During a visit to Phnom Penh after my article on Cambodia appeared in these pages, the country seemed more perplexing than ever. The press there expresses all sorts of opinions, and is usually free to criticize the government, but not without terrible risks—editors have been physically threatened for their dissenting opinions, and some have been shot, as happened in the case of Thun Bun Ly, whose murder I described in my article. The economy is apparently growing at an astonishing 13 percent this year, but the growth is mostly in Phnom Penh, and the gap between urban rich and rural poor is increasing alarmingly. The country’s vast forests, one of Cambodia’s great assets, are being illegally cut down and the timber stolen—usually by senior government officials and the Khmer Rouge. Civil servants are paid only $13 a month, while government ministers and businessmen from Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and China are making large fortunes. Almost every day another graceful building is razed and replaced by a hideous gas station or office building that is hardly needed but has been constructed as a result of corrupt deals.
King Sihanouk laments his lack of power, and the two prime ministers, the former Communist Hun Sen and the royalist Prince Ranariddh, a son of Sihanouk, barely speak to each other. But in the words of the King they “compete to seduce” Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge leader whose regime killed over a million of their compatriots. In September they pressured the King to grant him a pardon.
Driving down the main highway outside Phnom Penh I saw the long new road that Hun Sen has built across rice fields to his so-called Tiger’s Lair, the heavily fortified bunker in which he holes up, issuing statements about his enemies, real and imagined. This new road has cut across existing irrigation patterns and caused serious flooding in neighboring villages; one group of villagers asked us to deliver a petition seeking financial aid to help them deal with the destruction. It was addressed to Hun Sen himself, whom most people see as the dominant politician in the country, far more powerful than Prince Ranariddh.
The villagers I talked to seemed to accept Ieng Sary’s pardon, saying they hoped that it would finally bring peace. But many people observe that Ieng Sary hadn’t surrendered anything in return for his pardon. It also wasn’t clear just what would happen to his troops. Would they all really join the Cambodian armed forces—and to whom would they be loyal? Still, the split between Ieng Sary and the more hard-line Pol Pot faction of the Khmer Rouge, and the defections of ordinary soldiers, weaken the Khmer Rouge militarily, and, as a result, reductions in the crippling defense budget should be possible.
Moreover, King Sihanouk has told diplomats that Ieng Sary and his two younger commanders, Ee Chien and Sok Pheap, are “masters of the game.” They have been skillful …