|CONVERSATION ON CAMBODIA|
December 29, 1998
Media correspondent Terence Smith talks with Henry Kamm, former New York Times correspondent and author of "Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land," about the Southeast Asian country's past and its future.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight a conversation about Cambodia. More than a million citizens of that Southeast Asian nation died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970's. Today Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed home two former Khmer Rouge leaders and said it was time to bury the past. Terence Smith recently recorded this conversation about Cambodia.
TERENCE SMITH: After nearly 30 years of war and turmoil, Cambodia today is crippled nation. An American journalist who has charted that country's decline has written a powerful new book, "Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land." He is Henry Kamm, a Pulitzer Prize winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. And he joins us this evening.
TERENCE SMITH: Henry, welcome.
HENRY KAMM: Hello, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: A little full disclosure I think is necessary here. You and I have worked together.
HENRY KAMM: A good deal.
TERENCE SMITH: Have been friends together and worked together, including in Southeast Asia.
HENRY KAMM: Including in Southeast Asia and the Middle Eastern war at one point.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me. Describe for me what Cambodia was like - when you first went there nearly 30 years ago.
|Cambodia - 30 years ago.|
HENRY KAMM: When I first went there, Cambodia was an - I suppose it's a cliché to say - an island of peace in wartorn Indochina. It was an - and its capital was a very well tended city of broad avenues, lovely parks, and, above all, smiling faces and nowhere a threat of a grenade to bring thrown to break up that.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
HENRY KAMM: It was pleasant.
TERENCE SMITH: It was an exquisite place.
HENRY KAMM: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And today?
HENRY KAMM: Today, Cambodia is a country that remains devastated by the various wars that have been waged in this territory. Its roads are in horrid condition. Its cities have become -- and there are many, as you know - cities have become overcrowded, overrun by rural populations in search of something better than the totally impoverished life. Instead, they find in the cities an equally impoverished life - no employment - and, above all, they find - wherever they are - city or countryside -- they find a government that shows not a smidgen of interest in their well-being.
TERENCE SMITH: You write, in fact, of rural people, ordinary Cambodians, who have flocked to the cities, living - what you describe as an essentially rural life in the streets of Phnom-Penh.
HENRY KAMM: Yes. Right.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean?
HENRY KAMM: Rural life would mean that you do not find your place in the city. Your place begins with employment. It goes through steady, permanent housing of some kind; it goes with schools that are ready to receive your children and it goes with the minimal services that, above all, medical services, that simply are not available.
TERENCE SMITH: And you talk about them tending livestock, chickens, and what not, on the streets.
HENRY KAMM: They bring with them what they can because the city offers them almost nothing. And so, yes, there are chickens; there are pigs; and occasionally even a buffalo walking down the main street.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, the most recent reports from Cambodia might suggest a reason for hope. The last known group of Khmer Rouge guerrillas recently surrendered. And now for better or for worse there is an ostensibly united government under Hun Sen that seems to have the blessing of King Sihanouk. Are these hopeful signs?
HENRY KAMM: They are signs that are significant to the .1 percent of the Cambodians who share in power. They are of no significance to the 99.9 percent who have power exercised upon them. The surrender of the Khmer Rouge was a dead body that has now -- one supposes been finally buried. But they have been of no importance in Cambodia, thank goodness, for the last two years.
The election merely ratified a totally irregular state of affairs that existed before, namely that Hun Sen, who was put in power by the Vietnamese invasion that took place in 1979, and who never throughout the various exercises of politics that have occurred in Cambodia since then, particularly the large United Nations' $2 billion enterprise that was supposed to bring peace, happiness to the Cambodians -- he maintained power throughout this - he lost the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, but bludgeoned his way into power, into a share of power.
He gave to Sihanouk's son, Prince Ranariddh the title of First Prime Minister but the title of First Prime Minister is about as meaningful as the notion of democracy in Cambodia. It was Hun Sen and his machine, which has run Cambodia since then. In the middle of last year he got tired of having even this advertising sign of democracy, Ranariddh, with him in sharing power, and threw him out in the coup d'etat, drove him out of the country. This was not accepted by the international community. It's very difficult to accept the overthrow of a regime that the entire world sponsored into office. And so a compromise had to be arranged, and since Prince Ranariddh likes power and money as much as Hun Sen does, he accepted once more a place in this new regime. But this is of no meaning to the people of Cambodia. Hun Sen will continue to rule with an iron fist.
TERENCE SMITH: And King Sihanouk, formerly Prince Sihanouk, the man who kept the balancing act going for so many years?
HENRY KAMM: The man who did a splendid job until he was - there were many flaws -- but the essence was that Sihanouk until 1970 -- until his overthrow - kept Cambodia out of war. But since then he has grown aged, he is very ill with cancer, and his power is like the Pope's; he has no armies. And so he has to consent to whatever is offered to him in order at least to remain king and possibly try with the very little power that he has to prevent the worst. I think that he knows that he is doomed not to succeed in that.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, you mentioned earlier the $2 billion effort -
HENRY KAMM: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: -- by the United Nations in the early 90s to come in to impose a cease-fire and to hold elections.
HENRY KAMM: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: For a while it seemed to be a great success story and was pointed to that way. But, in fact, that is not the case, is it?
|The U.N.'s role.|
HENRY KAMM: It was painted as a great success because the United Nations did a rather clever trick. The Paris agreement under which they came into Cambodia to pacify it and to hold elections was meant to pacify it, and all of the parties in the Cambodian conflict signed on to a surrender of their military. The Khmer Rouge were the first ones to resent - to refuse to give up the power; therefore, all the others followed suit, and so an agreement that was supposed to bring peace and to demilitarize Cambodia was never respected, and then the United Nations sort of hid this away and said the purpose was to hold free elections. These elections were held, but, again, their result was vitiated.
TERENCE SMITH: What does it say to you, who've traveled the world widely and seen U.N. efforts elsewhere, what does it say about the limits of this kind of U.N. intervention?
HENRY KAMM: It's not entirely the United Nations' fault. It's the fault of the major powers who bring about U.N. resolutions and make U.N. decisions. The major powers raised no objection when this United Nations-sponsored agreement was totally ignored really and not really applied.
TERENCE SMITH: You speak in your book of a country beyond helping itself and have a suggestion at the end about what might be the answer.
HENRY KAMM: It is less than a suggestion, Terry. I feel that the Cambodian elite, the Cambodian political elite, which is greatly diminished by both the murders by the Khmer Rouge, the savageness of the war that preceded, and the great flow of emigration from Cambodia of some of its best people -- that the present elite, the present holders of power, who are really interested only in the holding of power - in the profits that this puts into their pockets -- that these people are quite incapable and totally uninterested in advancing the state of the Cambodian people. And since I see no change possible within this elite now, it seemed to me - and it is not a suggestion because it's too fanciful to be taken seriously - but it seems to me that if there is to be hope for Cambodia, it would be to put this brutally misruled country in the hands of some benevolent, uninterested, impartial force -- use this power to allow a new generation of Cambodians to develop normally in a country in which they're not being brutalized by their government, and when this new generation which recognizes the responsibilities of an elite for the fate of a nation is ready to take over the country, then by all means the country should be taken over by the Cambodians.
TERENCE SMITH: A trusteeship, it sounds like.
HENRY KAMM: A form of trusteeship, but an honest form of trusteeship, totally untainted by any thought of neo-Colonialism. I think Cambodia should live under its own leadership by its own devices. I regret to say that I do not think it is capable of doing so today.
TERENCE SMITH: As you suggest at the end of the book, it may be unrealistic, but it is not unreasonable.
HENRY KAMM: It is realizable theoretically. I doubt that the will exists to realize it, but I will be delighted to see it realized.
TERENCE SMITH: Henry Kamm, thank you very much.
HENRY KAMM: Thank you.