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.[s] On average, Cambodians earn less than a dollar a day[s] and can expect to live to the ripe old age of 56.[s] 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,[s] while the rate of HIV infection is by far the highest in Asia.[s] 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.
PHOTO: RICH GARELLA
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,[n] 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.[n] 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.[n]
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.[n]