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Letter From Cambodia | The Nation

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Letter From Cambodia

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With Cambodia's current turmoil, those two may be the only leaders to pay for their crimes, at least in the near future. No government, no tribunal, no budget for anything, said the hotel staff. The political deadlock became our running joke--"Hey, you got a government, yet?" "No. Government's not working, so I'm not working," the staff said, pretending to steal money and sleep behind the desk.

Noy Thrupkaew reported from Cambodia on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship.

CLARIFICATION: In Noy Thrupkaew's "Letter From Cambodia," Hun Sen has played a key part in the government since at least 1985, when he was named prime minister by the Vietnamese occupying forces. But it was not until 1993 that democratic elections were held, under UN supervision, after which he became co-prime minister, and later prime minister.(6/30/04)

About the Author

Noy Thrupkaew
Noy Thrupkaew is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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We cackled with laughter, but it was hard to ignore the deep dysfunction--the loss of momentum for the tribunals; the shootings; stymied funds to address everything from the HIV crisis to the roads that Cambodians valiantly try to patch with broken concrete and pottery; the lack of a strong middle class, which so often plays a part in democratizing countries; the lack of willpower to stem the system of corruption that greases the hands of judges, police, even teachers and nonprofit workers. "Oh, Ms. Noy," said S. after I straggled home from reporting about Touch Srey Nich's shooting. "Did you see this? They learned that Cambodia's biggest de-mining NGO is taking bribes."

Cambodia's past and present rub up against each other most brutally at places like the Choeung Ek killing fields. Tourists gingerly examine burial pits and victims' pitiful, naked skulls, many of them with holes stoved in the back, while beggar children and amputees give hot pursuit--the Khmer Rouge and its legacy, in one horrifying experience. Driving back from Choeung Ek, 30-year-old B. told me how his mother forgave the Khmer Rouge cadres in their village who had abducted his father. "She said she is not a judge. But she said they will get in their next life what they did in this one. Karma." He paused, maneuvering around a car-sized pothole. "But I think there must be justice in this life, too. We need a trial. No one can be over the law--the Khmer Rouge, the government." This conversation resurfaced several days later, after he dramatically blew through a red light. "They don't respect the law; I don't respect it, too." He grinned, at once bitter and laughing.

Even when it was a joke, the blistering anger never failed to surprise. It showed up in the unlikeliest places, as with K., who, like many young Cambodians I met, conducts himself with an Old World courtesy and sensitivity that belies both his teenage years and the political environment in which he was raised. As we sat on a park bench, drinking fruit shakes out of plastic bags, he gestured at the prostitutes on the corner, dazzlingly made up, depressingly young. "It starts when a girl is born," he said. I hadn't even asked, but he started ticking off the inequities on his fine-boned hands. Parents don't think girls need an education, so then there are fewer jobs for women and they are paid less, the domestic abuse problem, the healthcare issues, the squandered opportunities, the pervasive discrimination. "How can my country be developed when half of us suffer?"

I expected similarly sensitive insights when I asked K. about the Khmer Rouge leaders. I was forgetting, however, the depth of rage and despair expressed by other Cambodians on this topic. Cambodian genocide scholar Craig Etcheson recounted one elderly woman's thoughts on how to bring Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to justice in 1997, one year before he died: Give each Cambodian--10 million at the time--a razor blade. Bring Pol Pot before the people. Each person will make one cut.

I had also forgotten how K.'s face had clouded during a previous conversation about the impact of the Khmer Rouge-- "Their hearts are not humans' hearts. I don't want to still keep thinking about those cruel animals. They left us like this. Now my country is like a broken thing, but they are still OK. And I don't know why--why they did it, why for everything."

So when I asked him what should happen to the Khmer Rouge, I shouldn't have been surprised at his reply. But I was. His answer was swift. "Kill them."

What? No trial?

"OK, yes, a trial." His face twisted in anger, and he raised a thumb and forefinger. "And then just shoot them. Kill them all."

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