In Cambodia, India's 'Act East' is no match for China's 'One Belt-One Road' approach
Ajay Singh Dec 26, 2016 10:25 IST
The moment you step out of the Phnom Penh airport, you instantly feel at home. Tuk-tuk services (motorcycle-driven carts) ply on the roads in plenty, the structures of the houses are quite similar to those prevalent in the capital cities of India's North Eastern states.
The historical imprimatur of India can be found any old monuments that the Kingdom of Cambodia so dearly treasures. But this tenuous link with history is hardly doing any good to India. For Cambodia has been building its modernity on the ruin of history. And there is no denying the fact that in its run for the development, India's "Act East" policy of engaging with Southeast Asian nations has been falling woefully short of China's aggressive "One Belt-One Road" push.
If you have any doubt, look around Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Capital and you will find evidence to China's dominance. With its growing economic clout, China has been investing hugely in real estate and infrastructure projects of the nation. Tall and modern buildings have come up in many parts along the mighty Mekong River that traversed many nations of the region and is rightly equated with the Ganga of India.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy run by an authoritarian regime headed by Hun Sen. Although the country goes to vote for elections of people's representatives, democracy is a mere camouflage to cover up well-regulated despotism. It preserves its natural resources and offers a business opportunity that allows not only tax-breaks but also full foreign ownership of business projects.
Businessmen from China, Japan and Indonesia have been exploiting these relaxed rules to the hilt and investing in the country. Indians are lagging far behind. "Why you guys are not open to us?” asked a top government functionary that betrayed his frustration over engaging India . "You probably look to Europe and the US, and tend to ignore the eastern part of Asia,” he lamented in frustration. In a series of interactions with officials and ministers of the Cambodian government, it became evident that India was expected to do a lot more than it has been doing .
But this frustration is equally discernible in the Indian diplomatic staff of Cambodia.
Take for instance the manner in which the government's "Act East" policy is being pursued. The Indian government came up with the idea of connecting India through roads via Myanmar and Cambodia. And there was a proposal to build a 60 kilometres of road to revive the connectivity. But the whole issue was lost in the files of approval and scrutiny. Obviously Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pet project of "Act East" has failed to cut the stranglehold of red tapes in India. "Chinese businessmen do not have this kind of problem and they quickly take decisions," said one of the Indian diplomats grappling with the situation.
By all indications, Cambodia is a unique place in Southeast Asia. Its hoary tryst with modern history stands in contrast to the proud legacy it has inherited from its medieval royal family that migrated from the southern part of India in the 12th Century. Only 10 kilometres away from heart of the city in Phnom Penh lies a monument known as the 'Killing Field'. Stacks of human skulls line the museum, dreadfully reminds visitors of a past with which Cambodia is condemned to live.
A Paris-educated dictator Pol Pot seized power in the country in 1975 and carried out whimsical experiments and mass-killings that killed nearly one-fourth of the nation's population. He called himself a revolutionary and made the State a killing machine that massacred people on the pretext of revolution.
The abiding faith of the Khmer Rouge, as the Pol Pot-led uprising is known, was "to spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss". As a result, people were killed randomly and through cheap methods as firing bullets would be expensive. Explaining the nature of probably the most gruesome crime against humanity, one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge and brilliant filmmaker Rithy Panh aptly summarised it in his book Elimination by saying, "(B)ehind those crimes, there was a small handful of intellectuals, a powerful ideology, a rigorous organisation, an obsession with control and therefore with secrecy, total contempt for the individual, and status of death as an absolute recourse. Yes, there was a human project."
Contrast this monument with Angkor Vat and Ta Prohm temples in Siem Reap, a south western province of the country. The heritage is simply outstanding. The temples withstood the vicissitude of the time and turned into a Buddhist monastery and a Hindu temple many-a-times depending on religious proclivity of the royal family. Yet the basic structure remained. There are paintings on the wall that depict "sea-churning (samudra manthan)" between gods (dev) and demons (asuras). The vestiges of the Hindu religion and mythology are in abundance. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been doing a commendable job in restoring the temples and symbols of India's cultural past from the ruins.
Indeed the glorious past of an outgoing and seafaring India in these heritages is a reminder of the immense potential that Cambodia has for India. Cambodia clearly beckons India to use this opportunity. The question is: Will India do it?
History bereft of economics will be nothing more than luxury of nostalgia.
Disclosure: The author was in Indonesia as part of the Asean Media Exchange tour organised by the Ministry of External Affairs