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Past and present collide in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In recent weeks, from Israel to Europe to the United States, civic and religious leaders and a cluster of survivors, have commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day and this year the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Thousands of miles away, in the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia, every day can be a holocaust remembrance day.

It’s now nearly 40 years from the April 17, 1975 morning when the Khmer Rouge Maoist guerrillas marched into Phnom Penh and embarked on a three-year, eight-month and 20-day reign of murder that killed at least 1.7 million Cambodians in a population then numbering 8 million. The country is still struggling to find its feet, to join in the economic dynamism of its region, to get a bigger share of foreign investment rather than be a ward of the United Nations and scores of international nongovernmental aid agencies.

Modernity struggles against memory. In the capital, high rise towers sprout among the French colonial era buildings. In Siem Reap, modern hotels await the millions of international tourists, many of them Chinese and South Korean, coming to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. No longer do they have to worry about land mines, the detritus of Cambodia’s catastrophic side show role during and after the Vietnam War.

Cambodia’s population is among the youngest in the world, more than 60 percent under 30 years old. That guarantees a potentially vibrant work force for at least three decades in contrast to ageing Asian societies from China, Japan and South Korea to Singapore. Every analyst says a key to the country’s future is a skilled and educated work force, but corruption is so deeply entrenched throughout society that until recently massive cheating was condoned on high school completion exams.

One key factor in Cambodia’s struggles, cited by local and western analysts alike is a lack of trust, the absence of any kind of collaborative instincts so necessary for modern economies and societies. As one European educated Cambodian remarked, the absence is hardly surprising when to survive the killing, people had to rely on wits and guile and luck, not trust in others.

Another analyst said the lack of trust exists between those Cambodians who sided however briefly with the Khmer Rouge, including the 30-years premier Hun Sen, and those who did not, distrust between generations and between and within a diaspora of Cambodian escapees and refugees in the United States, Australia and Europe.

Even for the young, those born after January 1979, when Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, the killings are not just history. A 12-mile drive down a dusty highway to the outskirts of Phnom Penh brings Cambodian and foreign visitors to the complex of buildings officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, the closest this country has come to judgment against those who directed the killings. The collaboration between the United Nations and Cambodian government has resulted in five indictments and three brought to trial. Duch, the commander of the infamous interrogation, is serving a life sentence. A top Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, died before his trial, escaping justice by death in the same manner as Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirth, was excused on medical grounds.

At the court building, ordinary Cambodians wait patiently for the sessions to begin and take their seats in an auditorium behind a glass wall to observe the proceedings. The day I was there, the two defendants Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, now in their 80s, were not present as lawyers questioned witnesses.

As we left the court, my 31-year-old driver said, “This will only end when they have died.”

And probably not then. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge is on vivid display in two of Phnom Penh’s most visited sites. All my years editing Cambodia pieces from several correspondents back at NewsHour headquarters in suburban Washington are barely preparation for seeing firsthand the Killing Fields memorial, where at least 20,000 died and whose bones still surface, and the Tuol Sleng complex, the former high school that was turned into an interrogation center, many for party cadres caught in the wave of paranoia and suspicion that engulfed the revolution in its waning months.

At the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of an estimated 300 killing fields around the entire country, the central memorial is a 17-tier tower. On the first 10 tiers are 9,000 skulls, many carefully marked to indicate how they were killed, by blunt instrument or bullet. Even more vivid is a tree with scraps of cloth and ribbon, where Khmer Rouge soldiers bashed babies and infants to their deaths.

At the interrogation center, where 12,273 were questioned before being sent to killing fields for execution, are grim reminders of how murderous dictatorships can be addicted to record keeping. The walls are lined with pictures of those under interrogation, many of them seemingly teenagers, almost as many women as men, mostly charged with collaboration with either the CIA or Soviet KGB.

But for the Khmer Rouge leadership, the real crime of those being interrogated and tortured often was their failure to meet rice production quotas, in a vicious circle of starvation and murder among the millions driven from the cities to countryside.

From Cambodians over 40, it is common to hear of parents or other relatives vanished, no trace of their fate. While the photos remained from the interrogation center, many other records were destroyed as the Khmer Rouge leadership fled to the countryside from the 1979 Vietnamese offensive. That was one of a sequence of disasters, beginning with the massive U.S. bombing of the early 1970s through the Khmer Rouge era of murder and then a decade of Cold War era western isolation to protest Vietnam’s invasion.

Clearly one of the more bizarre twists of history dictated by the politics of the moment, the Jimmy Carter administration, which proclaimed itself to be the most pro-human rights government in U.S. history, extended diplomatic recognition to Pol Pot’s remnants rather than to the Vietnamese-imposed government in Phnom Penh. Western economic sanctions only ended after the country became a U.N. protectorate in the early 1990s.

Coming to grips with the past is difficult in any post-conflict society. Here it is exacerbated by the reality that Cambodians killed Cambodians, raising the question among scholars whether this mass killing qualifies as genocide or a crime against humanity.

Australian historian David Chandler says the Hun Sen government emphasizes the term genocide to give a fascist coloration to Leninist and Maoist excesses. More practically, for average Cambodians, the country has a desperate shortage of psychiatric professionals and cultural and religious traditions against talking outside the family of painful matters.

Now, Cambodia is part of an ever deepening network of Southeast Asian nations and hoping to share in their growing prosperity. Like its neighbors Thailand and Myanmar and Laos, it increasingly relies on China’s growing wealth and politically is tilting to its camp. It is reaching the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty from 40 to 20 percent of the population: it is nearing 20 years of more than six percent annual GDP growth.

It has been a member of the World Trade Organization since 2003 and is meeting the benchmarks to becoming part of the 10-nation ASEAN Economic Community, a budding economic union that is supposed to open the region to free movement of goods and people.

But how far it will advance beyond being a provider of low-cost clothing and shoes remains to be seen, according to analysts. And much of that depends on its political evolution. Only recently has a government emerged from a deeply contested, and many allege, fraudulent national election. Western skeptics wonder if Hun Sen will ever willingly hand over power, even as the younger electorate grows more impatient with corruption and slow growth.

One test soon to come, say analysts, is whether Hun Sen is ready to grant real authority to a newer generation of ministers. Among those is Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol, who went to high school in the Maryland suburbs and received advanced degrees from Wharton and the Kennedy School, where one of his mentors was former NewsHour political analyst David Gergen. He’s been back in Cambodia since 1993, serving in a variety of government posts.

Speaking with the enthusiasm of a GE executive, which he was for 16 years, he insists the government is pushing hard for reform in administration, the civil service, trade and foreign investment. In his ministry, he cites efforts to put more business applications on line, reducing the interface between business and civil servants and reducing the opportunities for pay offs and corruption. Advancing beyond Cambodia’s imminent arrival to the lower ranks of middle income countries from the world’s poor, he insists, depends on developing a skilled work force and developing its food processing, light manufacturing and tourism industries as well as building infrastructure.

The minister is especially bullish about the country’s young work force, assuming it can be properly trained. But even here a wistful note emerges. One reason for the statistical youth bulge is that so much of the previous generation was lost. In this country, even encouraging notes about the future bear the heavy weight of the past.