Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Witnessing the Torture of Cambodia

By David G. Young 

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA, November 11, 1998 --  

The rutted dirt road that connects this city with the Thai border is a microcosm of Cambodia's problems. Lawlessness and abject poverty dominate a landscape of failing rice fields where peasants toil using medieval technology. It is at times not possible to travel 50 feet without being stopped by another free-lance toll-taker, dressed in a military uniform with an AK-47 at his side. Blood-red signs along the shoulder sport a skull and crossbones, simply saying, "Danger Mines." Aside from passing trucks and motorcycles, the only signs of the modern world exist in the numerous international aid camps that dot the side of the road.

The torture of Cambodia is far from over.

A recent political settlement has brought Hun Sen, the former Vietnamese-backed Communist dictator, back to power as prime minister in a coalition government with Price Norodom Ranariddh. The formation of a government eliminates the risk, for the moment, of a return to war and the political violence that have dominated Cambodia for the last half-century. But political stability does nothing to satisfy a desperately poor populace that is utterly resentful of the kleptocratic government in Phnom Penh. Decades of war have given Cambodia the most heavily armed population on earth, and efforts by the government to disarm its people have had little success. As long as extreme poverty and resentment coincide with easy-access to weapons of war, widespread violence could return at any time.

The battle lines have changed little since the end of the first election in 1993. Near the western edge of the country, in the towns of Poipet and Sissophon, many buildings display campaign signs for the Funcipec Party of Prince Ranariddh. Further toward the center, along the road to Siem Reap, these signs abruptly change to the Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

This distribution corresponds to the lines of control by the warring armies before the 1993 election. In both of these regions, the police and soldiers wear a common uniform, but their loyalties (where they exist at all) are to the regional party leadership. This distribution of campaign signs does not correspond to popular opinion. Cambodia has a tradition of mass-execution of political opponents -- perhaps a third of the population under the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. In such a climate, when a local official asks you to put up a campaign sign, there is no real choice to make. Assuming equal intimidation by Funcipec and the Cambodian People's Party, the latter organization's larger area of control ensured its victory in this summer's national elections. It is this climate of intimidation that tainted the elections and enraged independent observers when U.S. envoy Stephen Solarz praised the vote as the "miracle on the Mekong."

Although the election was far from free and fair, it does appear to have enhanced stability. Cambodia is by far the poorest country in Southeast Asia and in desperate need for a steady environment in which to develop economically. Other countries, such as Chile, South Korea, China and Taiwan have successfully developed their economies under non-democratic governments that provided the required stability. Given this precedent, it is possible that Cambodia's new arrangement will allow the country to begin along the path of its neighboring Asian tigers and pull itself out of its cycle of misery.

The chance to pursue this path will be in the hands of Cambodia's younger generation, which is to say virtually the entire country. When travelling, it is rare to see anyone over the age of 25. Younger people have no memory of the mass killings and relocations that characterized the Khmer Rouge regime. They have had perhaps the best upbringing of any generation in the last half-century, but are still tainted by a dysfunctional culture that has been ravaged by a brutal history. The future of Cambodia lies in the hands of these people. If they can be convinced that their future has hope, they will be able to put aside their automatic weapons and focus their energies on building a productive economy.

Perhaps former Senator Solarz's had this in mind when he disingenuously declared the election a success and stifled the democratic aspirations of Cambodians for yet another generation. This is a long-shot path for progress, but it offers a spark of hope. That's more than Cambodians have had in the last 30 years.

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