Letter From Cambodia
"We can't go ahead, we can't go back," said K. We were talking before his midnight shift at the reception desk. "What is the word?"
"Stuck," I said.
"Yes," he said. "We are stuck."
Touch Srey Nich is lucky, in a way. She's still alive. On October 21 four men drove up on motorcycles and shot the 24-year-old singer outside a Phnom Penh flower shop. The doctor at the hospital where she was first taken showed me the trajectory of the bullets--one through her mouth, shattering her teeth; one across the cheekbone; and the last in the back of the neck as she fell. Her body may recover, the doctor says, but as for her brain? He shrugs futilely. Her mother died trying to shield her. Also dead is journalist Chuor Chetharith, who shared the singer's open allegiance to the royalist party FUNCINPEC, which, along with the Sam Rainsy Party, forms the alliance opposing the CPP.
Chea Vichea's murder was the most shocking yet. One of the founders of the Sam Rainsy Party, Chea also established one of the country's most influential unions and helped negotiate a US-Cambodia bilateral trade agreement that linked improved labor standards to garment quotas. His death now casts the labor-friendly reputation of Cambodia's garment industry into doubt--a huge potential setback for the industry, which provides 235,000 jobs and fuels 36 percent of the economy. Chea's anti-corruption crusading, run-ins with management and police during strikes, and political ties made him a ripe target. But which one of his adversaries pulled the trigger? Given the country's notoriously corrupt law-enforcement and judicial system, Cambodians are not likely to get an answer anytime soon, if ever. "Unfortunately, Cambodia has a poor track record in bringing to justice the perpetrators of political killings," says Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sara Colm.
It's an observation borne out by the experience of the UN, which spent years--once even pulling out of talks entirely--battling Hun Sen's insistence that a majority of the judges on Khmer Rouge tribunals be Cambodian. The UN and Cambodia eventually hammered out a draft agreement in 2003, with a Cambodian-majority formula, balanced by the presence of international judges--but not before UN Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed his concern at the "continued problems related to the rule of law and the functioning of the judiciary in Cambodia resulting from interference by the executive with the independence of the judiciary." Hun Sen, he seemed to imply, could not be trusted to keep his strongman hands to himself.
For someone who bills himself and his party as Cambodia's savior from the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen is taking an odd approach. Ever since he deserted from the Khmer Rouge and returned with the Vietnamese, he has played a key part in the government, including the role of prime minister, since 1993. As a country that is a former French colony, that was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and heavily bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War, Cambodia is understandably protective of its sovereignty. But there are other reasons for Hun Sen's demand that the tribunal judges be mostly Cambodian: The CPP leadership is stocked with former Khmer Rouge, some of whom may fear a judicial process that sheds a harsh light on the past, and Cambodian judges will be easier to manipulate.
In addition, in the wake of the final surrender of the deposed Khmer Rouge movement in 1998, Hun Sen embarked upon a generous reintegration policy that might not bear up under scrutiny now. Only two Khmer Rouge leaders have been imprisoned--Brother Number Four, or Mok, the former military commander who fought to the very end, and Kang Khek Ieu, or Duch, who as the head of the central detention center scrawled "Kill them all" over lists of prisoners and oversaw the deaths of at least 14,000 Cambodians who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng.