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A Tragedy of No Importance

Before Iraq, before Afghanistan and before Bosnia, the West set out to heal another ruined country—Cambodia.

| April. 15, 2005 03:00 AM PDT

IN THE UNITED STATES, Cambodia is synonymous with genocide. News stories rarely inform readers of the foreign role in Cambodia's tragedy, but they place nearly every story about Cambodia against the backdrop of Khmer Rouge savagery.

The popular media weave a colorful tapestry of horrors: intractable poverty, the government's addiction to foreign aid, the destruction of rainforests, the transshipment of drugs, the flesh trade. With each one, Cambodia seems to prove itself unable to escape its genocidal past.

As if to oblige the journalists, Cambodia has nearly every modern plague on tap. It ranks near the bottom in the UN's Human Poverty Index, five places below Haiti. On average, Cambodians earn less than a dollar a day and can expect to live to the ripe old age of 56. The main exports are cheap clothes, raw timber, marijuana, and beggars, although not necessarily in that order. The main imports include luxury items for the ruling classes, smuggled cigarettes, and stolen cars. The sex industry brings in as much as the national government spends, while the rate of HIV infection is by far the highest in Asia. Teenage girls in pajamas beckon from hundreds of brothels, while younger girls are held captive in back rooms, available for a premium price for those who believe that having sex with a virgin can prevent AIDS.

Almost without exception, the accounts of these new tragedies return to the bleaching piles of skulls and the dirt-covered bones left behind by Pol Pot and his comrades. Cambodia may be an open sore, they imply, but its agonies are the inevitable result of its past.

The West would like to think that it has finally done its penance for its role in Cambodia's bloody past, and by some standards, Cambodia had indeed made great strides toward democracy and development. Although it was Vietnam that drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, it was the international community that brokered a peace agreement between the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese-sponsored successors in 1991.

When thousands of foreign peacekeepers arrived that year to prepare Cambodia for U.N.-sponsored elections, they found Phnom Penh repopulated but otherwise little changed from twelve years earlier when Vietnamese forces drove the Khmer Rouge out and found a ghost town. Billions in foreign aid flowed in, as did thousands of diplomats, aid workers, and journalists. Restaurants, shops, bars, and brothels blossomed amid the ruins, and independent newspapers, both Cambodian and foreign-run, started to roll off the presses.

Like their colonial forebears, Westerners found that Phnom Penh offered luxuries few could afford back home. They could rent enormous villas, and hire maids, armed guards, and drivers. A bag of marijuana the size of a pillowcase could be obtained for about $20.

By 1995, when we arrived at the Daily, the foreigners were seeing their wealth eclipsed by a new class of government officials, police and army generals, and their business associates. Commoners still slalomed through dusty, mogul-filled roads, sometimes five or six to a single moped or pedicab, but the rich and powerful traveled in air-conditioned bliss, cushioned by high suspensions, protected by tinted windows, and armed escorts. By night, Land Cruisers and Mercedes-Benzes filled the parking lots of the new luxury hotels, karaoke palaces, and expensive Chinese restaurants that offered delicacies like sea turtle, sun bear, scaly anteater, and slow loris.

Fueled by foreign aid, the culture of corruption evolved into an economic system in its own right. Tax enforcement was close to non-existent. Customs revenues were siphoned away through an elaborate system of payoffs at the ports, timber concessions sold in secret. What little revenue came in went mostly to the security ministries, but not into salaries. Instead, the policeman on the corner collected bribes from motorists, and paid his captain for the right to stand on that corner. The captain paid his commander for the right to assign policemen. The commander paid the general for the right to choose captains, and so on up the line. Teachers, paid only twenty to thirty dollars a month, demanded fees from their students, doctors in public hospitals insisted on cash in the emergency room, and judges routinely sold their verdicts to the highest bidder.

As the money filtered its way up, it bought luxury cars, $300 bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, teenage mistresses, and loyalty. And for the most part, that is how things remain today. A noble effort to rescue a ruined country from civil war and help it recover has gone dreadfully wrong.

RAINSY PUSHED Han Mony's corpse off him. Recalling war films he had seen as a child, he stayed low and crawled away under the smoke. "We missed the target," he heard someone say.

As he crept, blinded by the smoke and missing his glasses, the third grenade went off ahead of him, and then the fourth. Rainsy's bodyguards shouted to him that government soldiers were closing in. He went limp and his bodyguards carried him away.

When Rainsy reached his house he held an impromptu press conference, telling reporters that the attack was an assault on democracy and the 1998 elections. Hun Sen, he insisted, "will be arrested and sentenced one day."

Hun Sen's top aide, Om Yentieng, had a different take. It was obvious, he said, that Rainsy ordered the attack on himself—after all, Yentieng cynically pointed out, he had escaped unscathed.

That evening Hun Sen threatened to "drag the demonstration's mastermind by the neck to court." Members of the opposition, he said later, "are not afraid to do anything, even acts that will lead to bloodshed, because they need to paint their faces with the blood of innocent people, victims they create, in order to get pity from others."

Pity, however, was in short supply. Less than ten hours after the attack, the first (and apparently last) Southeast Asian Biennial Film Festival opened at the Royal Palace. Foreign dignitaries, directors, starlets, film jurists, government officials, and members of the royal family arrived at the Throne Hall in dinner jackets and flowing silk.

Pretty young girls cast jasmine petals at their feet, and waiters poured Chateau Noaillac, Medoc, 1993. Guests dined on symphonie de canard landais en quatuor, pavé de saumon confit sur chiffonnade d'épinard au beurre, and mignon de boeuf en spirale de pancetta aux nuances balsamiques.

As the orchestra played, some of the visitors commented that the attack was especially unfortunate, because the film festival might have presented a positive image of Cambodia, one not seen since decades earlier, before the American bombing, the civil war, and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

JUST OVER FIFTY YEARS AGO, with her mother as midwife, Dee Yon gave birth to a fat baby boy on the floor of a wooden house in Peam Koh Snar village, on the Mekong river in Kampong Cham province.

Cambodia was a peaceful, pastoral land, a French colony at the threshold of independence. Peasants like Dee Yon, who made up the bulk of the population, lived much as they had for a thousand years, growing rice, tending water buffalo, cutting wood in the forest, living from season to season.

Dee Yon and her soldier husband named the boy Hun Bunall, Nall being a common name for a pudgy child. Villagers there still call him by that name. It was the Year of the Dragon and a Tuesday no less; this child would be a stubborn one.

At 13, his family sent him downriver to continue his education. Arriving in Phnom Penh with the equivalent of less than 50 cents, he moved into a pagoda, waiting on the monks, studying in his spare time. He took a new name, Ritthi Sen, from an ancient Khmer story about a boy who endures eleven wicked stepmothers.

He stayed in the capital, he later told his biographers, until 1969, when just before graduating from high school he was forced to flee the pagoda. Sihanouk's secret police were trying to stave off a rising rebellion by a mysterious communist movement that Sihanouk dubbed the "Khmer Rouge," or "Red Khmer,", and his security forces began to harass the monks, who were suspected of sympathizing with the Communists. Soon after, Sihanouk was toppled not from the left, but from the right, in a putsch that installed General Lon Nol, a hard-line anti-communist backed by the United States.

Sihanouk, from his exile in China, quickly joined his Communist former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. To bolster their common struggle, he called upon his "little people" to join the fight for liberation. Ritthi Sen changed his name to Hun Samrach—Samrach meaning "someone who completes his life's work"—and joined the movement. Samrach was wounded several times as he rose through the ranks of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1972, after what he described as a heroic raid, he changed his name again. As Hun Sen, he lost an eye in the battle for Kampong Cham, on April 16, 1975, the day before the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and sent the Americans fleeing in helicopters. Cambodia's cities and towns emptied out by order of the new regime. The crash of falling bombs was replaced by the scratch of the shovel and the dull thud of the hoe.

Two years into the nightmare, Hun Sen was a deputy regimental commander, in charge of 2,000 Khmer Rouge troops. By then, however, the regime had already turned on itself. Although Vietnamese communist support had been instrumental in the Khmer Rouge takeover, Cambodia's historical (and not entirely unjustified) fear of its much more populous and powerful neighbor soon trumped any sense of ideological kinship.

In 1977, Hun Sen was ordered to take part in what he considered a foolhardy attack on Vietnam. Perhaps fearing that he would be swept up in the regime's increasingly vicious internal purges, he fled into the waiting arms of Cambodia's enemy instead. Over the next year, the Khmer Rouge, under the delusion that each Cambodian soldier could kill 30 Vietnamese, mounted a series of vicious—and suicidal—attacks on Vietnamese border villages. At the end of 1978, the Vietnamese army, along with a group of Cambodian defectors and exiles, marched into Cambodia, quickly overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and drove its tattered remnants to the Thai border.

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