Death returns to the Killing Fields

March 1 1993

Death returns to the Killing Fields

March 1 1993

Death returns to the Killing Fields


After two decades of war and repression, Cambodia is now a ward of the United Nations. This week, External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall was to visit the 213 Canadian troops who are part of the 22,000member force now running the country until a new government is elected in May. But the UN mission is floundering, unable to forcibly stop the factional fighting and rampant corruption still gripping the country. Maclean’s Foreign Editor Bruce Wallace recently visited Cambodia. His report:

He had been dead for several days when the soldiers fished “Laid-back Louie” out of Cambodia’s muddy Mekong River. The four United Nations observers did not know the real name of the adult Cambodian male whose rigid corpse they cursed and strained to pull from the water into their patrol boat and then onto the dock in the provincial town of Kompong Cham in January. But they could tell that his death was neither a suicide nor an accident. What killed Louie was a bullet, fired from close range, which had crashed through his left eye and into his brain. Louie’s body was scarred from a beating, his hands still tied behind his back. It is the dry season in Cambodia and the killing has resumed.

Very little rain falls on the southeast Asian country in January and February, and the dry weather makes Cambodia more fit for fighting. The passage of seasons is marked by a dramatic drop in the level of the Mekong, which shrivels to a still, shallow waterway allowing for vegetable gardens to be planted on its exposed river bed. Waterlogged roads in the countryside turn hard and dusty, making them passable again. It is so dry that helicopter pilot Lyle Ledoux can spot new forest fires breaking out every day as he flies over Cambodia’s landscape of thick jungle and scorched plains. “The terrain reminds me of northern Alberta,” said Ledoux, a 32-year-old from Smithers, B.C., who has been hired to transport UN soldiers and officials around the country. Ledoux flies at 5,500 feet—above the haze from the fires and out of the range of snipers on the ground. “You could get rich fighting fires over here,” he said, “if you could find anyone brave enough to get out of the helicopter.”

As feared by the UN peacekeepers, the dry season brought on a renewal of the artillery exchanges and guerrilla strikes now so familiar to the nine million people of the tiny, tormented country. Since 1970, Cambodia has been traumatized by a series of coups, foreign invasions, a murderous government campaign that wiped out one-sixth of the population and, finally, a 13-year-long civil war. The war goes on, despite a peace agreement that Cambodia’s four warring factions signed in Paris in 1991. Supervising the truce is the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, known as UNTAC, the UN’s most ambitious peacekeeping mission ever. The Paris agreement leaves Cambodian sovereignty in the hands of the Supreme National Council (SNC) comprised of representatives from all four factions and chaired by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s erratic but ever-popular former head of state. But the SNC has ceded most of the powers needed to run the


country to UNTAC. It is UNTAC that has registered 4.7 million Cambodians to vote and is preparing to supervise the May election, which, it promises, must be “free and fair.” And it is UNTAC that has undertaken to sweep the countryside of land mines and has emptied the refugee camps on the Thai border, returning 370,000 Cambodians to—or at least near—their original homes and villages.

But UNTAC has also brought its own chaos to Cambodia, especially in the capital of Phnom Penh. With each of its soldiers and observers earning $180 every day, they have created a booming, though largely artificial, economy. Another army of business people—from white-collar Malaysian bankers to hundreds of Vietnamese prostitutes known locally as “taxi girls”—has followed the United Nations into Cambodia in pursuit of that money. Meanwhile, many Cambodians have become scornful of UNTAC, which has been unable to stop the widespread intimidation of politicians and rampant extortion of money from private citizens, much of it by government soldiers.

Most observers expect the election to produce a government headed by Sihanouk’s son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, likely in coalition with other groups. But although the United Nations is determined to hold the election, the political atmosphere is anything but free and fair. “I cannot say that the environment is politically neutral,” said Theophane Noël, 49, a Lower Caraquet, N.B., native who is the senior electoral official in Cambodia’s largest province, Kompong Cham. “People are not free to express themselves without fearing for their lives.” Pre-electoral violence increased in recent weeks as it became apparent that neither of the two most heavily armed factions will win power in May. One is the Khmer Rouge, the party led by Maoist-inspired, European-educated radicals that systematically murdered an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians in the 1970s—a reign of terror portrayed in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. Now, the Khmer Rouge has reneged on its promise to participate in the election. From their sanctuaries in remote regions near the Thai and Laotian borders, where they survive by illegally selling off forest cutting and gem mining rights to freelancing Thai generals and businessmen, Khmer Rouge rebels still terrorize Cambodian villages under government control. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese-installed Communist government, which toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, grows more and more desperate at the prospect of losing power. It has stepped up its intimidation of political rivals, launched its recent offensive against the Khmer Rouge and continues to tum a blind eye to the blatant extortion of money from civilians by its soldiers.

The UN observers record as many of those violations of the Paris agreement as possible. But without arms, they are powerless to compel the factions to stop fighting. And those UN civilian police who do carry weapons are roundly criticized—even by other UN officials—for their notorious unwillingness to arrest criminals and restore order. “We are the United Nations Transitional Authority, without the authority,” said one unhappy British military observer in the town of Kratie, 125 miles upriver from Phnom Penh. “The Cambodians are contemptuous of us.”


Throughout its history, Cambodia has endured numerous civil wars and battles against Thai and Vietnamese invaders. It was under the promise of a shield from its enemies that France imposed a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863. Some key dates in recent history:

• 1953: Cambodia becomes an independent kingdom

under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who

struggles to keep the Vietnam war from engulfing his nation.

• March, 1970: American-supported Lt.-Gen. Lon Nol topples Sihanouk, who had aligned the country with Communist China and North Vietnam.

® May, 1970: U.S. and South Vietnamese forces invade Cambodia to help Lon Nol drive out North Vietnamese Communists and leftist Khmer Rouge revolutionaries.

• October, 1970: Lon Nol abolishes Cambodia’s centuries-old monarchy and proclaims the Khmer Republic. But the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, fight on.

• April, 1975: Khmer Rouge forces capture Phnom Penh and begin a 31/2-year period of brutal repression. Mass executions, hunger and disease kill an estimated 1.5 million people.

• December, 1978: Vietnamese troops invade the country, ostensibly to end the reign of terror by their former allies, the Khmer Rouge. With Soviet support, the victorious Vietnamese install a puppet government.

• June, 1982: Three Cambodian resistance groups—the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and the non-Communist Sihanoukists—forge an uneasy alliance aimed at expelling the Vietnamese-backed government. They form the Democratic Kampuchean government-in-exile and occupy the country’s UN seat.

• October, 1991: The Phnom Penh government and the resistance groups sign a peace agreement in Paris calling for a ceasefire and a transitional government leading to UN-supervised elections.

• March, 1992: The United Nations begins deploying a peacekeeping force that has grown to 22,000 members.

The United Nations should not be surprised that its policy of putting moral suasion ahead of muscle makes little impression upon Cambodians. The folklore of Cambodia includes an old proverb that advises: “If a tiger lies down, do not say, The tiger is showing respect.’ ”

Phnom Penh looks as good as can be expected after 13 years of civil war, decay and neglect. It still shows off beautiful mansions, most now under renovation or rented out to UN bureaucrats for housing or offices. The walls of putrid garbage that lined its graceful boulevards are finally being bulldozed and collected, thanks in large part to a fleet of green garbage trucks donated by the mayor of Paris. A bombed-out bridge, which begins in the city but ends without warning halfway across the Tonle Sap River, is being rebuilt by Japanese military engineers. And suspended on the front wall of the Royal Palace is an enormous portrait of a dashing dark-haired Sihanouk, frozen forever as a young man—ignoring the fact that the former monarch is now a frail and ailing 70year-old.

Amid the cacophony of diesel-driven reconstruction and loudspeakers blasting street-corner bingo games, Phnom Penh’s mood is no longer sombre. Smiling children and hookers

alike call out “hello, hello” to visitors in the only English many of them know—although one young boy parrots the greeting of Australian peacekeepers with a cheery “G’day, mate.” The streets are busy again, even though the city has less than a dozen functioning traffic lights. White UN Land-Rovers and luxury Peugeot sedans jostle for the right-ofway with bicycles and mopeds in a traffic etiquette that regards sticking to lanes and following direction signs as only an option. The current bustle is a long way from April, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied the city of residents in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia, leaving “nothing to live in Phnom Penh but the mice,” as tourism bureaucrat Ouk Siphan put it, recalling his own forced eviction from the capital.

Now, the Communist regime is ceding to a multiparty state, free markets and Western culture. Cambodia has welcomed foreign investment in businesses from oil exploration to hotels, and the government has granted licences to 41 banks—even though there are not yet any banking regulations. Said Lau Yin Leong, the Malaysian director of the Cambodia Asia Bank Ltd.: “Cambodia is the last frontier where almost anyone can open a bank and make it grow.” The boom is illustrated by Phnom Penh’s recovering nightlife, ranging from a garish Filipino-owned bar called Cat-

house, to the European menu and snobbery of the Belgian-owned Café No Problem.

In a country that endured a U.S. carpet-bombing campaign from 1969 to 1973, there is a surprising embrace of American pop culture. Phnom Penh has its own version of McDonald’s called McSam’s, complete with uniformly stripe-shirted employees, cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. A locally owned lunch counter, Bus Stop, is decorated with Budweiser posters and signs proclaiming: “Joy To Free World” and “You Can Have It Here.” The city even has its own congregation of the Assemblies of God Church, best-known for its onetime televangelist leader, Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.

Yet, while they are willing to absorb foreign influences, many Cambodians make it clear that they could do without the foreigners themselves. The presence of Japan’s military engineers marks a return by the Japanese to a country that they occupied during the Second World War. And many Cambodians expected that UNTAC would evict the thousands of ethnic Vietnamese, some of them having lived in Cambodia illegally for several years. Instead, they now blame UNTAC for the hundreds of Vietnamese prostitutes who have poured into the country in the last year.

Anger that the Vietnamese have not been forcibly expelled has strengthened support for the Khmer Rouge, which employs harsh antiVietnamese rhetoric. “The United Nations has done nothing to stop the feeling that the country is slowly but surely being taken over by the Vietnamese,” said Julio Jeldres, a Chilean-born Australian citizen who was Prince Sihanouk’s private secretary for 10 years until 1992. “It is unfortunate, but there will be an anti-Vietnamese explosion here,” he warned. So far, UNTAC officials have refused to respond to those tribal emotions. But their inaction is derided by Cambodians, who have composed a short description of how a UNTAC soldier usually spends his day. It rhymes in the Khmer language and translates: “In the morning he jogs, in the afternoon he drives, in the evening he drinks.”

But disdain for the United Nations is most palpable in the countryside. Route 6 is a twolane road with axle-snapping potholes that leads northwest from Phnom Penh into the lush province of Kompong Cham. In Cambodia, said one long-serving foreign aid worker, “The government controls the roads and the rivers, and the rest is up for grabs.” On Route 6, that power is flexed by government soldiers toting rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, which are used to extort money from passing cars at the many checkpoints. In one incident in December, a group of Polish soldiers driving a UN-marked vehicle along Route 6 was waiting to clear a checkpoint when a car carrying three Cambodians ran the roadblock going the other way. Government soldiers killed the driver in a burst of gunfire, then pulled the passengers from the car. With the UN soldiers watching helplessly, the soldiers told the Cambodians to lie on the

pavement, then summarily executed them.

Such events have chipped away at the UN’s credibility. Every boat that travels the river, every car on the highway, is a target for marauding soldiers operating their own protection rackets. UNTAC soldiers and police issue warnings but cannot stop the practice, and most Cambodians, intimidated by the soldiers, are reluctant to co-operate in any investigation. Said one British soldier: “It is hard for us to convince people that it’s worth risking a bullet in the head to report a crime.” In early February, after a one-legged passenger was shot in his stump during the robbery of a ferry on the Mekong, several boat captains told the United Nations that they would begin putting weapons of their own on board to defend themselves.

But UNTAC’s image has also been tarnished by the boorish behavior of some soldiers. Reckless driving has caused so many accidents that UNTAC officials have asked soldiers to

contribute to a fund that will compensate Cambodian accident victims and their families. Many Cambodians blame UNTAC for the burgeoning sex trade, with some cause: UN doctors reported treating 516 cases of sexually transmitted diseases in October alone, and another 431 in November. The United Nations has also been slow to pay salaries to its locally hired electoral officials, at one point falling three months behind in what it owed some of them.

For their part, UN soldiers complain that it is impossible to police a society with such in-

grained habits of corruption. “The violence here has nothing to do with taking territory or fighting over ideas,” said James Northrup, a Canadian observer from Halifax, as he and a Royal Navy colleague skimmed up the Mekong in an inflatable Zodiac on their way to investigate another robbery. “It is all about greed, and who gets to steal from who.”

The United Nations was prepared for teething problems in a mission that has to turn the armies of 32 countries—separated by language barriers and unfamiliar military cultures—into a unified force. In a pep talk to soldiers and bureaucrats at UNTAC’s stone headquarters in Phnom Penh, outgoing undersecretary for peacekeeping Marrack Goulding described the job of running an entire country as “pioneering.” But he warned that “the vultures are looking at the United Nations and this mission is next in line.”

Clearly, UNTAC has had some success. Refu-

gees are home again and economic reconstruction has restored Cambodia to the point that tourists are trickling back. But grafting democracy onto a country, where for so long only the silent survived, is proving difficult. “Democracy is still a Western concept,” said Canada’s Noël from his balcony in Kompong Cham as a funeral procession passed by below. “It will take a few generations before these people can modify it and adapt it to the realities of Cambodia.”

The good intentions of the international diplo-

mats who crafted UNTAC at a conference table in

Paris collide with Cambodian realities in small, remote villages like Bavel, a market town near the Thai border. Nearby battles between government troops and the Khmer Rouge have created a new generation of refugees, who can be seen living along the rutted dirt road that leads into town. There have been two grenade attacks on the local office of the Royalist party led by Prince Ranariddh and, in early February, six of his party’s officials were arrested by government soldiers. Local UN officials fear that the violence will worsen as the election approaches. “The atmosphere is pretty unstable,” admitted Australian Stuart Vance as he sipped a beer in a small restaurant, while two soldiers at the next table set down their weapons and poured themselves tall glasses of local whisky. Vance said that if the prospect of violence became too great, he would recommend postponing the election. “I’m not about to 2 risk the lives of Cambodians

for the greater glory of the

United Nations,” he said.

Most people expect the election to proceed, whatever the risks, because the United Nations has invested its reputation as well as an expected $2.5 billion in Cambodia. Soldiers and election officials continue to arrive in the country imbued with optimism. “We will leave here knowing that we have made Cambodia a better place than we found it,” Canadian naval Lt. John Williston, 35, wrote home to friends in Ottawa, two weeks after arriving in Phnom Penh in January. But that spirit keeps running up against more fatalistic assessments. “Cambodians have no faith in the elections,” said Carina Thai, 20, whose family fled to Australia to escape the Khmer Rouge in 1975 but returned to Battambang last year. “Everyone believes that life will be exactly the same after as it always was.” And last week, the UN observers in Kompong Cham pulled the body of another unidentified Cambodian from the Mekong. He was tied to a pole and had been shot through the temple. □