As each year—and each day—passes Cambodia seems more perplexing. The King, Norodom Sihanouk, has twice been crowned but now has little power; still, he maintains the aura of kingship and most Cambodians would feel that something terrible had happened if he abdicated or died. The country has two prime ministers running what amount to competitive administrations within one government. But one of them, Hun Sen, is much more powerful than the other, Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose relations with his father are uneasy.

Now the two prime ministers have persuaded the rather reluctant King to give Ieng Sary, the former brother-in-law of Pol Pot, and a leader of the Khmer Rouge, perhaps the most murderous regime in modern history, a royal pardon. No questions asked.

Will Ieng Sary soon take some part in the double-headed government? That is what he is said to be discussing with both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh while he remains in a secret hideout near the Thai border, still in control of several hundred soldiers, about 20 percent of the Khmer Rouge fighting force, who have come with him. It may be months before we know the outcome. What is clear is that the new government that emerged in 1993 from the UN’s most ambitious peacekeeping effort has become mired in corruption, violence, and deception.

We can learn much about how it became so from the career, and the death last May, of Thun Bun Ly, a Cambodian newspaper publisher and editor who had been critical of the Royal Cambodian Government. Around 10:30 on the morning of Saturday, May 18, Thun Bun Ly left his house in Phnom Penh, and hailed a motorbike taxi. As the bike drove down Street 95, another motorbike carrying two men, one in uniform, sped by, and one of them fired a pistol at Thun Bun Ly. He was hit by two bullets in the chest and a third in his left arm. He fell to the ground and his driver fled.

Thun Bun Ly died in the street. His body was then taken by neighbors to a temple. Later that day, according to reports received by Amnesty International, Phnom Penh policemen came to the temple and, using sticks, dug out the bullets from his body, thus removing the evidence.

Thun Bun Ly had known he was in danger. Several journalists critical of the government were killed in Phnom Penh in recent years and many more have been threatened. Before he left home that morning he told a friend he was worried that he had been followed after leaving the house of Sam Rainsy, the leading critic of the Royal Cambodian Government and the founder of the new Khmer Nation Party, the main opponent of the government apart from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Of the government’s two prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh condemned the murder; Hun Sen, the former Communist who has for years been the dominant man in Cambodia, did not.

Sam Rainsy, who was opening new offices for his party in southern Cambodia at the time, called the murder “state terrorism” designed to stifle criticism of an increasingly corrupt and brutal regime. The US Embassy mildly deplored the killing, and other embassies said nothing at all. Suppression of human rights in Cambodia used to arouse the attention of foreign governments. Not now.

Thun Bun Ly’s life and death reflect the grim events in Cambodia during recent decades. He was born in 1957 and spent his childhood during the relative calm of the Sixties, when Norodom Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War through a policy of “neutrality”—which in fact placed it closer to North Vietnam than to the South.

After Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970, the country was dragged willy-nilly into the Vietnam War, and over the next five years it was largely destroyed. When the Khmer Rouge Communists—a minute force in 1970—took over the country in 1975, they expelled Thun Bun Ly, then a student in Phnom Penh, along with practically everyone else in the city. He spent the next three years working in the fields in the grotesque Stalinist-Maoist experiment that the Khmer Rouge called “Democratic Kampuchea,” which consumed the lives of a million people or more. At the end of 1978 Vietnam overthrew its former Khmer Rouge allies and installed a client government dominated by defectors from the Khmer Rouge. The most formidable among them was Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge officer, who became first foreign minister and then prime minister. Thun Bun Ly returned to Phnom Penh and worked as an official of the forestry service.

After their invasion, the Vietnamese singled out just two Khmer Rouge leaders as those responsible for the massacre or genocide of the previous three years. They called the regime the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique” and in August 1979 staged a show trial, in absentia, of the “clique.”


The trial was a farce, as was evident from the opening statement by Pol Pot’s and Ieng Sary’s “defense counsel,” Mr. Hope Stevens, described as “Co-Chairperson of the National Conference of Black Lawyers of the United States and Canada.” He opened his statement by announcing, “I have not come from halfway around the world to give approval to monstrous crime nor to ask mercy for the criminals. No! A thousand times No!”

Stevens declared that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were

criminally insane monsters carrying out a program the script of which had been written elsewhere for them. So that, if it were left to me and the other lawyers of the world who are present here, you would not have only Pol Pot and Ieng Sary standing judgment here; in fairness to them, we would have beside them, as fellow accused, the manipulators of world imperialism, the profiteers of neo-colonialism, the fascist philosophers, the hegemonists, who are supporting Zionism, racism, apartheid, and reactionary regimes in the world,—all these would be standing there with the false socialist leaders of fascist China, awaiting the verdict and sharing the sentence….

Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were quickly found guilty and were sentenced to death in absentia; it was this sentence that was partially annulled recently when Ieng Sary was pardoned. During the Eighties, David Hawk, a former head of American Amnesty, tirelessly gathered evidence to make a case for the regime being arraigned under the Genocide Convention. He was never able to find any state prepared to take up the case, as is required under the Convention. As a result, no legal proof of the guilt of either Pol Pot or Ieng Sary or any other Khmer Rouge leaders has ever been carefully established.

Like many Cambodians, Thun Bun Ly first welcomed liberation from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese, but he came to resent the continuing Vietnamese occupation, which was supported by the USSR, and the harsh regime imposed by the Cambodians Vietnam chose to run the country. Hun Sen’s government soon set up its own secret police; it was criticized by Western human rights groups for arresting dissidents, torturing them, and starving them to death. Thun Bun Ly joined an anti-Vietnamese group and then fled, along with hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians, to one of the refugee camps on the Thai border.

Meanwhile most of the world’s nations were determined that Cambodia be represented in the UN not by Vietnam’s client regime, but by an alliance of exiles led by Norodom Sihanouk, and including the Khmer Rouge. The exiled groups were all based along the Thai border. China and Thailand supplied the Khmer Rouge with arms and money while other Southeast Asian and Western countries built up both Prince Ranariddh’s royalist party, FUNCINPEC, and another, smaller, non-communist group, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF). Thun Bun Ly joined FUNCINPEC.

While the isolated country deteriorated, these three groups, each in its own way, opposed both the Vietnamese and the Hun Sen regime. The Khmer Rouge troops attacked Hun Sen’s army and the Vietnamese forces. The armed forces of FUNCINPEC and the KPNLF were much less effective, but FUNCINPEC set up an underground network throughout Cambodia that was able to circulate criticism of the regime, particularly about its corruption and its intimidation of critics.

After Gorbachev changed Soviet policy in the late 1980s, Hanoi abandoned its attempt to dominate Cambodia and in 1989 withdrew its forces. Peace talks soon began and lasted until October 1991, when nineteen nations and the four Cambodian factions signed the Paris Peace Agreement charging the UN with (1) setting up a transitional administration for the country, (2) disarming the four armies, and (3) preparing elections for a new government that would be internationally accepted. Thun Bun Ly was one of the many who returned to Phnom Penh under the UN repatriation program.

One purpose of the agreement was to remove an impediment to the emerging détente among the US, China, and the USSR. Another was to deal with the embarrassing situation in which members of the UN, including the US, continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge and its exiled leaders as part of the legitimate government of Cambodia. To include the Khmer Rouge in the agreement was widely seen as a compromise with an evil force, but Western leaders argued that it was a pragmatic compromise. There was no other way to persuade the Chinese both to stop supporting Pol Pot’s troops and to recognize the Vietnamese-backed regime, which they regarded as an enemy. The alternative was continuing war.


Ben Kiernan, an Australian academic now at Yale, attempts to explain the monstrous behavior of the Khmer Rouge in his book, The Pol Pot Regime. Unfortunately, in interpreting these awful events, he proves no more reliable now than he has been in the past. When the Khmer Rouge were in power, he was one of their more active apologists, attacking and impugning the motives of writers who charged them with mass killing. In 1978, after Vietnam denounced the Khmer Rouge, Kiernan admitted publicly that he had been wrong. But after the Eighties he supported the Vietnamese-controlled regime. It was obviously better than the Khmer Rouge, but it was cruel, repressive, increasingly unpopular, and no solution for Cambodia’s problems.


In his book he fails to take adequate account of the work of other scholars; indeed his footnotes are notable for their carping, petty criticisms of the work of others. Particularly egregious is his dismissal of, which amounts to an attack on, the life’s work of David Chandler, the dean of Cambodian studies, author of, inter alia, The Tragedy of Cambodian History and Brother Number One, the classic biography of Pol Pot, and Kiernan’s own teacher. Nor does he provide a persuasive historical or intellectual analysis that would help to explain Cambodia’s disasters. Instead, he puts forward the thesis that the central characteristic of the Khmer Rouge regime was racism—directed in particular against the Vietnamese, although also against the Cham people and other minority ethnic groups. Instead of illuminating recent Cambodian history, this argument confuses it. Ethnic and racist hatred of the Vietnamese, and fear of them, have long been widely felt in Cambodia and have been exploited by previous regimes. But the massacres and internal purges conducted by the Khmer Rouge, as the Cambodia scholar Steve Heder and others have shown, were of a different order entirely. Most of the Khmer Rouge’s victims were ethnic Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge leaders drew on Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, and Maoist ideologies in order to identify as “class enemies” the millions of Cambodians who were better educated or even slightly better off than others. The Khmer Rouge displayed a paranoid absolutism reminiscent of Stalin’s treatment of the kulaks and the Great Terror and Mao’s policies during the Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot was not, as Vietnamese propagandists and their friends like to describe him, an “Asian Hitler”—he was an Asian Stalin.

Like many who supported the Hun Sen regime, Kiernan was fiercely critical of the UN mission sent to carry out the provisions of the Paris Agreement. He argued at the time that the agreement was helpful to the Khmer Rouge, who “would still have benefited as they didfrom the turmoil engendered by the peace plan’s attempt simultaneously to freeze hostilities and open up political competition.” This is nonsense: the peace plan was disastrous for the Khmer Rouge. Their present disintegration is a consequence of their defeat after Paris.

The agreement created the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to oversee the country until elections resulted in a new National Assembly and government. More than a peacekeeping mission, it was intended to be almost a trusteeship, a kind of postmodern colonialism that could create a new Cambodian society—promoting human rights, rehabilitating the economy, demobilizing troops, setting up a civil administration, repatriating refugees, encouraging a free press, and staging free and fair elections. Headed by Yasushi Akashi, a career UN official, UNTAC spent more than $2 billion during 1992 and 1993, most of it supporting 20,000 troops and 5,000 civilian advisers who were to organize the elections.

When UNTAC began its work in 1992, the UN Secretariat was already preoccupied with Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Mozambique. In New York, UN officials had difficulty assembling troops and administrators to carry out the Paris Agreement. Still, the invasion of the UN workers in their white cars, white helicopters, and white planes was a remarkable event. Their spending caused serious though short-lived inflation, and some UN people who had HIV spread the virus in Phnom Penh. But they also brought to Cambodia for the first time in its history the ideas of the rule of law, a free press, and free assembly.

The UN, however, was unable to disarm and demobilize the four factions, or, as provided in the Paris Agreement, to supervise the large parts of the Cambodian state—perhaps 80 percent—that were still controlled by Hun Sen’s People’s Party (CPP). At the end of 1992, the Khmer Rouge refused to take part in the elections and reneged on the Paris Agreement, arguing, with some reason, that their enemies running the Phnom Penh administration had not been neutralized. So the elections of May 1993 took place among widespread fears that the Khmer Rouge would attack the polling stations and kill large numbers of people. In fact the Khmer Rouge were unable to do so, and the election was a triumph for the UN. Ninety percent of registered voters turned out. Many of them in their best clothes, they clearly took very seriously the first chance they ever had to express their views freely. It was immensely moving to see.

Despite intimidation by Hun Sen’s local security forces only 38 percent voted for his party, which they associated with Vietnam, with communism and with unending war against the Khmer Rouge. Forty-five percent voted for FUNCINPEC, which was seen as devoted to Sihanouk and the traditional ruling family, and whose leader Prince Ranariddh pledged “reconciliation,” including with the Khmer Rouge.

The hectic, almost MASH-like atmosphere of UNTAC is well captured by Carol Livingston in Gecko Tails. Livingston, a young journalist living in Phnom Penh, hitched rides on UN planes and vehicles, trying to discover what she could about its impact on the country. She has a sharp, humorous eye, and notices the good as well the bad and ugly in the UN system. “Not everyone joined the UNTAC mission for the good of Cambodia; some needed a field posting to climb the intricate UN salary scale. Others just wanted money, salting away their allowances…. On the other hand, UN volunteers often had excellent professional qualifications and experience. They lived in small villages registering voters…and received minuscule allowances.”

Livingston’s descriptions of brave and feckless UN officials, uninformed reporters, and the relations of both with the often bewildered Cambodians, makes Gecko Tails a funny book and a touching one; it gives an excellent account of the day-to-day impact of a UN force on an impoverished country. Anyone interested in Cambodia should read it.

The successes and failures of the UN mission are also well analyzed in Propaganda, Politics, and Violence in Cambodia, edited by Steve Heder and Judy Ledgerwood, a revealing collection by young Western scholars, all Khmer speakers, who worked for UNTAC. The contributors were among the people who were responsible for identifying who was intimidating whom in Cambodia; they became, in effect, the political analysis group of UNTAC. They also monitored and tried to discourage hate speech in the press, and helped run Radio UNTAC, the station that did more than anything else to convince people that they could vote freely and safely despite intimidation. The book’s essays, taken together, make up one of the best studies on modern Cambodia. Among its contributors are the Western Cambodia scholars of the future; they tend to be more perceptive, in my view, than the previous generation, many of whom have been embroiled in internecine leftist disputes for years.

Hun Sen’s defeat showed, Judy Ledgerwood writes, that the people “wanted peace, which for many Cambodians meant coming to some kind of settlement with the Khmer Rouge.” They hoped that peace would allow many thousands of the people who had been caught up in the fighting to return home. She also observes that the People’s Party had behaved brutally in many parts of the country. Its local officials had beaten up FUNCINPEC supporters and in some cases had them arrested and even killed. The party’s “state violence against its own people,” she writes, “was rejected at the polls.”

But as it turned out, only at the polls. Hun Sen would not step aside. He demanded that Prince Sihanouk, who still spoke with a unique authority in Cambodia, cast doubt on the fairness of FUNCINPEC’s victory, and he threatened civil war. Since much of the army was loyal to him, his threats worked. After much maneuvering, Sihanouk announced the formation of a Provisional National Government of Cambodia, in which his son, Prince Ranariddh, the clear winner of the election, was forced to accept parity with the People’s Party in an interim coalition. UNTAC officials initially protested this outcome, saying it betrayed the election results, but they finally accepted Sihanouk’s solution: a coalition, however unfair, was better than renewed war, which seemed the only alternative.

In September 1993 a new constitution, agreed on by Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, was made public. Cambodia was to become a constitutional monarchy, with Sihanouk once again on the throne, though without real power. The new Royal Government was to continue as a coalition between the two enemies, FUNCINPEC and the People’s Party, with Ranariddh as first prime minister and Hun Sen as second prime minister. The other ministries such as defense and finance were split between one minister loyal to Hun Sen and one loyal to Ranariddh. Even then it was clear that, for the most part, Hun Sen’s ministers were the dominant ones and in a better position both to obtain money and to mobilize forces if they had to. As the UN peacekeepers left, they were obscenely mocked by the Khmer Rouge radio.

Many Cambodians were dismayed that the CPP, which they had specifically voted against, was still in power. Thun Bun Ly was one of these. After he returned to Phnom Penh he set up a small newspaper on a tiny budget, and published a stream of articles attacking government corruption, and criticizing both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh. He was not alone. “Medellín on the Mekong” is the apt but tragic description given Cambodia today by Nate Thayer, the American reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Phnom Penh Post, who has done more than anyone else to expose the narco-traffic and other abuses by the government.


My first morning back in Phnom Penh, earlier this year, I had tea with a senior UN official. Cambodia, he said, now has a “casino culture.” He wasn’t just referring to the gambling casinos that are flourishing in Phnom Penh. The country, he said, has become a state of two hundred very rich families and four million poor ones. All that matters for most people is getting rich and staying rich. He thought this generation was lost. “There is no sense of sacrifice here—it’s different from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Training the next generation is more important than anything else.”

Cambodia’s great forests, he said, were being cut down and sent to make cheap furniture in Japan and elsewhere. The waters of the Great Lake in the center of the country were being poisoned or silted up because of deforestation; fish were disappearing. Angkor Wat was threatened by unchecked theft of its carvings, which end up for sale on the international art market, and by the ravages of mass tourism. Some of the plans for huge hotel developments at Angkor, he said, were particularly appalling in their vulgarity.

Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the world; but new electronic technology is much sought after by businessmen and government employees on the upper levels, and in Phnom Penh today thousands of people use mobile phones. But many of them believe that their phones are not only tapped but also can transmit their private conversations to the police even when switched off. Embassies confiscate mobile phones when visitors enter. UN officials turn on music against the bugs they believe to be placed in their offices.

Buildings are going up in every part of Phnom Penh, dozens of them banks. Many are said to be fronts for laundering money corruptly acquired by leading politicians, generals, and businessmen. Large quantities of opium and heroin from Laos—said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars—pass through Cambodia to Thailand and beyond. One of the country’s richest businessmen is reported to be a major drug trafficker; he is also closely associated with both prime ministers, who have become rich men.

I spent two hours with King Sihanouk in his palace on the banks of the Mekong. He was his usual charming and voluble self, offering Taittinger champagne and chocolates. But he seemed a saddened man. He sees Cambodia as lurching from crisis to crisis, over which he has little or no control. Once accustomed to absolute power, he was humiliated by the Khmer Rouge, which kept him under house arrest and killed many members of his family; in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he was crucial in organizing the cease-fire and peace treaty.

“Since the 1993 election,” he said, “Hun Sen and Ranariddh have chosen to share everything. I speak carefully. They’ve found a miraculous formula or recipe. It’s delicious.” They share everything, it would seem, except the profits from gambling. Each of the two biggest casinos is allied with the interests of one of the two prime ministers, and an intermittently violent war has been going on between them. When a third casino opened, financed by Korean interests, a pro-Hun Sen minister sent tanks to close it down.

Now both prime ministers ignore the King. He has been sympathetic to the opposition led by Sam Rainsy and to the beleaguered editors of newspapers and magazines who fear Hun Sen, and who still look to him for help. But Sihanouk is seventy-four, not in the best of health, and he feels he cannot do much for them. “I am,” he said, “like a piece of ham in a sandwich, but not a delicious sandwich like those created by Lord Sandwich. I’m stuck instead between the government and the opposition. I am very miserable. Very, very miserable. I would like to conciliate. I cannot. I cannot reunite the two sides. My hope for Cambodia to become one of the world’s most advanced liberal democracies is finished.”

Why? Because of the behavior of the two prime ministers—the actions of Hun Sen and the failure of Prince Ranariddh to challenge him.

Hun Sen has dominated the coalition because officials and army officers loyal to him continue to control almost every level of the administration, down to the villages, while Ranariddh and FUNCINPEC have become weaker. In 1994 I saw Ranariddh in the VIP lounge at the airport. Hun Sen swept in, took him by the arm, led him into a corner, sat him down and started talking fiercely at him. From the start Ranariddh was subordinate to Hun Sen. (Perhaps that is why he has been anxious to hold onto his job teaching political science in Aix-en-Provence.)

Since the Royal Government was formed, the National Assembly has been made increasingly its creature. Assembly members who showed signs of straying from Hun Sen’s line have been threatened. Any open dissent has usually been attacked by the government as supporting the Khmer Rouge and destructive of the “nation building” in which Ranariddh and Hun Sen claim to be engaged. People’s Party officials opposed to Hun Sen have been sentenced to long prison terms for plotting coups. In October 1994, Ranariddh dismissed as the minister of finance the gifted and combative Sam Rainsy, the leader of FUNCINPEC in the early 1990s who had been a successful businessman in France in the 1980s. He had helped plan the party’s electoral victory and had been one of the coalition government’s most successful ministers; he was an outspoken advocate of fiscal reform, insisting, for example, that government contracts should go to the lowest bidder. Such views posed a serious threat to the lucrative commercial interests of the leading politicians. Not long after Rainsy was fired, the foreign minister, Sihanouk’s half-brother Prince Sirivudh, who was general secretary of FUNCINPEC and had remained popular as most of the party’s leaders had not, resigned.

Thus the two most independent and, it was widely believed, uncorrupted voices in the government were in opposition by the end of 1994. From then on, both Ranariddh and Hun Sen have done their best to destroy them, and last year Hun Sen forced Prince Sirivudh to leave the country for France and arranged to have him condemned to prison in absentia on the trumped-up charge that the Prince was conspiring to kill Hun Sen. Rainsy has continued to attack the corruption of the government’s senior ministers, and other abuses of power. Threats have been made against him and his family, but to the intense irritation of his former colleagues he has persevered with his complaints.

Rainsy has drawn particular attention to the pillaging of the hardwood forests which have been for centuries one of Cambodia’s glories. By the end of the 1980s they were still a treasure without parallel in the rest of Southeast Asia, where vast areas of forest had already been stripped by loggers. Now Cambodia’s forests too are under assault.

According to a recent report of the London-based ecology group Global Witness, the government is planning to sell off all of Cambodia’s remaining forest, 35 percent of the country’s land area, by granting nineteen logging concessions to mainly foreign companies. Most such concessions have been granted, in secret, by the two prime ministers. Even the Ministry of Finance, which should be collecting revenue from the sale of timber, has often been kept in the dark.

Both sides in the civil war have used timber sales to finance their military campaigns. In some sections of the country the Khmer Rouge and government forces have fought pitched battles over timber; in others they cooperate to get the highest prices. Villagers and tribespeople who stand in the way of the loggers have been evicted or even murdered, and journalists who try to expose the corrupt trade in timber or in drugs are liable to be threatened if not attacked, or, as in the case of Thun Bun Ly, assassinated.


One of the greatest achievements of UNTAC was to introduce some of the institutions of civil society in a country where no such concepts had ever existed. For the first time Cambodian human rights groups were allowed to organize and a free press began to flourish. People began to feel confident enough to criticize their leaders, often in abusive terms. Since 1994, the two prime ministers have made it more and more clear that such criticisms will no longer be tolerated.

Amnesty International reported this spring that there has been “a steady deterioration in respect for human rights” in Cambodia. A new press law passed in 1995, while less draconian than the original draft, outlaws the publication of any material thought to affect adversely “national security or political stability,” and the policemen and soldiers who have violently attacked critics of the regime have not been punished.

In September 1994, Nuon Chan, the editor of the Voice of Khmer Youth, was shot dead in the street. In September 1995 a hand grenade was thrown into the offices of the Morning News after it published reports about military complicity in the heroin trade. New Liberty News was ransacked in October 1995; people who witnessed the attack said that among the gang were bodyguards of Hun Sen. Printers for other opposition papers have stopped printing them out of fear.

Thun Bun Ly was put on trial in 1995 for his attacks on the government. In his testimony he named corrupt officials, and told the judge, “If the press has to coddle the testicles [of the co-prime ministers] then the country will be completely ruined.” This remark and others prompted loud cheers from the audience in the court. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of some $4,000 or serve two years in prison. His paper was closed. He appealed.

Despite constraints on the press, Cambodia’s own human rights groups, set up during the UN’s presence, still survive. They are stronger in the provinces than any comparable groups in, say, Indonesia or Malaysia, let alone Vietnam or China. But many human rights workers told me that they feel the government and its agents are circling them, waiting for the moment to get rid of them. During the last few months, Hun Sen’s paranoia has become even more evident, and more concentrated on the man he sees as his greatest enemy—Sam Rainsy.

Ranariddh has often acquiesced in Hun Sen’s brutal tactics. In June of 1995 he demanded that the National Assembly expel Sam Rainsy, who had already been thrown out of FUNCINPEC. This was almost certainly illegal under the 1993 electoral law, but Rainsy was expelled anyway. A few weeks later, three of his bodyguards were arrested. They were told they had been seized “for the political crime of involvement with the Khmer Rouge.” They were beaten up by thirty to forty soldiers, who tried to get them to say that Sam Rainsy was connected with the Khmer Rouge. One of the bodyguards later said he was told, “If you don’t answer, your head will be soaked with blood…. Even if you are not shot, your head will be smashed to bits and no one will help you.” It was the language the Khmer Rouge used in talking to their captives.

Last November, Sam Rainsy created a new political party, the Khmer Nation Party, which the Royal Government has since found one reason after another to declare illegal and disqualify from taking part in the election to be held in 1998. Nonetheless, the present government is held in such contempt that Rainsy’s party has considerable support. Rainsy himself claims it has over 60,000 members. A brave if occasionally reckless leader, he now moves in and out of the country, and puts himself in danger by lobbing accusations at the government as he does so. He characterizes Cambodia as “a mafia state” where the dominant politicians and the well-to-do businessmen are beyond the law.

When Thun Bun Ly was killed King Sihanouk joined with Rainsy in protesting the death. Sihanouk denounced “the despicable and cowardly murder and those who are the instigators of this odious and unjustified crime.” He said that since UNTAC left, “Cambodians have themselves been witness to multiple acts of terrible violence and of numerous assassinations of journalists and other honorable people, crimes whose motivations were undoubtedly political.”

Hun Sen did not condemn the murder. Instead, he made a hysterical outburst at a public meeting, claiming that a tapped phone conversation had revealed his enemies were plotting “to assassinate my children in France and in the United States.” (His son, Hun Manet, is at West Point.)


The UN inevitably created unrealistic expectations. I remember one UN official telling me that UNTAC would completely transform Cambodian life. It could do nothing of the sort in a country whose only tradition was authoritarianism, which had endured twenty-one years of civil war, and where the mass murder of the Khmer Rouge had been followed by a more orthodox but highly repressive Communist regime. Steve Heder describes the elections and other civic actions organized by the UN as “Cambodia’s democratic transition to neo-authoritarianism.” UNTAC’s experience suggests that a temporary UN presence, whether in the Balkans, Indochina, or Africa, however well organized and well intentioned, cannot stop political or ethnic groups from using the military and political forces at their disposal.

Nonetheless Cambodia and Cambodians have benefited from the Paris Peace Agreement and the UN’s mission; with the war largely over, hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned. More and more Cambodians have become aware that they are entitled to freedoms that are being withheld from them. But led by Washington, many foreign governments have turned a blind eye to the regime’s behavior. In July 1995 Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, said, “Cambodia is a model UN success story, a model peace plan.” In December 1995, after Hun Sen called for a million people to demonstrate against foreign embassies, Kent Weiderman, Lord’s deputy, said, “I am happy to report that human rights is a concept that has permeated the Royal Government.” This policy was and continues to be absurd. Hun Sen, who lives in a heavily fortified stockade outside Phnom Penh, behaves like an increasingly dangerous psychotic. Washington’s belief that he will provide “stability” is foolish. It is true that the current government is still better than those that preceded it; but a huge international peacekeeping effort such as the UNmission of 1992-1994 should have been followed up vigorously and it was not.

Cambodia receives almost half of its $410 million annual budget from Western countries. Since the Paris Peace Agreement, $2.3 billion has been pledged by Western nations, about half of which has been paid. Until now donors have attached few if any strings to this aid and they have thus, in effect, underwritten authoritarianism and the corrupt ambitions of Hun Sen. But the abuses of this summer, and in particular the murder of Thun Bun Ly, may cause them to reconsider their positions. The US, the EU, and the IMF have all recently made statements that further assistance will depend on progress in protecting human rights. The EU has also now expressed concern over the destruction of the forests, and the IMF has delayed a loan on the grounds that money from timber sales is being diverted from the Ministry of Finance.

Such measures show belated concern over Hun Sen’s brutal rule, but they are inadequate. Just how inadequate is revealed in a secret speech made by Hun Sen at the end of June and published in early August by the Phnom Penh Post (an excellent paper, owned by two Americans, which itself has come under threat from the government because of the independence of its reporting).

Talking to about nine hundred supporters on June 29, Hun Sen warned the royal family not to challenge him:

One Royal has been got [rid of] already—two Royals in fact, ’94 one, ’95 one. If another is needed in ’96 that can be done too…. The King is the only one who can’t be touched, only so long as the King abides by the Constitution too. Let’s be clear about that. If you don’t abide by the Constitution you’re in for it now.

In this speech Hun Sen also made threats against FUNCINPEC and Ranariddh.

Then, in August, came the astonishing news that Pol Pot’s longtime political partner and brother-in-law, Ieng Sary, had been secretly negotiating a “defection in place” to the government. Sources in Phnom Penh have told me that the opening moves in the negotiations with Ieng Sary were made by FUNCINPEC officials and that Hun Sen then eagerly carried on further discussions. Ieng Sary and his Khmer Rouge troops controlled the gem mines and forests around the town of Pailin, close to the Thai border—the most lucrative fiefdom under Khmer Rouge control. His defection will be a major loss to the rest of the Khmer Rouge, which is still under Pol Pot’s control in the poorer regions further north.

The former Khmer Rouge official who since 1979 has been loudest in his abuse of the “Pol Pot-Ieng Sary clique,” Hun Sen, arranged a deal with what amounts to half of that clique. Ieng Sary held a press conference near the Thai frontier in which he denied that he had had anything to do with the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge. “It is always said that I was the second man to Pol Pot. It’s not true. Pol Pot made all the decisions; everyone else just carried them out.”

The two prime ministers rushed through an amnesty for Ieng Sary. The King acted, as he often does, more honorably than his officials. He was at first reluctant to grant a pardon; he felt that Ieng Sary’s responsibility for the appalling crimes of the Seventies should be properly investigated and established. Nonetheless, under pressure, he signed the decree on the understanding that the National Assembly approve the pardon—which it did.

Amnesty International wrote an open letter to Sihanouk before the pardon, arguing,

It is important that all those engaged in the quest for national reconciliation in the interests of Cambodia’s future do not lose sight of the need to uncover the truth about Cambodia’s past…. Amnesties which have the effect of preventing the emergence of the truth and subsequent accountability before the law should not be acceptable.

The King replied that he entirely agreed with Amnesty but, as a mere constitutional monarch, he had no alternative but to do as his prime ministers and parliament requested. He added that the pardon he gave should not prevent any international tribunal from pursuing Ieng Sary or other Khmer Rouge leaders. The King is also disturbed—rightly—by the fact that his government is allowing Ieng Sary and his troops to retain control of their areas, along with the lucrative and destructive logging and gem mining they exploit.

Apart from Amnesty’s intervention, the entire affair of the pardon has so far been greeted with official silence around the world. A leader of what has long been acknowledged as one of the most odious regimes in modern times has been pardoned for reasons of political expedience. Even though the 1979 trial of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary was a farce, that does not mean that real evidence could not be found and brought against them and others. Clearly the government in Phnom Penh has no interest in doing so.

Equally odd has been the reticence in this matter of Ben Kiernan, who heads the State Department-funded Cambodia Genocide Project at Yale, which is supposed to develop just such evidence. The choice of Kiernan to receive this US government funding was astonishing, given his own background of support first for the Khmer Rouge and then for the Hun Sen regime. Perhaps Kiernan has been distracted by the fact that the politician whom he had supported for so long, Hun Sen, was pardoning his quarry, Ieng Sary. The Project’s silence on the subject of the pardon hardly encourages confidence in its judgment. We must hope that it will soon show that it has been doing useful research.

The real threat to Cambodia now does not come from the disintegrating Khmer Rouge, which was crippled by the Paris Peace Agreement and the UN mission. The danger comes from the complicity of leading politicians in tolerating the worst crimes of the past as well as those of recent years. As Amnesty pointed out in its letter, “impunity is one of the main contributing factors to continuing cycles of human rights violations world wide.”

The donors of aid to Cambodia have not just the means but also, under the Paris Agreement, the responsibility to link assistance to the government’s respect for its own expressed commitments to the rule of law. If they do not do so, violence, corruption, and abuses of power will continue; and an increasingly discreditable coalition, stuffed with murderers, psychotics, and corrupt time-servers, will carry on killing people like Thun Bun Ly who protest against them.

October 17, 1996

This Issue

November 14, 1996