It was the kind of horror Michael Senior was never again supposed to experience. The Cambodian-born Canadian escaped his war-ravaged birthplace as a one-year-old orphan when a British Columbia couple adopted him in 1975. He grew up in the safety of Port Moody, B.C. But last week, Senior lay on the ground in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, begging for his life while his wife and brother-in-law watched. Blood dripped from a bullet wound in Senior’s knee as he asked for mercy, speaking a broken Cambodian. The B.C. man had returned to his homeland two years ago, and had since married and fathered a baby girl. Senior, who changed his surname to Sokhon after the move, was photographing looting soldiers after last week’s government coup when the marauders turned and shot him in the leg. Despite his pleas, they executed him with three shots fired at close range to the head and neck.
The ghosts of the Killing Fields still haunt Cambodia. Only last month, Pol Pot, who orchestrated the genocide of up to two million Cambodians in the 1970s, was reported to have been captured by forces loyal to the government, which pledged to put him on trial for his atrocities. His hated Khmer Rouge party seemed finally to be in shambles. But the very events that might have finally ushered in a lasting peace had precisely the opposite effect. A coup launched by one of Cambodia’s two feuding prime ministers on July 5 left at least 60 soldiers and civilians dead, among them Senior and one other foreigner. By week’s end, the anguished nation waited in suspense to see whether it would once more slide back into civil war.
The signs were not encouraging. The man behind this month’s coup, former Communist Hun Sen, declared victory after his forces looted the residence of his royalist rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh— everything from french loaves to toilet bowls were strewn outside. But the prince sounded anything but defeated as he urged the United Nations—which spent more than $3 billion in a flawed effort to restore democracy in Cambodia—not to recognize the new government. “My first priority is to resolve the problem through political and diplomatic means,” he told reporters after fleeing to Paris. Washington, however,
seems unlikely to back international intervention in the brewing conflict for fear of triggering another protracted civil war. Last week,
Ranariddh’s supporters were already reportedly at work planning a war of resistance.
If any country deserves peace, it is Cambodia. By the time the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Cambodia had been devastated by years of civil conflict and by U.S. bombing of Vietnamese bases in the eastern part of the country. Determined to transform Cambodia into a “pure” agrarian society under communism, Pol Pot’s regime
emptied cities and demolished schools, churches and Buddhist temples. Hardly a family in the land was untouched by the regime’s purges, which began with enemies of the Khmer Rouge but eventually spread to “intellectuals”—meaning anyone who showed evidence of education or prerevolutionary wealth. By 1979, when invading Vietnamese troops drove Pol Pot and his followers into the jungle, they had exterminated nearly a third of Cambodia’s population through execution or starvation.
Instead of peace, the invasion sparked a decade of warfare between Hun Sen’s Vietnamesebacked government and a coalition forged between the royalist Funcinpec party and the Khmer Rouge. In 1989—as the Cold War ended and east bloc aid to Vietnam dried up—the Vietnamese pulled out. Four years later, Cambodians pinned their hopes for the future on a United Nations-sponsored election, which for a time convinced the factions—except the Khmer Rouge—to lay down their arms. But while the United Nations put in place a constitution, many other conditions of the 1991 Paris peace accord— including a call to disarm the factions—were never fully implemented. By last week, the coalition between First Prime Minister Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen had collapsed, leaving the country in turmoil as the two men bickered over the UN-imposed powersharing arrangement.
Supporters of Hun Sen fired the first shots in the latest outburst. They were apparently responding to rumors that the prince was forging an alliance with defecting Khmer Rouge members, who were massing in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen, who broke with the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and is now their avowed enemy, is trying to keep any Khmer Rouge from entering mainstream Cambodian politics.
The fighting subsided after two days. But looters continued to ravage the airport, empty car showrooms and strip gasoline stations of their equipment, including pumps. An ad hoc redistribution of wealth took place: motorcyclists smelled of expensive French aftershave; a soldier stealing a brand-new Mitsubishi automobile out of a showroom summoned a colleague on a twoway radio to ask how to put it into gear. Foreigners poured into the devastated airport to flee Cambodia. With their ambassador out of the country, 200 Canadian residents of Phnom Penh found themselves scrambling for safety as the Cambodian staff shut down the Canadian Embassy. Australian officials airlifted them to Malaysia.
Although Hun Sen claimed that no coup had taken place, his loyalists later admitted to killing a key rival and arresting prominent royalists. As Ranariddh tried to rally international support in meetings with French President Jacques Chirac and United Nations Security Council president Peter Osvald, experts said the situation remained too volatile for the United Nations—already
stretched to the limit with peacekeeping efforts in Africa and Bosnia—to intervene directly to restore order. “There are not many countries in the world that are going to advocate a massive military involvement in Cambodia right now,” said Alex Morrison, president of the Pearson Peace-
keeping Centre, a governmentfunded training institute in Clementsport, N.S.
The costly United Nations effort in Cambodia was the largest intervention of its kind. “The Paris accords were a treaty binding under international law,” said one Western diplomat, adding that the United Nations’ special representative office in Phnom Penh should now be shut down.
A return to conflict seems certain to follow Hun Sen’s bold action. Without international help, the royalists may feel they have no choice but to align with the Khmer Rouge against Hun Sen. Adding to the confusion is the mystery of Pol Pot, who may or may not be alive to face trial for crimes against humanity if and when an opportunity finally comes. Meanwhile, his legacy of chaos continues. Last week,
Canadian Michael Senior was cremated and buried in the war-torn land of his birth, and no one believed his killers would ever be brought to justice.
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