More Killing Fields

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TIM LARIMERWhen Pol Pot died this year in his jungle hideaway, there was hope that Cambodia could at last move beyond its tragic legacy of violence and its reputation as the land of the Killing Fields. A national election in July, the second in five years, seemed to offer an avenue for stability and peace. The results, sadly, have left Cambodia mired in despair. Pol Pot may be dead, but the killing lives on. Last week that brutal reality surfaced in shallow graves, irrigation canals, ponds and rivers near the capital, Phnom Penh. At last count, 18 bodies, some bearing the unmistakable scars of torture and execution, were unearthed. They included young men like Sath Sopheatra, a 19-year-old student who was among the thousands taking to the streets during eight consecutive days of demonstrations against the government. So many have disappeared, laments Kem Sokha, chairman of parliament's human-rights committee and a survivor of the Killing Fields. We have to ask why this goes on and on and on.Frustrated Cambodians are beginning to demand answers. Many would like to consign to history's dustbin the main political contenders: strongman Hun Sen, ineffectual challenger Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the increasingly erratic former Finance Minister Sam Rainsy. Our rulers, says Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, are museum pieces now. The three rivals' parties were the top vote-getters in the election, but none controls enough parliamentary seats to form a government. Cambodia has been here before: after the United Nations-sponsored vote in 1993, Hun Sen and Ranariddh agreed to a power-sharing agreement; it was a fiasco from the start. Says Hay: It's impossible for them to work together.Nobody welcomes this political encore. Hun Sen and Ranariddh haven't spoken in more than a year. A relationship this dysfunctional would appear to doom any hopes for reconciliation. Still, the two men, as well as Rainsy, plan to sit down this week to talk under the stewardship of Ranariddh's father, King Sihanouk. The Prince and Rainsy also agreed not to boycott the first session of the new parliament on Thursday. But it's already clear who will be doing the compromising--and it's not Hun Sen. Cambodia's de facto dictator has been proving since 1993 that he has enough muscle to bully the others around. Ranariddh and Rainsy have dropped their most serious demands, that polling be held again in some areas and votes recounted. The pair now are reduced to pleading that they and their supporters be allowed to travel around the country without being arrested. The latest effort at political detente got off to a bad start last week: just hours after the Prince agreed in Siem Reap to negotiate with Hun Sen, security officials refused to let him board a plane to Phnom Penh. That doesn't engender much confidence among Hun Sen opponents. They tell me we'll be protected, says a newly elected pro-Rainsy legislator, who sneaked across the border into Thailand when threatened with arrest on Sept. 7, after someone lobbed two hand grenades at one of Hun Sen's houses. But I'm still scared.PAGE 1  |  
Hand grenades, political intimidation, execution-style killing--it's all depressingly familiar. Hun Sen struck the campaign's first, lethal blow a full year before the election when he rolled out tanks and troops, decimated Ranariddh's rival army and sent the royalists scurrying for the border. In the ensuing months, as many as 100 Ranariddh supporters were rounded up and executed, and the government-owned media made sure the public was spoon-fed Hun Sen's propaganda. Opponents were let back in the country and allowed to campaign only a few weeks before the July election.During the run-up to the polling, Hun Sen's party intimidated the electorate, according to human-rights groups. It thumbprinted voters, implying they could track down whose ballot was whose. Some were forced to drink from a glass of water containing a bullet. The clear, if implicit, message: if you don't vote for Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, the bullet will follow. Even so, the CPP managed just a narrow victory.Foreign observers said the polls were free and fair, but the losers cried foul. Rainsy went on the offensive, organizing demonstrations outside the National Assembly. The police were called in to break up the rallies and harass Hun Sen's opponents. Rainsy holed himself up in a U.N. office. Thousands of students, monks, laborers and unemployed men marched through the streets, until finally, at the King's urging, Ranariddh and Rainsy told supporters to stay home. The aging monarch has been involved in politics for some four decades. Though Sihanouk has little positive to show for his efforts, Cambodians are praying that this week's talks, which could be the King's last chance at political diplomacy, will finally produce a legacy worthy of his royal title and more uplifting than the Killing Fields.  |  PAGE 2