Letter From Cambodia
by Noy Thrupkaew
The Nation magazine, June
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 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
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
"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
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
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
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."
Noy Thrupkaew, who writes frequently about
foreign affairs and culture, reported from Cambodia on a Pew International