cambodia has implemented a 'One-Stop Service' for foreign investors in the country, stressing government transparency and responsibility. The country has also stressed a 'Build-Own-Transfer' scheme. The highest rebuilding priority is the roads network. Cambodia suffered its worst flooding in 50 years last year, which washed out many of its roads. Combined with the damage from the war, the result is devastating. 'You can’t move the economy without roads,' Eng states matter-of-factly. 'Without roads, there are no goods, no information, no communication.'

Cambodia’s main resources are rubber, soya, agriculture, and timber, although logging has been completely stopped. This was a condition of the World Bank for increased direct foreign assistance. Cambodia is also the only country to have signed an agreement with Washington linking trade and labor. In 1994, Cambodia exported just $700,000 of goods to the US; six years later, it exports over $826 million to the US. Cambodia also offers intensive labor–cheap, well-trained and competitive. The people, he says, are hard-working and eager to learn. The strides that Cambodia has made in the last decade, he says, show that 'Cambodia can produce international standard products to sell in the US.'

Ambassador Eng’s main goal while in Washington is to foster a 'better understanding, a greater compassion for the situation in Cambodia.' His dream is that of the 'greatest America–in the sense of noblesse–the grandeur of the Great Power.'

'The people of Cambodia have suffered so much. We’re opening up now, and the US should help, without too many conditions,' Eng says. The US should not expect Cambodia to offer a full democracy in such a short time after its reestablishment. The country has made great strides in laying the foundations for a full-fledged democracy, but as Eng notes, 'The thing about foundations is that you don’t see them.'

'You cannot talk about real democracy when people are still starving,' the Ambassador says. 'The basic human rights are food, housing, clothing, and education.' The US should play a larger role in working towards these goals. Eng views criticisms of his country on Human Rights issues as quite unfair. Again, he emphasizes the transparency of the government. He notes that the UN has a Human Rights office stationed in Cambodia. Furthermore, he says that there are more than 600 NGOs registered in the country. 'How do you control 600 NGOs? You can’t control two. The NGOs don’t even report their activities to the government.'

From the start of independence, the government has looked to the rest of the world for assistance. 'We have an open culture and society,' Eng says, 'and a government that is concerned with, interested in, and aware of the world.' Unlike other countries that deny internal problems, Cambodia has always openly said to the world, 'We need X in order to achieve our goal. Please come help us,' Eng says. The country is a constitutional monarchy and, more interestingly, an elected monarchy: a left-over of the French Protectorate period, the king is elected from among the royal blood. 'The king rules, but has no power,' Eng says. 'He’s the umbrella.'

The country, he says, is small enough to allow rapid change. In addition, 'you’re dealing with survivors. I define a survivor as someone who has the capacity to adjust himself to a new situation very quickly.' Cambodia is looking for new situations, as 60 percent of its population are teenagers, who represent a growing work force for whom jobs will have to be found.

Ambassador Eng is adamant about his country’s standing in the eyes of the world. 'I am a democrat. I cannot accept that those people say that I represent a non-democratic country. If you say that, you have to go to Cambodia and see with your own eyes the achievements we have made in the last ten years.'

The Ambassador’s Washington schedule is daunting, starting at 7 a.m. and ending at midnight most days. 'I wish I had a hobby. It used to be photography; now I’m becoming a workaholic.' His dedication, commitment and love of his country from an early age might be seen as heroic. This he flatly denies. Ambassador Eng states, 'I’m not a hero. All the heroes are dead.