Khmer Rouge legacy lingers on, but Cambodians embrace new found freedoms

For what was once a city of ghosts, Phnom Penh has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years and is today a bustling metropolis. Tuk tuks can whisk visitors through the busy traffic to restaurants serving cuisine from pretty much any country in the world. Happy hour rings out in busy bars where backpackers enjoy international music booming on breezing river-side terraces. You can shop till you drop at upmarket chain stores and then relax in plush, air-conditioned coffee shops.

Is this really the same place that I described in my last post on Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge evacuated and pretty much abandoned the city for four years in the 1970s at such a high human cost?

Today Phnom Penh is the third most popular place in Cambodia for tourists to visit after Siem Reap (gateway to the temples of Angkor) and the beach resorts on the southern coast. Visitors are served by a range of local and international hotels. And as well as the aforementioned facilities, there are a number of worthwhile tourist attractions for to visit.

In my last post I described the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes and the Killing Fields, but you should also not miss the lavish Royal Palace, with its formal gardens and colourful pavilions. Independence Monument was built in 1958, five years after the country broke away from France. And Wat Phnom, the only hill in town and where the first pagoda was built in 1373, is a great place to visit in the evening when it is lit up.


Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

And for the Cambodian people themselves, its great to see so many out in Phnom Penh with smiles enjoying each other’s company. Children play football in the wide boulevards, while older people enjoy more sedate games sitting at benches or merely munching on barbecued food sold by street vendors. During the Khmer Rouge era, three million of the country’s seven million population was wiped out, but it has been re-populated and now stands at around 15 million.

Phnom Penh, like the country as a whole, may look like at first glance like it is on the rise but beneath the surface all is not entirely well. Corruption remains prevalent in Cambodia meaning that many live in poverty. And the terrible legacy of the Khmer Rouge lingers on, to the extent that locals are seen to whisper when discussing some aspects of the country’s recent past.

Problems of corruption

Had you asked anyone living at the time of the Angkorian kings what the state provided for them and the answer would likely have focused on public works – roads, bridges and reservoirs. Fast-forward to the modern age and, according to the picture painted by Joel Brinkley in his excellent account of contemporary Cambodia, it seems little has changed.

In Cambodia’s Curse, the former New York Times journalist prevents a wealth of evidence to suggest that many of the services – ranging from health to education – that the government should be providing just aren’t being delivered. As we shall see, the country has received its fair share of overseas aid, but much of this has gone little further than lining the pockets of corrupt officials.

Three quarters of the Cambodian population still live as they did a thousand years ago, according to Brinkley’s 2010 account. Yes, there are wealthy people in the big cities like Phnom Penh, but in rural areas it’s a different story with – at the time the journalist was writing – at least 80% of people living in poverty. And, according to the figures Brinkley consulted, the vast majority of rural poor consumers rely mainly on rice and can only afford meat two to four times per month.

As I found travelling through Cambodia, a considerable portion of the country’s roads remain unpaved. It is reported that in rural areas not all children go to school. And many people don’t have access to the medical services they need at clinics, creating a swathe of health problems across the country.

All in all, Cambodia is falling behind its regional competitors; Thailand’s GDP is four times higher, while Vietnam’s is 10 times higher – and the latter isn’t as reliant on agriculture as Cambodia. “Vietnamese embrace change,” wrote Joel Brinkley. “Cambodians tend to resist it.”

So where should the blame lie?

Some have apportioned blame on Cambodia’s lack of infrastructure to the Khmer Rouge regime, which officially fell in 1979, but then continued to wage a guerrilla war until 1999. However, others take a different view, as Brinkley suggested: “In truth, though, the nation was quite primitive on April 17, 1975 when Pol Pot’s army marched into Phnom Penh. There were few schools, factories, hospitals, or other features of the twentieth or even nineteenth century life to raze.”

Many have attributed the real reason why Cambodia and its people have continued to suffer in recent years to that of corruption. Children need to make daily payments to teachers when they enter the classroom if they want to avoid getting bad grades, according to Blinkley’s account. Healthcare is meant to be free in Cambodia, but in reality services don’t get delivered without a bribe – to the extent that doctors and nurses have been known to hold out their hands for their payment before agreeing to deliver a baby.

And there is said to be real corruption in the courts and amongst the police in Cambodia. Motorists can be let off speeding tickets through the payment of a bribe, but what is more worrying is that those accused of offences as serious as rape and paedophilia are being let free before they have even gone to trial.

There are plenty of signs in Phnom Penh saying that corruption shouldn’t be tolerated, but it remains because the government is doing little to remove it. Officials benefit too much from bribes.

Re-building Cambodia

Since the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in Phnom Penh in 1979, Hun Sen has been a dominant force in Cambodian politics. The former commander in Pol Pot’s regime, who had defected to Vietnam in 1978 and joined the invading force the following year. And since then he’s been rapidly building up his power base in Cambodia.

During the United Nations (UN) occupation of Cambodia, the nominal head of the country was the prince Sihanouk (he wasn’t re-crowned until 1993), but it was Hun Sen who behaved as a dictator and ran a country rife with corruption. Even Sihanouk later said that the $3bn spent in Cambodia between 1991 and 1993 was “a waste,” adding: “I apologise. I present my apologies to the United Nations. We did not deserve those three billion dollars because the way we handled it was so bad, so bad.”

Hun Sen’s party didn’t win the 1993 election – an event marred by violence with the Khmer Rouge conducting kidnappings and UN workers were killed – but he still didn’t seem to lose out. As runner-up to Norodom Ranariddh (the king’s son), he assumed the role of Second Prime Minster in the new coalition government. Corruption set in immediately, with ministers offered positions only after they had revealed how much money they had in their bank accounts.

But Hun Sen and Ranariddh’s coalition wasn’t the happiest of partnerships. Both sides recruited their own bodyguard’s which soon grew to sizeable forces and accused each other of shipping in weapons. Consequently, open warfare broke out on the streets.

Hun Sen ensured that he held the government departments which he thought would bring him the biggest influence. At the time of the 1998 elections, his reach also stretched to control all the government institutions set up to ensure free elections, including the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council. Surprisingly observers said that the poll was above board, but there was reported to be considerable bribery and a number of suspicious murders ahead of the vote.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, foreign nations gave considerable amounts of aid without really questioning where the money was going. There were reports that Cambodian journalists who set out to expose the wrong doing were killed.

Although Hun Sen repeatedly said he would introduce anticorruption law in an attempt to keep the US happy, by 1997 the latter decided to cut off direct aid – and it wouldn’t introduce it again for a decade. This didn’t seem to deter the Cambodian leader however as his wealthy cronies were awarded with everything from land (making families homeless) to forestry rights (in 2007 a British NGO published a report which said a “kleptocratic elite, led by Hun Sen, is stripping Cambodia’s forests”).

After the 2003 elections, the US Embassy issued a report about what it called “grand corruption” which showed that Cambodian officials stole $500m each and every year, which was half of the state’s budget. Every year foreign donors were urged to tell the government that their funding was conditional on it cleaning up its act, but little seemed to change (the 2010 anticorruption legislation was considered very lightweight).

And aid workers had no real incentive to highlight the corruption that was endemic in the country. They were enjoying comfortable lifestyles in Phnom Penh – the last thing they wanted to do was to cut off the funding that paid their salaries.

Seeking justice

Some time may have passed since the Khmer Rouge was forced out of Phnom Penh, but in some ways the crimes of the regime still feel fresh. As I wrote in my last post on Cambodia, I saw pieces of bone and rags of clothing when I visited the Killing Fields. And at the regime’s most notorious prison, those that survived torture are still alive to tell visitors their own personal stories.

In villages across the country, there have been attempts to swipe the crimes committed by the regime under the carpet – “men and women who worked for the Khmer Rouge have returned to their formerly quiet lives, farming their fields and raising their children side by side with the families of people they abused and killed,” wrote Seth Mydans, the New York Times journalist in 1996.

Achieving any justice over the senior Khmer Rouge commanders has been a long and laborious process. While Hun Sen made all the right noises about setting up courts to those deemed being guilty of crimes against humanity, in practice his government slowed things down. Given their own links in the past to the Khmer Rouge, the last thing they wanted was an autonomous body run by the United Nations which they couldn’t influence.

Hun Sen had initially preempted actions of any court by granting amnesty to former Khmer Rouge leaders, starting in 1996 with Ieng Sary who served as a foreigner minister under the regime, but was allowed to live freely in a mansion in Phnom Penh.

But after repeated trading of insults from both the Cambodian and international sides in the combined court in Phnom Penh, there was a breakthrough in July 2010 when the director of Tuol Sleng prison, known as Duch – who oversaw the torture and deaths of thousands of people – was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. In his opening statement at the trial he had apologised for his actions: “I would like to apologise to all surviving victims and their families who were mercilessly killed,” he had said.

Given the high number of victims killed Pol Pot’s regime, it doesn’t seem right that Duch is one of just five former Khmer Rouge leaders to have been indicted by the court. Two of these are currently still on trial, while the remaining two have now died. No more former leaders will be brought before the jury. Case closed.

The name Khmer Rouge may be dead and buried, but those who held power and served under Pol Pot are still thriving. They may have official positions in government, but they could just as well be former soldiers who are driving tuk tuks or selling souvenirs outside tourist attractions. Pol Pot’s legacy lives on in modern day Cambodia.

Yet problems of corruption aside, Cambodia is looking to the future. As I travelled along bumpy roads by bus across the country, local people just seemed to be getting on with their lives. There may in reality be only one political party in Cambodia today (I lost track of the number of ‘Cambodia People’s Party’ signs I saw on my journey), but the amount of freedom they have today is poles apart from the collectivisation imposed by Pol Pol. And that’s a reason to be cheerful.


Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

Categories: Asia

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1 reply »

  1. Very interesting post. I lived in cambodia for almost a year and left in February 2018. The corruption is still prevalent and clear as day. Your post cleared up a lot of questions I hadn’t managed to answer about the country’s politics.
    Thanks for the post.

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