Staying Cool in Cruel Cambodia

PHNOM PENH -- Suspended in the dull yellow flashlight beam, the small sea of tiny brown dots on the pavement isn't nearly as dramatic as I'd imagined spattered blood would be.It's a scorching hot Wednesday night, and I'm with a nervous cluster of people outside Phnom Penh's most exclusive hotel -- site of a robbery and shooting half an hour earlier.The three-inch story appearing in newspapers the following day will tell a fairly mundane story -- two local men on scooters try to rob three German tourists. One tourist resists. The robbers respond by shooting him twice in the leg and pistol-whipping his girlfriend.But the ramifications of the incident are far more poignant. For all the violence that's befallen this troubled city -- violence that lingers like mist in the spaces between the buildings, almost permeating the bricks -- Phnom Penh is exceptionally safe for foreigners.Safe, at least, until things start to go bad economically -- as they have now.In the aftermath of July's fighting, tourism, outside investment and large amounts of foreign aid dried up, literally almost overnight. Now, with the government growing desperate, civil servants -- armed police and soldiers among them -- haven't been paid in weeks.When thieves become bold enough to hit tourists outside fancy hotels, it means Cambodia is unravelling faster than a tapestry from which the key threads have been suddenly yanked free.What's especially worrying is that things are expected to get far worse before they get better -- and no one seems to know how to make them better.***Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom called Cambodia, there lived a ruler whose name was Hun Sen.But the people in his kingdom were not happy, for there was strife and hunger.Hun Sen had battled mightily with Prince Ranariddh, and driven him away.In the bright, shining lands across the sea, other rulers spoke unkindly about Hun Sen. "After all," they said, "Prince Ranariddh was democratically elected prime minister. If Hun Sen's wish is to be leader, he too ought to be elected democratically."But Hun Sen replied that this should not be. He said he had knowledge that the prince was secretly evil, given to making covert pacts with the dreaded Khmer Rouge, covenants to which the prince gave the strange name "national reconciliation.""The prince must be stopped," declared Hun Sen. "If he ever tries to return here, he will have to stand trial." Strife GrewAnd, on and on, so it went. The other rulers would say things that angered Hun Sen; Hun Sen in turn would say things angering the other rulers even more. They stopped sending gold; the hunger and strife grew deeper. The moral? When witnessing a pissing match between two people motivated by anger, always bet on the one with access to water. But remain upwind of the other one, just in case.It's been six months since I arrived in Phnom Penh to start a job at an English-language newspaper -- and about five months and three weeks since I abandoned the au courant view that Cambodia is a struggling yet worthy reform experiment, poised to attain peace and prosperity, thus affirming the merits of democratic liberalization.Now my view is much more elementary -- Cambodia is simply struggling.To recap, the July coup started when troops under second prime minister Hun Sen, head of the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), tried to disarm soldiers loyal to first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, head of the United National Front (FUNCINPEC).Hun Sen claimed that, among other things, the prince was holding unauthorized negotiations with Khmer Rouge holdouts, illegally arming them, then bringing them into Phnom Penh to serve as his supporters.The prince became prime minister in Cambodia's 1993 UN-sponsored elections, the country's first trip to the polls since the Khmer Rouge era. Hun Sen ran a distant second. But his subsequent threats to not abide by the results prompted a power-sharing plan that made Hun Sen second prime minister, with FUNCINPEC and the CPP governing jointly. Hurling ThreatsThe coalition was uneasy from the start, with both parties hurling threats and accusations at each other, and a showdown had long been expected when Hun Sen finally pulled the trigger. In three days of heavy fighting leaving dozens of people dead, his troops defeated soldiers loyal to the prince, who was out of the country at the time.On the surface, life has changed little since the July coup that continues to dominate events here. The same Asian-style, anaconda-like traffic jams clog the streets during the morning and evening rush hours. Though staple prices went up briefly in early July -- the product of a city under siege -- they've since fallen back to normal levels.While the number of foreigners in the city has dropped off dramatically, the bars and cafes remain crowded at night.It's been said that many Cambodians resent the fact that a great many foreigners fled after the coup and, while it may be my imagination, xenophobia -- a euphemism for racism, which was rampant to begin with -- seems to have risen in recent months. It's identifiable in the caustic laughter of moto drivers as you walk past them, and in the shop clerks who snootily ignore you while allowing Cambodians to jump ahead of you in line.Spurred by the fighting that lingers on in Cambodia's remote corners, the city's refugee population seems to be rising. The refugee influx yields scenes of raggedly dressed families -- often comprising three generations -- inhabiting doorways or street corners, where they build cooking fires and sit around watching over their bundles of meagre possessions. Real ChangeBut the real change in Phnom Penh since the coup involves what is not taking place -- a feeling or instinct, or just a simple fear, that something will suddenly happen to restart July's fighting, with grenade bursts and chattering machine guns resuming as if the troops had only taken a short break.Heightening the sense of menace are human rights reports that state that close to 45 of Hun Sen's political opponents -- including senior FUNCINPEC officials and military leaders -- have been secretly executed or murdered in the aftermath of the coup.Many victims have been found in unmarked graves, evidently shot at point-blank range while their hands and feet were bound.For his part, Hun Sen has been entirely unwilling to act on the killings. Even in the case of a former FUNCINPEC cabinet minister shot dead while in the custody of a senior CPP police official, there have been no arrests. Hun Sen has instead threatened to expel human rights monitors who've publicly criticized the killings.During July and August, it was easy to believe -- especially because most people here sympathize with him -- that Prince Ranariddh would mount some sort of counterattack against Hun Sen.It's evident now, however, that he only has a few thousand remaining troops holed up in a remote western province, far too weak in numbers to come out of their mountain stronghold and mount a serious offensive.But that recognition coincided with the emergence of dangerous intrigues among CPP members. Even back in July there were indications that a faction of CPP moderates, displeased over the coup, were on the verge of challenging Hun Sen's leadership.And then, last month, there were strong rumours one weekend that the moderate CPP faction had gone so far as to move a substantial number of troops into the city, reportedly in preparation for hostilites against Hun Sen.Hun Sen reportedly responded by ordering hundreds of his own soldiers to travel from his rural headquarters into Phnom Penh.The apparent crisis passed without an outbreak of fighting, but at least one western embassy issued an advisory urging its citizens to stay inside during the weekend.***It's muggy to begin with, so the presence of TV lights has transformed Phnom Penh Channel Five's semi-outdoor studio into an open-air sauna. The countdown is on for this evening's special broadcast, a tribute to the seven Cambodian medal-winners at the South East Asian (SEA) Games in Jakarta earlier this month.I'm present in the acting capacity as the sole English-speaking sports reporter evident in Cambodia. (P.S. to friends and family members in Toronto -- don't ask.)To say that Cambodian TV has far to go in terms of catching up to developed-world broadcast standards would be a strenuous exercise in understatement.Sponsors' banners aren't even close to matching the size of the tables over which they're draped. The absence of screens on the open sides of the studio results in panelists being drowned out by the sound of chirping bats. The sounds of chirping cell phones are the fault of whichever production crew member forgot to ask audience members to switch them off. Oops.The tawdry strings of blinking lights on the decorative superstructure behind the panelists make me wonder whether there's a new foreign aid donor on the Cambodian scene -- the Canadian Tire department where you buy budget Christmas ornaments.Notwithstanding these distractions, this broadcast represents a zenith of pride for the entire nation.The SEA Games, a competition for athletes from Cambodia plus the nine members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is a rare opportunity for this downtrodden country to take a bow on the international stage.True, with a final tally of only seven bronze medals -- fewer even than Laos or tiny Brunei -- Cambodia came in dead last at Jakarta. But 1997 was only the second time in 25 years that Cambodia attended.Better still, winning seven medals more than triples Cambodia's previous performance.The years of absence are, of course, due to Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia during the 1980s, and the civil war and Pol Pot-Khmer Rouge nightmare of the late 1960s and 70s.After seizing power in 1975, Pol Pot instituted a monstrous program of collectivization coupled with revenge against the city dwellers he so deeply loathed. Almost overnight, the Khmer Rouge emptied major Cambodian cities, force-marching residents onto agricultural lands hundreds of kilometres away. Hundreds of thousands died from sickness and starvation.One legendary story about the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge era involves former champion swimmer Hem Thon. Returning to Phnom Penh following Pol Pot's ouster in 1979, he moved into a utility room at the Olympic Stadium pool. He's lived there ever since with his children, two of whom swam at the Atlanta Summer Olympics.But then again, maybe the Khmer Rouge era wasn't a total waste of time for Cambodia's national sports program. After all, its medal take at Jakarta came from boxing, judo and tae kwon do. Notice any similarity? They're all combat sports. Dangerous IntrigueOh, yes, there were three additional Cambodian medal winners from one other sport -- target shooting.As evidenced -- among many other things -- by the UN's recent refusal to grant it a seat in the General Assembly, Cambodia has basically become a pariah state as a result of the July's fighting.The inevitable backlash began shortly after the coup, and things are getting steadily worse for Hun Sen. Since July, in direct response to his actions, the U.S. and the European Union have suspended non-humanitarian aid to Cambodia and urged other countries to do the same.The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank -- which recently closed its Phnom Penh office -- have frozen or withdrawn close to $150 million (U.S.) worth of loans and given no indication as to when they might resume financial support.With Cambodia relying on foreign donors for close to half of its $600 million (U.S.) a year government budget, the cancellations had an immediate, devastating impact.Cambodia's economic growth rate, a decent 7 per cent a year prior to the coup, is now under 2 per cent. The riel has plunged 15 per cent in the past three months alone. Tourism, once a strong growth sector and one of the government's key sources of foreign exchange, is now dormant, with hotel vacancy rates averaging 80 per cent.Senior Cambodian bureaucrats have begun saying publicly that unless there are some as yet unforeseen positive developments soon, the government will be hard pressed to meet its immediate financial needs by the end of the year.In reply to the various pressures applied against Cambodia by foreign governments and organizations critical of July's events, Hun Sen -- who's certainly not noted for his diplomatic skills -- has done little more than lash out.When the UN refused to seat a Cambodian member in the General Assembly, for example, he threatened to limit the world body's activities in Cambodia. Hun Sen made similar threats against ASEAN, which voted, in July, to postpone Cambodia's long-anticipated entry.In the face of further threatened foreign aid cutbacks, Hun Sen has merely scoffed, reminding his listeners that there were at least a few periods over the past 40 years when Cambodia received no foreign aid at all -- such as the Khmer Rouge era.What prevents foreign governments and Cambodian political players from bringing matters to a head immediately is the prospect of next May's scheduled elections, which, unlike the 1993 UN-sponsored vote will be an entirely homegrown affair.Yet to any candid observer willing to comment honestly, next year's vote seems unlikely to produce a meaningful resolution. Hun Sen has been consistent in asserting that he will not permit Prince Ranariddh to take part in the elections -- a minimum prerequisite that even governments that continue to support Cambodia are insisting on. ***Preah Sihanouk, which cuts across the south side of Phnom Penh, is a typical main thoroughfare. There is a wide no-man's-land of garbage-strewn mud and scraggly palms separating the curb from what passes for a sidewalk, and block after block of low-rise buildings that are part open storefront, part cluttered apartments.From Phnom Penh's 5:30 am dawn until early evening, the street is a noisy, exhaust-choked controlled riot of scooters, trucks, vendors' pushcarts, bikes and an occasional ox-drawn wagon.Saffron-robed monks, always present in large enough numbers to stand out among the more mundane pedestrians, walk alone or in pairs, sometimes in seemingly endless rows.This afternoon, Preah Sihanouk features a sight that's strange and troubling even by Phnom Penh standards.A woman is seated in the middle of the road, in cross-legged fashion.She is slowly propelling herself along by pushing with her hands, and only by the grace of Buddha is she not struck by passing vehicles.The woman is dragging a blanket along behind her. On it lies a naked three-or four-year-old boy, apparently asleep, curled up in the fetal position.No blanket in the world is thick enough to provide a cushion against the potholes and stones, so why the child doesn't awaken, I don't want to begin to think about. I suddenly feel an overpowering need for a drink.Fast forward several days. Different street, different woman and child, but the same basic vignette. I am standing about 10 feet away from the pair, when the skies unload one of Phnom Penh's truly stupendous rainstorms. It's the kind of rain that can turn a placid portion of roadway into a raging miniature lake within minutes.The rain has just barely begun, and suddenly the child sits bolt upright and, obviously displeased over getting wet, begins hollering at the top of his lungs.The woman angrily hushes the boy and makes him lie down again.There's no lack of genuine poverty in Phnom Penh, but the volume of the boy's voice and the vigour of his actions make it clear that this delightful little tableau is a beggars' ploy, pure and simple. Effective? Who knows?Remote areas of Cambodia continue to be plagued by fighting between troops of Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, often augmented by cameo appearances by the remaining few Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Phnom Penh is where many displaced persons go to seek refuge.Between this influx of people and the general effects of the country's economic meltdown, begging is one of the few sectors undergoing financial growth in Hun Sen's Cambodia.Former NOW contributing editor Glenn Cooly lives in Phnom Penh, where he works as a journalist in print and radio.


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