My last post was about Cambodian food because, in the past five days, eating is about the only interesting thing I have done. I have mostly been in bed with a cold (it’s over now!). During my time in the hotel room, I also wrote a little about Cambodia. I have gone back and forth about whether to post a story that is so tragic. But I am not describing the real Cambodia if the only things I share are my isolated experiences as a privileged tourist.
So if you don’t want to read a sad story, skip the rest. But it’s important….
Before I came to Cambodia, I understood that Cambodia’s modern history is full of tragedy. As a teenager in the 1960s, I knew the US had dropped half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the “Vietnam” war, and that the murderous Khmer Rouge took over when the US abandoned its weak puppet government in Phnom Penh. But until I spent some time reading and talking to Cambodians, I certainly didn’t understand the depth or breadth of Cambodia’s sorrows.
The worst of it began in 1975 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took control. With the support of the Chinese government, the Khmer Rouge presided over four years of brutality and the deaths of up to 3 million Cambodians. Its soldiers looted cities and herded most of the country’s population into the countryside to be enslaved in the rice fields. Most starved because most of the food Cambodia produced was sent to China to pay for weapons. Murder and torture were systematic and routine. Ethnic minorities and anyone with an education were murdered as a matter of policy, although no one was safe from the brutality. Cambodia has 300 “killing fields,” where those who were not useful to the regime were brought to die.
The Communist Vietnamese government brought down the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and occupied Cambodia for several years. In 1985, the Vietnamese installed a former Khmer Rouge officer, Hun Sen, to lead Cambodia. Civil war continued, however, and Cambodia’s countryside is still littered with an estimated 5 million live land mines, some manufactured in the US and sent to Cambodia with the tacit approval of the US government (which still refuses to join the Mine Ban Treaty, an international agreement to stop the manufacture and sale of land mines). Land mines have resulted in 20,000 deaths and caused amputations in more than 40,000 Cambodians since 1979 and are still a huge problem in the northwest part of the country.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations finally stepped in to broker a peace treaty and supervise national elections, neither of which were ultimately very meaningful. Civil war continued until the end of the 20th century. According to some experts, Cambodia’s elections were not and have never been legitimate since Hun Sen took power 30 years ago. Numerous reports from organizations like Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have documented systematic murders and violence designed to terrorize those who oppose the regime, including candidates for office, Buddhist monks and sitting public officials. The latest Human Rights Watch report, titled “30 Years of Hun Sen: Violence, Repression and Corruption in Cambodia,” summarizes Hun Sen’s priorities:
“Instead of devoting his time as prime minister to equitably improving the health, education, and standard of living of the Cambodian people, Hun Sen has been linked to a wide range of serious human rights violations: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, summary trials, censorship, bans on assembly and association, and a national network of spies and informers intended to frighten and intimidate the public into submission.”
Most Cambodians do not have access to adequate food, sanitary facilities or clean water. Education is mostly for the elite or those lucky enough to attend a school run by foreign NGOs. Over the years, Hun Sen has sold off the country’s natural resources to cronies and foreign governments, displacing thousands of farming families and trashing the natural environment. Corruption is institutionalized at all levels of government at the expense of the national economy and the vast majority of the Cambodian people. Western countries and the UN have aided and abetted Hun Sen by ignoring the abuses and providing him with billions of dollars in aid for which Hun Sen has never been held accountable.
Some believe that Hun Sen has been able to maintain his position of power because most Cambodians are poor farmers who do not involve themselves in politics and those who lived through almost 25 years of civil war are grateful for any kind of peace. According to Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights activist, “It is superficially true that relative peace and stability occurred during the reign of Hun Sen’s three decades in power. But Hun Sen’s ‘achievements’ are only relative to the blackness of the Khmer Rouge.”
The current situation may be a ticking time bomb. Young Cambodians, who comprise 70% of the Cambodian population, are more educated than their parents and grandparents, and have access to electronic media. It is clear they increasingly recognize the corruption and injustice of the current system. And yet Hun Sen appears prepared to meet any opposition with more oppression. He recently made it a crime for representatives of NGOs to speak publicly about candidates in a national election. In a speech this month, the commander of Hun Sen’s paramilitary described his brutal treatment of political opponents as tactics he learned by studying Hitler.
In the past two weeks, I have had the unusual experience of asking someone whether she was afraid for her life. You don’t have to go very far from Pub Street to see beneath the surface.
“I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”
Hun Sen, January 20, 2011, commenting publicly on how he would handle an “Arab Spring” if it occurred in Cambodia.
“The one who owns a small hotel at the Suong market also has a girl when he goes there. This guy has a girl wherever he sleeps. He’s hungry for sex. Don’t think that nobody knows about this.”
Hun Sen, speaking of a political opponent during a public speech, January 5, 2015.