Killing fields linger

Salon Newsreal: Pol Pot's capture won't end the tragedy of Cambodia.

Published June 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

captured by his own crazed and disillusioned soldiers, the man responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people seems more a frightened deer than the feared Brother Number One who would order the execution of entire families at the drop of a hat.

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, came to power in Cambodia in 1975 and was driven out by invading Vietnamese in 1979. During his reign, he enforced a radical, agrarian-based reform that included the systematic elimination of the ruling and bourgeois classes. One in four Cambodians died.

Yet the United States, perhaps traumatized by its lost war with Vietnam and still believing in the "domino theory," continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the country's representative in the United Nations in the 1980s. And China, angry over losing a war with the Vietnamese in 1979, continued to arm the Khmer Rouge until the early 1990s.

Many pundits have announced that Cambodians will experience closure if Pol Pot is finally brought to justice. But while his capture certainly marks an end to the bloodiest chapter in Cambodia's history, it won't end the tragedy. Years of factional fighting following the Khmer Rouge reign of terror have left a nation of 6.5 million traumatized and impoverished:

  • Even after the most costly U.N. peacekeeping mission ever mounted, Cambodia is in desperate need of capital for rebuilding. But it lacks all the basic infrastructure -- roads, an educated work force, investment law, electricity -- needed to draw foreign investment or tourism.

  • After more than three decades of war, two of three Cambodians are female, a disastrous ratio in a country where 90 percent of the population depends on labor-intensive agriculture to survive.

  • Partners in the country's coalition government, set up by the U.N.-sponsored election four years ago, continue to bicker among themselves, and some observers say this may lead the country once again into civil war.

  • In the meantime, government officials vie for the right to cut down Cambodia's forests and sell them cheap to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. The depletion of forest lands contributes to landslides and floods, and to the loss of topsoil.

Although the war with the Khmer Rouge may be over, Cambodia is a nation armed to the teeth. Almost every family owns a gun or a rifle for defense against demobilized soldiers who have turned to banditry.

The worst problem of all is the presence of land mines. Cambodia has more mines per square mile, and more amputees per capita, than any country in the world. Every month, on average, some 400 Cambodians are maimed or killed by mines. The task of removing the remaining mines will take half a century.

In East Asia, a region experiencing unprecedented growth, Cambodia has become a kind of embarrassment. "We don't really include Cambodia when we talk about economic miracle and investment," a Bangkok businessman remarks. "Cambodia depresses us. Cambodia belongs to a different Asia."

As it is now, a tourist brave enough to visit Cambodia goes not simply to gawk at the magnificent ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, but to ogle the aftermath of a holocaust. The maimed and wounded and distraught survivors, the fields piled high with skulls, the bombed-out buildings and the Tuol Sleng museum -- a high school turned prison now filled with photographs of the varieties of torture committed by the Khmer Rouge -- all serve as a reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

For many in Cambodia, and elsewhere, Pol Pot is horror incarnate. And if his trial eases the Cambodian psyche, then it might be a small, good thing. But after the media limelight moves on from this wretched nation, Cambodia might once again be left to fend for itself. In the dark.
June 26, 1997

Andrew Lam is a Vietnam-born short story writer and an editor at the Pacific News Service in San Francisco. He has traveled in and written extensively about Cambodia over the last decade.

) Pacific News Service

Hong Kong Diary



last night Hong Kong was looking brighter, far brighter than usual. The tiny territory can always be seen from afar when you are flying in, whether you are droning across the blackness of China or the blackness of the western Pacific -- it appears as a brilliant orange glow on the horizon a couple of hundred miles ahead, an illuminated statement of its own success. But last night its brightness seemed to have been compounded a hundred-fold: As the plane turned and banked into its familiar-yet-always-alarming landing turn at Kai Tak airport, it positively sparkled and glistened, with a superabundance of light. It looked almost as though the place was on fire.

It is all to do with the handover, of course, now less than a week away. It turns out that every office building worth its patriotic salt, and every blank wall without a cigarette hoarding, has now been festooned with decorative trails of neon that have been shaped into the chosen emblems of what, come next Tuesday, will be Chinese sovereign territory once again.

But the unintended symbolism of it all has caused some puzzled amusement. The two devices that have been chosen to depict the glorious moment of the handover are a five-petaled flower known as Blake's bauhinia and an overly cheerful looking sea creature known as a Chinese white dolphin. Biologists have pointed out -- and hence the amusement -- that the particular bauhinia is actually a rare hybrid, and one that is rare for the simple reason that it is terminally sterile; and the white dolphin is of a species that is currently being killed at such a ferocious rate by Chinese fishermen that it will be extinct in five years.

Why the new regime has chosen its symbols so maladroitly is anyone's guess. But it is giving the departing Britons opportunities for sardonic commentary on how they expect the territory to flourish -- or not -- once the Communists get their hands on it. A sterile weed and a dying fish, they chortle, with fine inaccuracy: What can that possibly mean?

The royal yacht, the Britannia, is now lying in the harbor, waiting to take the best and brightest of those Britons away, just after midnight strikes at the end of next Monday. She came in yesterday, and there was not a dry eye among those who saw her. She is such a lovely craft -- her rake perfect, her midnight-blue hull impeccable, her sailors all at attention in their tropical whites -- and she came in behind scores of fireboats spraying cannonades of foam.

Prince Charles flies in on Saturday to preside over the Monday ceremonial; some unkind sorts say that Camilla, his consort, is already secreted away in Britannia's bilges, and will be on hand to comfort him once the handover is done, and he and the colonial governor sail away for the Philippines and a few days of tropical rest.

There are other important ships around too. HMS Chatham, an anti-submarine destroyer bristling with missiles and guns, has fetched up to provide a floating headquarters for the British forces during their last week in command. And another big supply ship, the Sir Percivale, is busily loading all the ammunition that the British kept in the colony's rocky bunkers until the very end, just in case. Both vessels will be sailing out, beyond the territorial boundary line, by the time the Chinese midnight sounds. There will be just a few British soldiers left on the Tuesday morning, tidying up, switching off the lights, rolling up the bunting. They have been given formal permission to stay until 3:30 a.m. -- without their guns, though -- because of the press of work, but once their jet has roared off into the night, the British colonial presence will formally, and absolutely, be over.

The Chinese army is already here, in small numbers. There are about 100 soldiers, all unarmed and in civilian clothes. But at 9 on the evening before the handover 500 more will be coming across the frontier -- a major concession by the outgoing British that was announced yesterday. And they will be in uniforms, and they will have their weapons. It will be a chilling moment, something to cause a shiver in anyone with any recollections of the Tiananmen Square tragedy of eight years ago.

The contrast of all the sounds to be heard that night seems to carry a symbolism all of its own: the tramp of boots and the rumble of heavy armor coming in, the soft sigh of the boats and the whispering roar of the planes going out. The tough men and the tough times are coming, the sounds seem to say; the gentler days are now over.

The lights that we see today, and the curious flower and dolphin patterns they have been made into, may have an amusing symbolic meaning. But the sounds that we will surely hear a week from now seem to speak of an altogether graver affair. People may not be laughing so much one week from now, sardonically or otherwise.

By Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam is an associate editor of Pacific News Service.

MORE FROM Andrew Lam

Related Topics ------------------------------------------