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Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land

Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land

by Henry Kamm

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Based on his observations over three decades, Henry Kamm, Pulitzer Prize-winning NEW YORK TIMES Southeast Asia correspondent, unravels the complexities of Cambodia. Kamm's invaluable document--a factual and personal account of its troubled history-- gives the Western reader the first clear understanding of this magic land's past and present.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade imprint, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in history--books about World War II, the Third Reich, Hitler and his henchmen, the JFK assassination, conspiracies, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, gladiators, Vikings, ancient Rome, medieval times, the old West, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611459692
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 01/12/2012
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 397 KB

Read an Excerpt


Hope Is for the Unborn: 1998

United Nations officials stationed in the poorest counts I tries of the world share an understandable inclination to work themselves into a constant state of determined optimism about their mission. Without persuading themselves regularly that a brighter future lies ahead, they could hardly face the misery that surrounds them and go about their endeavors to relieve it. Andrew Morris, head of the Cambodian health services of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), was taking the most hopeful possible view of Cambodia as the year 1997 was drawing to a close.

"I don't think there is a good outlook for this generation," he said, speaking deliberately. "The hope is for the Cambodians not yet born."

Thus the understating Englishman was writing off with pained realism hope for a decent life for today's Cambodians, including the youngest, the generation that is his professional concern at the UNICEF. What is true for today's children in this grossly misgoverned country surely applies with even greater validity to their elders in a nation of more than ten million, half of whom are under eighteen years old. And yet, not long ago the world was hypocritically congratulating itself on having halted Cambodia's distress and set Southeast Asia's stepchild on a course toward peace and recovery.

Since 1970, when it was plunged into the Indochina War, which had begun with the Vietnamese rising against French colonial rule and lasted until the Communist victories in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in 1975, Cambodia has suffered the worst that this callous century has devised. It struggled through five years of bloody civil conflict with the destructive intervention of bellicose foreign powers, four years of a genocidal revolutionary regime, then liberation through invasion and a decade of military occupation by Vietnam, a hated and feared big neighbor, and throughout these years unceasing internecine warfare on its soil, continuing to this day.

Then came the promise of decisive change; at last better days seemed ahead. As the final decade of the century opened, the mightiest powers of the world were rearranging their conflictual mutual relationships. They agreed with considerable fanfare at a drawn-out conference in Paris in 1991 to help ease tensions among themselves by removing the irritant of a small Indochinese country of low intrinsic importance to any of them. At a cost of about two billion dollars, which was spent mainly to transport to Cambodia and maintain there for eighteen months twenty-two thousand aliens — soldiers, police, administrators, diplomats, and experts in varied fields from all corners of the globe — the big powers and Cambodia's neighbors charged the United Nations with implementing the Paris Agreement.

How the warring Cambodian Communist leaderships — Pol Pot's Khmers Rouges and the Vietnamese-installed government of Hun Sen — retaining their crude methods of rule even after forswearing their old doctrines, subverted the very notions of peace and reconciliation to which they agreed in Paris will be related later. So will the sequels of this sabotage: how the international community, determined to rid itself of the Cambodian bone of contention at any cost, pronounced to be a success a mission that had largely failed, and how Cambodia's politicians of all persuasions undermined the single substantial achievement of the international enterprise, the surprisingly popular and clean elections. Following the adoption of a constitution by the newly elected National Assembly, the aliens left. In September 1993, for the first time since war began in March 1970, Cambodians were on their own, relying on the actions of their own elected political leaders.

The leaders betrayed them, much as earlier leaders had done. The incompetence and venality of most of Cambodia's political class has been an unfortunate constant since the country regained its independence from French colonialism in 1953.

Cambodia today is still governed by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, the same pugnacious leader who ruled thuggishly before the elections, which he and his party lost. The winner yielded to his threat of force. The country has regained a king, who under the constitution adopted by the National Assembly is to serve as the ultimate arbiter of the political process. But Norodom Sihanouk, who represented most Cambodians' hopes for a restoration of normality in their stricken land, is a futile, ailing, absentee monarch, alternately condemning or cajoling, largely by fax from Beijing, the three, yes, three, competing prime ministers of Cambodia.

Political opponents have been murdered, detained, tortured, or have fled into exile, with predictable effect on free political expression and the outlook for future honest elections. The powers that rule are openly criticized largely from the safety of exile or, at far higher risk, by Cambodians who enjoy the limited protection of dual nationality. Freedom of the press survives shakily, often at the cost of unsolved murders and attempted murders of critical journalists. Many provincial and district leaders, as well as military commanders, act as independent warlords, using troops as criminal gangs. These men of power are protected by a totally political judiciary, always at the service of the executive. Lawlessness is the rule. The National Assembly is dormant. Corruption flourishes from the highest to the lowest level of office-holders. And as the rich proudly flaunt their wealth and power, Cambodia's patient and passive people watch their country's treasures vanish into criminal hands, while their leaders mock the people's rights and ignore their needs.

All this may be written off as politics as usual in a country of low political culture, stemming from the harrowing history that Cambodians alive today feel in their bones. It may be reversible. But Cambodia is not just an underdeveloped, misruled country like so many others. It is afflicted with the catastrophic cumulative effects of the destruction of its society in the four years of Khmer Rouge tyranny. These years of horror were preceded by the authoritarian regime of Sihanouk, the once and present king, and five years of war, from 1970 to 1975, between the manic Khmers Rouges and the incompetent, American-supported Lon Nol. There followed a Vietnamese-imposed puppet government that has held, in effect, uninterrupted power since 1979, despite the United Nations operation and the elections of 1993.

Cambodia is a puppet no longer; it gained national independence when Vietnamese occupation troops voluntarily withdrew in 1989. But the Hun Sen regime has never obtained legitimacy in the eyes of Cambodians. It was not the government that they elected when for the first time in their history they were allowed to vote honestly and freely in 1993. It imposed itself, with the complicity of King Sihanouk. Nor have Cambodians forgotten that their present rulers were not victims of the Khmers Rouges, like the overwhelming majority of their generation, but men who held positions of regional or local command in Pol Pot's machine until that paranoiac monster began devouring its own, and they fled to Vietnam for their lives. And some did not convert to less murderous politics until after the Vietnamese invaders drove the Khmers Rouges from power.

So the reflections that made Andrew Morris, the UNICEF official, deliver so pessimistic a verdict for the chances of today's Cambodians, basing his judgment on the disastrous state of health and education of their children and their mothers, are only a part of Cambodia's enduring crisis. But his diagnosis of a gravely incapacitated country affects the very basis of the chances for recovery and is substantially shared by doctors, mid-wives, nurses, and educators working in the towns and villages of Cambodia and by educated Cambodians and resident foreigners who view the country with sympathy and compassion. Not all foreigners do. Many are led to unsympathetic and harsh judgments by their impatience with the Cambodians' prevalent passivity before the challenges of life, and by their "imperfect understanding" of modernity as viewed by non-Cambodians. This understanding leads to responses that outsiders view as erratic or irrational. There is also antagonism over the high level of insecurity, corruption, the bureaucracy's dilatory ways and devious business practices. Much of this was also true in the past.

A great deal of the Cambodian tragedy is visible to the naked eye. The capital city of Phnom Penh, before 1970 the trimmest and most cared-for in the region, is today reflective of a society that has been battered and overturned. "Phnom Penh is a lot dirtier, but I still recognize it," said a woman, back from France for her first visit in more than twenty years. "But the faces! They are no longer the same people." She did not mean that, like all Cambodians, she is reminded wherever she turns of family members, friends, and acquaintances whose lives were extinguished in the years of genocide. That goes without saying and applies, to a lesser degree, also to foreigners like myself, who have been witnesses to Cambodia's travails over many years. What the woman remarked on was the profound change that has taken place in Phnom Penh's population, which has nearly doubled from the 600,000 who lived there in 1970. It is no longer the urban mix of roughly equal numbers of Cambodians, Chinese, and Vietnamese of prewar Phnom Penh that made it a city of considerable civility. It collapsed only when in 1970 the Lon Nol regime unleashed a fearful pogrom against the Vietnamese population.

The capital has become a city of country folk. The Khmers Rouges emptied it in 1975, and in their genocidal madness they killed city dwellers even more readily than peasants. Under their draconian regime, few Cambodians succeeded in escaping to foreign asylum. The outflow of refugees that followed the Vietnamese invasion four years later contained a disproportionate share of educated city dwellers who had somehow survived and who understandably had given up hope of being able to rebuild their lives in their country. At the same time, rural people headed into the city from the blighted, war-torn countryside. They hoped to find security, paid jobs, food, shelter, and medical care dispensed by the international aid organizations centered there. They found instead the same poverty that they left behind, but in a setting totally unfamiliar to them.

In their overwhelming majority the rural settlers in Phnom Penh never became urbanized. It takes family links in the city, a level of education never available to them, and urban employment to change the families of subsistence farmers into city dwellers. Phnom Penh has become a city whose residents live rural lives of the most restricted horizons in an urban setting. This is desperately difficult. They no longer belong to a larger community and are separated from their extended families, which gave cohesion to Cambodia's villages. They no longer grow their own food, draw water from a well or a stream, or gather their firewood near their houses. In the city, they must pay for these necessities or do without, and they have very little to pay with. What they can do, wherever they are, is raise household animals. Pigs, chickens, or ducks were as uncommon in prewar Phnom Penh as in New York. Today they are part of city life, along with an occasional lumbering water buffalo for good measure. The Tuol Sleng concentration camp, a former school close to the city center, was a site of torture and death for an estimated total of sixteen thousand men, women, and children in Pol Pot's days. Now its chambers of horror are a stop on the conducted-tour circuit. The pigsties of its neighbors encroach upon the grounds of the memorial.

The center of the city and its surrounding residential quarters have taken on an air of superficial, unhealthy, robber-baron development — bank buildings, hotels, office blocks, and the pompous villas of the newly rich, but no housing for those whose ill-paid labor serves them. A day of rain makes the poorly maintained and overburdened drainage system overflow and leaves deep, stagnant pools and puddles that make streets impassable for days. The farther one goes from the center, the denser become the shantytown slums, rickety huts leaning precariously one against the other. The reek of poverty announces the lack of sanitation and the prevalence of ever-mounting heaps of rotting garbage long before its festering source comes into sight. The vast slums of Phnom Penh make even the low official estimates of the availability of safe drinking water and toilets seem optimistic indeed.

"Most poor Cambodians, whether in rural or urban areas, use water from unprotected wells and springs and have no access to toilets of any kind," said the Cambodia Human Development Report, issued at the end of 1997 by the government and the United Nations Development Program. Children, often naked and almost always barefoot, abound, cheerful despite it all, and women outnumber men by far. "In some regions as many as 50 per cent of all families are headed by women; in other regions the proportion is 20 per cent, but nowhere is it lower," UNICEF has found. In a society in which upheavals and poverty have broken traditional extended-family and village links of mutual caring and substituted an "every man for himself" way of life, it is a severe handicap to have no man in the house.

"A Cambodian child is more likely to die before the age of 1 year than a child in any other country in the East Asia and Pacific Region," the latest UNICEF report states. In numbers, this means that 110 of 1,000 Cambodian children die before reaching their first birthday. The regional average is 42. And 181 children in 1,000 do not live until the age of 5. Pregnancy for a Cambodian woman is a condition of maximum risk. Between 650 and 900 die of complications, accidents in labor, or abortions per 100,000 births, one of the highest rates in the world. Among foreign health workers in the cities and the countryside, there is a strong belief that official statistics underestimate reality. In Cambodia, the gloomiest estimates have always proved closer to the truth.

Florence Beauvilliers is a French midwife who has worked for more than two years on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières in the remote northern province of Stung Treng, which borders on Laos. There she married a Cambodian doctor. "We have no idea of the mortality rate of mothers or babies, but it must be enormous," she said. "Pregnant women die if there is the least complication. The educational level is very low, and almost all births take place at home with traditional midwives. They don't know how to spot difficult births in advance. The women are taken to town by oxcart or boat at the last moment, and they arrive too late. Hygiene? They don't know what that is in Stung Treng." Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who runs an exemplary children's hospital that he created virtually single-handedly in Phnom Penh, said, "There is a vicious cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition, the consequence of the hygiene of poverty."

Poverty accounts for the poor state of health and nutrition. About one-half of all children under five are either stunted in growth or underweight. There is little "wasting" of bodies from acute famines, as in the disaster-prone sub-Sahara belt in Africa. The stunting of Cambodia's children stems from long-term, chronic undernourishment, the consequence of unrelieved poverty. The illnesses that give Cambodians born today a poor life expectancy of little more than fifty years (sixty-six and sixty-nine years, respectively, in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand) are those of poverty and wretched living conditions. Tuberculosis, respiratory infections, and diarrhea, as well as malaria, inherent in a land of forests, take a heavy toll. "The TB problem is one of the worst in the world," said Dr. Georg Petersen, a Norwegian who directs the Phnom Penh office of the World Health Organization.

The AIDS scourge has not spared Cambodia. After an encouragingly slow start, due to the country's comparative isolation until the 1990s, the spread of the illness has more than caught up. A 1997 report issued jointly by the government and a number of aid donors states succinctly: "The Kingdom of Cambodia has the most serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia with many contributing factors which suggest that the epidemic has the potential to cause Cambodia to become one of the worst affected countries in the world."

The most reliable estimates put the number of cases of HIV-positive patients at 70,000 to 120,000 in late 1996, and the yearly number of new infections at 17,000 to 25,000. The spread of this illness, too, is a result of poverty and the unraveled social fabric, which has driven more Cambodian women than ever before into prostitution. The illness is due in more than 90 percent of cases to heterosexual transmission, largely by prostitutes, in a country where terminating an evening out among men with a visit to a brothel is not uncustomary. More than 40 percent of the prostitutes in Cambodia's plentiful brothels tested HIV-positive in late 1996. As many as 35 percent of the prostitutes are minors.


Excerpted from "Cambodia"
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Copyright © 2011 Henry Kamm.
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Table of Contents

2 BRIEF GREATNESS, A DECLINE WITHOUT END From the Beginnings until 1970,
15 LIFE STARTING ANEW 1979-1980,
20 BACK TO SQUARE ONE 1994-1998,

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