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This is the way the killing fields end (Read 7746 times)


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This is the way the killing fields end
Aug 4th, 2003 at 12:51am
By Pepe Escobar

In this series:

Year 28: Cambodia gets ready to vote
Even the Khmer Rouge loves democracy
Deadlock in Cambodia   

ANLONG VENG, Cambodia - Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There it is, at the end of a ghastly, bumpy, partly inundated 140-kilometer road from Siem Reap toward the Thai border, and then a path through the jungle. There's a sort of funeral pyre covered by a sheet of corrugated metal. A blue wooden sign says in Khmer: "These are the remains of Pol Pot". Bits and pieces of old car tires cover the "ashes". When he died in 1998, Pol Pot - one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century - left to the world a few flasks of medicine, a few packets of vitamin C, a ragged shirt, a shoe and his toilet bowl.

The Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC), a German-backed non-governmental organization (NGO), has completely demined the hills around Pol Pot's grave - to the delight of Prime Minister Hun Sen. So now the surrounding jungle is being mercilessly devastated - for the benefit of Cambodian, Chinese and Thai illegal loggers. By back-of-beyond Southeast Asian standards, the nearby town of Anlong Veng is relatively prosperous. It has schools and even a hospital - allegedly built with Pol Pot funds.

The "sideshow" - the illegal US bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, recommended by Henry Kissinger and ordered by Richard Nixon - killed at least 600,000 Khmers. Pol Pot's killing fields - essential to implement an agrarian utopia concocted by the Khmer Rouge's Khieu Samphan at the Sorbonne in Paris - may have exterminated up to 2 million Khmers. It all ends at this shack - Desolation Row in the middle of nowhere.

Ta Mok, aka "the butcher" during the Khmer Rouge era, is languishing in a Phnom Penh jail. He's still very popular in Anlong Veng. The top surviving Khmer Rouge members are either living in peace in Pailin, like Nuon Chea, or collaborating with the Hun Sen government, like Ieng Sary. Many in Anlong Veng remember that Prime Minister Hun Sen - who rose to be a Khmer Rouge regiment commander and then escaped to Vietnam in June 1977 - used to live with Ta Mok.

Cambodia gets a total of more than US$500 million a year from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Union. The average per capita annual income is about $230 - much less than the daily rate at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor, a property of Raffles from Singapore. In a country that is 85 percent rural, almost 70 percent of Cambodians are illiterate.

Corruption is still the name of the game. University students in Phnom Penh give a good example: the World Bank financed a much-talked-about program to demobilize about half of Cambodia's armed forces. After a few months, millions of dollars had simply "disappeared". The program was supervised by Sok An, a very close aide to Prime Minister Hun Sen. More crucially, Sok An is the key Cambodian involved with the upcoming joint United Nations-Cambodian Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Even urban, educated voters for the Sam Rainsy Party - which made huge gains in last Sunday's elections - admit that Hun Sen is a shrewd politician and master negotiator, although his formal education stopped at the first year of secondary school. He dictated the terms of the Khmer Rouge surrender. He took credit for bringing peace to Cambodia - something that his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) once again hammered into voters' heads during the elections. He negotiated the Khmer Rouge tribunal with the UN for no less than five years, up to last June. He got everything he wanted: the tribunal will answer to Cambodian law. Hun Sen's former roommate Ta Mok is not losing any sleep.

Apart from his negotiating skills and blind eye to corruption, the other secret of Hun Sen's survival is the way he plays agendas against each other. Everybody has an interest in Cambodia - from China to the United States, from France, the former colonial power, to the EU as a whole, from hated neighbor Vietnam to Japan, from Thailand to Australia. It's easy to forget that Hun Sen has been perfecting his game in power since 1985.

Urban, educated voters in Phnom Penh repeatedly asked this correspondent how Cambodia could be compared to Iraq. Saddam Hussein's ghastly terror regime cannot possibly be compared with the ultimate terror of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. The "autogenocide" perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge was cut short by the Vietnamese invasion of late 1978 - not a preemptive war, and not justified as such. The UN inevitably condemned it - leading to the appallingly surrealist spectacle of the Khmer Rouge holding a legitimate chair at the UN Assembly.

What followed in Cambodia was a Vietnamese puppet regime - of which "puppet" Hun Sen was a vital part - so the civil war lasted for most of the 1980s until the UN finally made its move in 1990. In the UN-supervised 1993 elections - which capped an intervention that cost up to $3 billion - the CPP lost. But - in a very Myanmar-junta way - it refused to give up power. Hun Sen, the second prime minister in a coalition with Prince Ranariddh, had to wait until July 1997 finally to stage a coup and get rid of Ranariddh. There was not a peep from the "international community". From their point of view, from the coup in 1997 up to last Sunday's elections, Cambodia is "stable", peaceful and arguably more democratic than Laos, Vietnam or Myanmar. Hun Sen has become a friend of capitalism and has opened the country to foreign investors hungry for cheap labor.

Apart from the obscene expense accounts enjoyed by its officials, mostly spent on new Phnom Penh pizza parlors, the UN indeed helped Cambodia to set up its baby democracy. It's unlikely the US will allow the UN to do the same in Iraq.

Hun Sen for his part has been clever enough to know that distributing a measure of water pumps, electricity, roads, bridges and a school or two to scattered, far-flung villages is more than enough to keep him and the CPP in power. Hun Sen may not be representative of Cambodian democracy, but then US-imposed, Gucci-approved Hamid Karzai is not representative of Afghan democracy and the new US-approved governing council is not representative of Iraqi democracy.

There's a plan to build a golf course in the Emerald Triangle - the common border among Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. If developers can get rid of all the landmines, of course. Pol Pot's grave will inevitably be Disneyfied: Hun Sen himself wants to turn it into a tourist attraction. This is the way the killing fields end: not with a bang, but with a theme park.
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