From The Malaysian Star
17th February 2000
Cambodia needs to move on
TO hear Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy tell it, every
Cambodian is either a drug addict, prostitute or corrupt. To hear
foreign correspondent Nate Thayer tell it, there's no hope for the
country either. Chief News Editor CHUA YEW KAY heard all kinds of
stories--there were stories of optimism and hope as well--during a
recent trip to a country once notorious for its "killing fields."
Here, he tries to clear the confusing and conflicting accounts he
heard about the country.
NATE Thayer, Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent and self-made
expert on Cambodia, made no bones about what he thought of the country
he has been reporting on for 15 years.
"It's a virtual dictatorship by any definition," he declared.
Thayer, who made a name for himself with his scoops on the Khmer Rouge
and the first interview with Pol Pot in 20 years since the end of the
genocidal regime, could not find anything positive to say about the
"I am negative because everything about this place is negative.
"I thought I would know this country better but the more I learn the
less I know."
He wasn't the only one confused. Even more so were his
audience--senior journalists and editors from Asian and German
publications. Among them were also Cambodian media people.
The occasion was the third Asian-German Editors Forum organised by the
Konrad Adenauer Foundation to promote a free and responsible press in
And while the Cambodian media representatives called the Cambodian
media among the freest, if not the freest, in Asia, Thayer wasn't so
"There are stories that ought to see print but aren't published
because the journalists fear for their lives, the lives of their
families, or their livelihood," he said.
There is a great likelihood of having a hand grenade lobbed into your
home or your office ransacked for running a story someone does not
It may take some stretch of the imagination, but it is also a form of
freedom of expression, according to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen,
although he didn't say it in so many words.
The Government is all for freedom of expression, he said.
The media can carry anything it wants as long as it's fair and
balanced, but the politicians also have the right to reply.
Nevertheless, while the Cambodian media feels that it is moving
towards even greater freedom, it rated itself quite lowly when asked
how influential it has been in shaping the national agenda.
After Hun Sen had given a rosy picture of Cambodia to the journalists
at the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, oppositionist Sam Rainsy painted
a dark and gloomy scene.
"Don't let the grand surroundings of this hotel fool you into thinking
the rest of Cambodia is like this," the gentle-looking Rainsy said.
Then he proceeded to check a list of what was wrong with his country.
Everything was wrong, it seemed--from the political structure and
social fabric to the environment.
He reeled off grim statistics--80% of Cambodians were poor farmers;
95% of exports came from overdependence on the textile/garment
industry; international assistance accounted for 40% of the national
Budget; the country was 10 times poorer than next-door neighbour
Thailand in terms of Gross Domestic Product per capita but spent 30
times less on education and health than Thailand.
For someone who aspires to the premiership, Rainsy offered no firm
solutions to his long list of problems, to the disappointment of his
Even Thayer, who considers Rainsy the person most suitable to replace
Hun Sen, sees no hope of the opposition leader ever making it to the
top post given the current political circumstances.
He is disgusted, and rightly so, by what the Khmer Rouge did during
their bloody reign from 1975 to 1979, when up to two million
Cambodians were massacred.
His writings about certain Cambodian personalities and what he claims
are proof of the corrupt system--from airport immigration to the
highest political office--have earned him threats and lawsuits.
While he grapples with the present Cambodia and what he sees as its
bleak future, Thayer has difficulty burying the past.
He remains frustrated with that final interview he had with Pol Pot in
October 1997, the first international journalist to do so since the
man was driven from power 18 years earlier.
Pol Pot reportedly committed suicide in April 1998 to avoid trial.
Thayer is also irked by the fact that five of the Khmer Rouge central
committee members are today in the government, something he finds hard
No one doubts his sense of justice and fair play. But, as he said, the
more he finds out about Cambodia the less he knows.
To many people, the Killing Fields may seem like yesterday. Yet, more
than 20 years have gone by. One new generation has grown up.
People like taxi driver So Pheap and human rights activist Phuong Sith
do not remember much of what it was like then.
Pheap, 26, said he was told his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge.
He never knew what happened to his mother. He grew up with relatives.
Sith, executive director of Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia, said
Cambodians wanted to put that episode behind them and get on with
What would it take then to lay the past to rest? Bringing the
perpetrators of the genocide to justice is one obvious answer.
While it may be important for the Cambodian psyche to have the Khmer
Rouge ghost exorcised once and for all, this is easier said than done.
Attempts to set up a tribunal are bogged down by a debate between the
Cambodian leadership and the United Nations.
The two sides have been negotiating for months to create the tribunal
to try the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
The government plan calls for UN involvement--vital to gaining
international legitimacy for the court--but ensures that the trials
would be controlled by Cambodia's politicised and nascent judiciary.
The UN has balked at approving the plan, which is in the form of a
draft national law. UN legal experts have demanded an international
co-prosecutor be able to make indictments independently of a Cambodian
Critics accuse Hun Sen of seeking to protect senior former Khmer Rouge
rebels living freely under defection deals while the UN has said it
would only back a trial that ensured minimum international standards.
It would seem that the tribunal is one vital component in the scheme
of thing in restoring confidence not only among Cambodians but also
Still, the tribunal issue has apparently divided the Cambodians. Some
analysts say while every Cambodian family lost a relative, every
family also had the suspicion that someone in the family was
implicated in the Khmer Rouge movement.
But, meanwhile, it is business as usual for the country--the business
of ensuring the country's economic growth.
Hun Sen, who became a grandfather for the first time just before the
media gathering, ought to pay attention.
During the question and answer session with the media, he was asked
about an incident in which the wife of a junior minister allegedly
threw acid into the face of her husband's mistress and whether he
should use it to restore confidence in the justice system, but Hun Sen
dismissed it as an isolated incident.
"Looking at one tree is dangerous. You must look at the whole jungle,"
That may be so, but as long as the law of the jungle does not take
hold again, Cambodia has every opportunity to break free from its
terrible past and move on with the rest of the world.