Letter From Cambodia
The hotel receptionists were hunched over a small, battered radio that was squawking in rapid-fire Khmer. "Another shooting. A singer this time," S. said, his face smudged with worry. "Maybe you can write about it?"
Each time they handed me my room key, the young staff at the hotel dispensed expert synopses of the day's events--which sadly and reliably seemed to feature government corruption, electoral mischief, suspected political assassinations or all three. Even though I've left Cambodia, my friends have kept up with the bulletins. One appeared in my e-mail inbox earlier this year, bearing the subject title The Sad News.
"Dear Ms. Noy," wrote 20-year-old P. "Now, in Phnom Penh has many problems. Mr. Chea Vichea was shot dead Thursday in front a newspaper stall about 500m in the east of [our] hotel. He is a union leader and...also an opposition party supporter."
It was no way to celebrate an anniversary. A quarter-century ago the Vietnamese Army rolled into Cambodia and ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge--the movement that had tried to transform Cambodia into a utopian agrarian collective, and turned it instead into a hell salted with landmines and the bones of the approximately 1.7 million who died in the regime's nearly four-year rule. The mass graves and the explosives are just a few of the remnants of a past that has left Cambodia one of the poorest countries in the region, even after a massive UN nation-building effort in the 1990s. The other reminders are former Khmer Rouge leaders, the vast majority of whom live freely in Cambodia.
But with the twenty-fifth anniversary comes heightened pressure to bring those leaders to justice. Some of them are feeling the heat--in December former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan made the first high-level admission that genocide had indeed happened during the regime's rule, though he pleaded ignorance of the details at the time. Building on the momentum, this January the president of the current ruling party spoke out in support of international tribunals for Khmer Rouge senior leaders.
"We can surely bring a complete closure to this darkest chapter through a successful implementation of...a tribunal for prosecuting crimes," Cambodian People's Party (CPP) president Chea Sim said at the twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration at party headquarters.
Easier said than done, Cambodians point out, especially when the darkness isn't confined to the Khmer Rouge period. At least 10,000 people would come together again only a few weeks later, this time to mourn Chea Vichea. His killing was the latest in a series of high-profile attacks that erupted after contested elections last year--the CPP won a large number of parliamentary seats but failed to get the two-thirds majority required to govern alone. In response, the two runner-up parties charged Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP with voter intimidation and election fraud, formed an alliance with each other, demanded Hun Sen's resignation and pulled out of negotiations. The result was a disastrous deadlock that left Cambodia with a spate of unsolved murders of opposition-alliance supporters and no functioning government--a situation that only now seems to be approaching resolution. In early June Hun Sen and one of the alliance partners agreed on a political platform after months of failed negotiations. But even if talks are finally holding together, there's no quick escape from Cambodia's political quagmire: Now the arduous, time-consuming and contentious tasks of forming a government and dealing with postelection violence and backlogged legislation lie ahead.
One of the bills stymied by the political impasse is the legislation on the Khmer Rouge tribunals. After nearly five years of heated debate, the UN and the Cambodian government had finally agreed on moving forward with the trials. But without a government to ratify the agreement, the tribunals have remained at a standstill. Human rights activists point out a Catch-22: A culture of impunity, lawlessness and political violence persists that has its roots in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge era--and insures that those crimes go unpunished.