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The Cambodian Tragedy, Cont’d

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 in exploiting the distrust between Ranariddh and Hun Sen.

In October Hun Sen invited Ee Chien and Sok Pheap to his Tiger’s Lair. In Phnom Penh it is said that he offered them a million dollars each if they would commit their troops to supporting his party, the CPP, rather than Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC party. “Together we can destroy FUNCINPEC and the monarchy,” he is reported to have said. But a million dollars is very little to generals who have been profiting from the extremely lucrative gem and timber concessions controlled by the Khmer Rouge in the Pailin region on the Thai border. They declined the offer—and promptly informed FUNCINPEC officials of Hun Sen’s proposals.

In mid-October Ranariddh flew to see Ieng Sary without telling Hun Sen in advance. Not long after, Hun Sen made a much grander visit protected by three hundred crack troops from an Indonesian-trained para-commando battalion. He came in a huge Russian helicopter (which can carry over two hundred people), one of two owned by the country’s richest businessman, Teng Bun Ma, with Ma by his side. Ma was apparently there to negotiate exclusive rights to the open-cast gem mines and the logging in the region.

Hun Sen told the Khmer Rouge leaders that “evil people”—presumably FUNCINPEC—had spread the lie that he would take away their land and weapons. He assured them that he would do no such thing. He gave Ieng Sary a diplomatic passport. After Hun Sen left, some of his troops stayed behind for a party at which they drank free beer together with Khmer Rouge soldiers and listened to young women singers paid for by Teng Bun Ma. They seemed to have a friendly time together, and there is obviously much to be said for such reconciliation between military troops if it is genuine. There have been hundreds of defections from the Khmer Rouge, and ceremonial changes of uniform. Young Khmer Rouge troops may well realize that life is more fun when they can spend time with young singers from Battambang. But Ieng Sary and his generals have so far refused to relinquish or even share control of their areas.

Hun Sen now faces criticism from senior members of the CPP, who believe that Ieng Sary should not have been pardoned so readily. Some diplomats in Phnom Penh told me they believe that Hun Sen may have seriously weakened himself by not bargaining more shrewdly. He was always able to outmaneuver Prince Ranariddh, but the Khmer Rouge commanders are far more formidable foes.

The US has made it clear to the government that it does not want to see Ieng Sary welcomed back to Phnom Penh. The King still hopes that he and other Khmer Rouge leaders will be brought before an interna-tional tribunal. The best hope of finding the necessary evidence lies with the State Department’s Genocide Project, headed by Ben Kiernan. His report, which Western observers in Phnom Penh told me they think has been well researched, will soon be issued.

All this is happening in an atmosphere of increasing tension as both Hun Sun and his rivals prepare for parliamentary elections in 1998, which Hun Sen is clearly determined to win. He sees government as a matter of personal patronage: businessmen give him money in return for contracts, and he spends that money to build up his own strength. In one recent speech he claimed that he and the CPP had built 650 schools around the country, while FUNCINPEC members, he said, had bought a plane for Ranariddh. That’s democracy, he said. Hun Sen wants foreign observers of the elections kept to a minimum; Ranariddh has requested widespread international involvement. Everyone fears violence.

One of the most corrupt practices encouraged by both prime ministers has been the illegal, immensely destructive logging, against which the principal opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has been protesting and organizing demonstrations. In late October the IMF warned the government that unless it makes good on its promise to improve logging policies, and ensures that timber revenues reach the treasury, IMF loans will be stopped. The government quickly announced that it will reform some practices. Sam Rainsy doubted whether it really intends to do so. The IMF and the World Bank apparently agreed. In mid-November, in protest against the government’s timber policies, the IMF cancelled a $20 million loan and the World Bank delayed a $27 million grant. If the logging is not controlled, the effect on Cambodia’s environment will be disastrous.

I mentioned in my last article that on October 18 the King said that because Ieng Sary had been pardoned, he would also give an amnesty to lesser criminals who were in the country’s jails, where conditions are appalling. Human rights groups immediately prepared lists of people who should be freed immediately, particularly women, children, and the sick, as well as others who had been wrongly imprisoned, often because they were too poor to bribe officials who brought meretricious charges against them.

But Hun Sen immediately ordered pro-government students, whom he pays $10 a month to support him, to protest the King’s act of mercy, and the newspapers he controls denounced it. Hun Sen was probably concerned above all that the amnesty would include Prince Sirivudh, the half-brother of the King and former FUNCINPEC leader and foreign minister, whom he had forced into exile and had had condemned in absentia on trumped-up charges. Hun Sen’s threats worked. Within days the King backed down and canceled the amnesty he had announced. It was a loss of face for him—and a devastating blow to the prisoners.

Human rights groups at once petitioned the King at least to pardon some four hundred women, children, and sick people now in prison. He then proposed to amnesty seventy-four of them—one for each year of his life. He has since left for medical treatment in China, and is said to be depressed by his diminishing authority.

In Cambodia today there is an AIDS epidemic, deadly land mines litter parts of the countryside, and there is growing rural poverty, corruption, injustice, and harsh treatment of dissenters. But conditions there are not comparable to the tragic events in Rwanda, Burundi, or Zaire. The country ought to have a better chance of decent government now than at any other time in recent decades. But it desperately lacks modern institutions (such as a decently paid civil service), widespread acceptance of the rule of law, and a political leadership which is interested in promoting efficient and honest use of power. The Cambodians who are committed to law and the constitution continue to depend on outside support and vigilance. So long as they do so, international aid should be given only on strict conditions that the government carry out institutional reforms.

November 14, 1996

  1. *

    The Tragedy of Cambodia,” The New York Review, November 14, 1996, pp. 41-46.

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