Letter From Cambodia

Letter From Cambodia

Still recovering from the Khmer Rouge.


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.

“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.

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.

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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