Kheam steered his car down Monivong Boulevard towards the banks of the Mekong River and the Imperial Garden Villas, a newly-built, four-star hotel in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia.
In 1993, when I first visited Phnom Penh, the site where the Imperial Garden Villas now stand was vacant and Monivong Boulevard was pockmarked with bomb craters. The country had just emerged from a civil war that cut its population almost in half and UN troops had just supervised fresh elections.
Nine of every ten eligible Cambodian voters showed up to vote and Kheam, like many Cambodians, cast his ballot and made a wish for a new life.
Since then, Cambodia has come a long way toward redemption. Nonetheless disputes with neighboring Thailand have prevented it from achieving its full potential. Cambodia’s experience is a likely precursor for what awaits newly independent South Sudan as it emerges from years of civil war to cope with endemic poverty, and continuing border tensions with Sudan in the north threaten to derail its ascent to progress.
Thanks to garments manufacturing, tourism and construction, Cambodia’s economy has been growing by nine percent a year for nearly a decade. Since 2007, over two million tourists flock annually to Siem Reap province to visit Angkor Wat. Tourism revenues exceeded $1.5 million in 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, Cambodia’s arrivals increased by nearly 13 percent.
But its greatest asset is its natural gas reserves consisting of some 11 trillion cubic feet located in 27,000 square kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Thailand. According to a World Bank report, Cambodia potentially sits on approximately 2 billion barrels of oil, which could contribute $2 billion in annual revenues.
Despite the viability of gas production in Cambodia, no production has taken place since its discovery several years ago. Neighboring Thailand has contested the maritime area claimed by Cambodia based on a 1973 Thai claim on the eastern boundary line of the Gulf in an area known as the Overlapping Claims Area (OCA).
In an effort to ease tensions, both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2001 in which an agreement outlines a framework to solve the maritime dispute. It was however scrapped by the Thai cabinet in 2009 when the Cambodian government appointed ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as special adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Complicating issues is a separate dispute between the two countries over the Preah Vihar temple , a UNESCO heritage site that sits at the boundary of both countries. The unresolved temple issue is fuelling tensions that have already sparked exchanges of gunfire and could potential erupt into a full-blown war between the two countries.
Needless to say, Cambodia’s peace dividend since the 1993 elections has yet to be translated into the fullest exploitation of its economic potential. Despite precious energy reserves, Cambodia still remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.
Like Cambodia when it set off on its road to recovery, South Sudan boasts some of the worst indicators in human development. Out of 50 African countries, Sudan ranks 36th in UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI).
Its global ranking is 154th out of a total of 177 countries, rendering it one of the lowest performing countries in terms of human development. Forty percent of the population has no access to safe drinking water and adult female illiteracy is at a staggering 62 percent.
Making things worse, South Sudan has yet to build the institutions of government that would regulate social life and provide for human welfare.
Oil, the economic lifeblood of both north and south Sudan, is a hotly contested resource. Most of the oil reserves sit in the south, but pipelines and refineries are located in the north.
South Sudan will need to invest in alternative pipeline routes, possibly through Kenya, if it wants to have more control over the disposition of oil revenues, which are currently being renegotiated between the two countries after their 50:50 sharing agreement expired on July 9.
Cambodia illustrated that these challenges make for an uneasy peace in a post-conflict situation in south Sudan in which renewed conflict could erupt at any moment in border areas like Abyei, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
But perhaps the most difficult challenge facing the two Sudans is one that Cambodia has successfully begun to deal with though with mixed public reaction. A UN-sponsored war crimes tribunal last year convicted Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, head of the infamous S-21 prison to 35 years in prison for war crimes. The Sudans have yet to deal with the international arrest warrant issued last year against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir on charges of committing genocide.
Kheam was one of those whose family was nearly decimated by the Khmer Rouge rampage in the 1970s. He stood outside the gates of the UN courthouse, waiting for the verdict on Duch as did hundreds of other Cambodians who suffered similar fates.
The question Cambodia still faces and south Sudan is just beginning to face is: when will they truly resurrect? The answer is:
When female adult illiteracy is eradicated and adequate water supply expands to rural areas in both countries, and in Cambodia’s case, beyond Phnom Penh’s oversized mansions and upscale shopping malls.
When 20 percent of south Sudan’s population no longer suffers from acute malnutrition. When Cambodian women have employment opportunities other than the sex trade. When south Sudanese females no longer suffer illiteracy.
When Cambodian and Sudanese infants live beyond the age of five. When better housing replaces Phnom Penh’s 564 slum areas and tuberculosis no longer infects some 70,000 Cambodians each year.
When the average lifespan for both countries extends beyond 58 years.
When the six million landmines still believed to be lurking below Cambodia ‘s oilfields are cleared.
When Sudan is no longer racked by murderous conflict, when all its boy soldiers have been demobilized and rehabilitated.
When all Sudanese, whether northern nor southern, can enjoy the peace that comes with sharing the abundance their countries have been blessed with.
When Kheam can fold his palms together at the altar of his murdered ancestors, and embrace, rather than mourn, the miracle of his survival.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at email@example.com)