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In killing fields, a crying game.

In late January 1993, at the Cambodiana -- the only five-star hotel in Cambodia -- the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute conducted a workshop for Cambodians on how democracy is built. Democracy is a beautiful word for all Cambodians, but they did not know that someone could be taught to build one.

The luxurious room, which overlooked the muddy Mekong River, was packed with more than 200 participants. They bad come from the 20 or so political parties mushrooming in Phnom Penh. "Ten from each political party," I was told by a participant I recognized from Long Beach, Calif. At the time of the signing of the peace agreement in Parish in October 1991, there were only four parties.

The atmosphere was tense and full of mistrust. On the platform were six foreign men with short hair, conservatively dressed. One of them spoke English, which was simultaneously translated to Khmer. He spoke about how conflict can be resolved and how democracy can be established. At the end of his speech he introduced to the audience a colleague from El Salvador, who he said would tell the workshop about the practical experience of how democracy was built in his country. I found out later that he was from Arena -- the most right-wing party in El Salvador.


He spoke about the problems his country faced in the early 1980s from "Marxist-Leninist" groups. He did not elaborate on how the problems were solved, but he did imply that some sort of democratic means were used and that his country is now free of the problem after a democratic election. The saddest thing is that most of the participants did not know where El Salvador was and had no idea of its recent history. Thy took notes seriously with innocently.

The workshop organizers urged the participants to make use of their expert resources, which include an office in Phnom Penh staffed by eight people. Having listened to the Salvadoran, I thought back to the dozen or so political parties whose offices I had visited in the previous two days. The top leadership of these parties was exclusively from overseas, mostly the United States, a few from Europe. Most of them have returned to Cambodia recently for the first time since the 1960s or 1970s. They recruited the local people who became party members, guards and hangers-on. The leadership ranges from gas station or Dunkin Donut owners to MBA holders to lawyers, all with their self-proclaimed expertise in solving Cambodia's problems.

In the course of my interviews, many of them resorted to French or English to express their views. One of them went through the whole interview in English, despite my frequent interjections in Khmer. Two party presidents vowed to stand for the presidency against Prince Sihanouk.

Family enough, one of them showed me his flag of Cambodia, which comprised five stars, a map of Cambodia and a small Angkor temple in the middle, all on a light-blue base. The five stars, he assured me, represented the five superpowers who oversee Cambodia. That, he said, will ensure peace and prosperity for Cambodia. As I left his office he bade me goodbye in Thai! He was poised to abolish corruption. On my way out, his party's notice board displayed a picture of him with Imelda Marcos.

Judging by the notice board of another party, one could easily conclude that an American presidential election was going on. There was a photo of Richard Nixon standing between the president of the party and his wife. Plus many more photos of George Bush and Dan Quayle posing or shaking hands with. the president. Obviously, he lent a hand to the Republican cause in the recent U.S. election. In fact, it was for U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. That the Republicans lost the election did not deter him from the publicity. Average Cambodians do not necessarily know about this.

There is also another party, which has a banner saying |Communism is evil' in front of its headquarters, next to the New Market in the middle of Phnom Penh. When a journalist suggested to this party's leader that be must have been to other provinces to open offices, he was startled, denied any such action and insisted that he was not going to do any of that himself; the Americans promised to do it all for him.

An official of another party mistook an American woman I know for his financier. He insisted that she hand over the money that the CIA had promised him. I was surprised to find out that American church money had also found its way to a political party in Phnom Penh.

I asked each party leadership to name the party's three priorities in the event that they win office. National reconstruction was obviously their first priority and was invariably followed by national reconciliation, and this, of course, raised the question of the Khmer Rouge. How reconciliation will be attempted with the Khmer Rouge varies from party to party, ranging from "forgetting the past" to "forgiveness" to "nonviolence and peaceful negotiation" to "winning over the Khmer Rouge supporters through land reform, social justice or economic alleviation."

What struck me was their optimism in achieving this goal. Having watched the Khmer Rouge miss one U.N. deadline after another and refuse to comply with the U.N. peace plan, determined to win power by force, I feel sorry for the Cambodian people, as we know well that party leaders can leave Cambodia for the United States or France again, whenever the Khmer Rouge approach Phnom Penh. The Cambodian people who have nowhere to go, however, will be left to endure the Khmer Rouge.

What also surprised me was the massive unpopularity of United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Not only do people say they eat |all the food' and cause inflation, they drive carelessly, causing injuries and deaths. I was told they sometimes resorted to throwing a few dollars at the victim and driving on. Restaurants, bars and massage parlors are mushrooming in the cities. The number of prostitutes has increased from 6,000 in 1991 to 20,000 in 1992.

In villages, people complain that there were no Vietnamese around before UNTAC arrived. UNTAC brought Vietnamese girls and 800,000 condoms. That, of course, is insensitive to Khmer tradition. School children compile a song depicting UNTAC's daily activities. It goes: "They exercise in the morning, drive around in the afternoon and visit bars in the evening." A doctor in Preah Vihear province, when asked what were his main problems, replied that the main casualties in the hospital were boys with mutilated genitals, apparently caused by UNTAC soldiers.

In contrast to the Vietnamese soldiers, their lack of contact with the local people, I think, distances them. And also the fact that they have contributed nothing to people's livelihood, not even security. It is frequently said sarcastically that when the Khmer Rouge approach, UNTAC escapes faster than Cambodian people because they have cars. Yes, they have many cars. One Land-Rover to every 1.75 persons in UNTAC. When UNTAC personnel were arrested by the Khmer Rouge, they got released in exchange for tons of rice provided to the Khmer Rouge. The UN is still feeding the Khmer Rouge.

UNTAC also does things that are not in their mandate. The information office of UNTAC, for example, is getting their Khmer-speaking employees to research historical roots and construct family trees of all the SOC leadership. To appease the Khmer Rouge further, UNTAC use their Vietnamese and Khmer-speaking employees to comb the villages for ethnic Vietnamese. Those 'convicted' of being illegal immigrants are deported within 24 hours. Ethnic cleansing is not mentioned in the Paris agreement.

In the meantime, little aid money has been spent and the people's living conditions remain poor. So far, only $85 million of the $880 million pledged at the Tokyo conference has been disbursed. Most of this was spent on repatriation of the 350,000 refugees and on the newly established zones of the factions opposing the Phnom Penh government.

It is true that the camps in Thailand are nearly empty and the repatriation program has been called a |success,' but most returnees are facing economic uncertainty. There is a shortage of land, work, housing and food. While poverty is growing, the SOC government has been requested several times by the United States, Japan and other EEC countries to allow their chemical waste to be burnt on Cambodian soil. While there is pressure in the government to accept the request, they have been able to back off knowing full well the devastating effect it has on the country. But how long can they say no?
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Title Annotation:Cambodian peace hopes
Author:Boua, Chanthou
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 14, 1993
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