Pol Pot's Curse Lives On

The Cambodian dilemma was revealed to me in 1992 by Iman Sim, a Cambodian farmer.We are sitting under an umbrella, a stone's throw from Angkor Wat, the country's famous ruin. It is a few months before the U.N. sponsored elections. Sim, 42, who recently lost his farm, says he will vote for the U.S. favorite, Prince Rhanarid.Five Tiger Beers later he abruptly changes his mind. "I will vote for Pol Pot," he says, animatedly, "even though the Khmer Rouge killed my father."Why?"Because I hate the Hun Sen government. The Hun Sen soldiers took my land. I know the Khmer Rouge are bad but they are not corrupted. They understand that poor people want their land back. And they will kill all the Vietnamese and corrupters in Cambodia."Sim's face is red and angry and passionate as he speaks about losing his land, and how the Khmer Rouge will reclaim it for him. And though drunk he is also deadly serious.Perhaps Sim changed his mind again with the next morning's hangover. Perhaps not. But his switch reveals that at the heart of the Cambodian story is not an ideological struggle -- or even a demonic personality -- but a deadly rural hatred of the city, a hatred that Pol Pot exploited to catastrophic effect.Pol Pot's death will have little effect on this conflict. While many in the West are quick to depict him as evil incarnate, few want to recognize that, for many Cambodians, he stood for something else as well -- a reverence for the land that saw the city as its great destroyer.The city is corrupt. The city is impure. The city is alien -- full of Chinese, Vietnamese, Westerners, people of mixed race, and intellectuals with foreign ideas who rule rural Cambodians with impunity and arrogance. The city, therefore, must be obliterated, its residents (those who survive) redeemed through rural reeducation. This is the message that Pol Pot conveyed to the poor.Since almost 90 percent of Cambodia was (and still is) rural, inhabited by illiterate farmers whose lives are bound to the land, it is not hard to see why this vision drew popular support.Cambodia has only two areas that can be called urban -- Phnom Penh and Battambang. The citizens of these two cities suffered the worst in the killing spree during the Khmer Rouge reign between 1975 and 1979. One reason why Cambodians can kill their own, I suspect, is that those living in backward rural and jungle areas do not see people in the city as belonging to their own race.Pol Pot is dead, the Khmer Rouge are supposedly disintegrating, and the 20th century is almost over -- but rural Cambodia is mired in the past. There are no demagogues now who play the nationalism card as effectively as Pol Pot did but that rural-urban tension continues.Meanwhile, the city has sprung back to life. Mercedes Benzes line the boulevards, discos blare American rock, foreigners -- Westerners, Vietnamese, Chinese -- occupy the poshest villas.The Hun Sen government, backed by Vietnam, runs the country from Phnom Penh, as corrupt as it is arrogant. While government officials race to have forests cut down so they can sell timber to the highest bidder, Hun Sen's soldiers chase out farmers to take fertile land for themselves -- leaving only land littered with mines for everyone else. Cambodia is a country filled with potential explosions, literally and metaphorically.Nothing has changed in the eyes of farmers like Iman Sim."Without land, you are nothing" is the message I hear often in rural Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Land in the end is more important than racial identification. Iman Sim, after all, was willing to forgive the killing of his father in hope of reclaiming lost inheritance.Let us hope there won't be another Pol Pot. On the other hand, as long as the rural-urban divide persists, someone who speaks to the passion and injustice suffered by those in rural areas could raise another rebellion. Then Pol Pot could return, like Shiva the destroyer, and blood will spill once again on that unfortunate country already littered with mountains of skulls.PNS editor Andrew Lam, a San Francisco-based writer, has traveled extensively through Cambodia.


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