Café No Problem

Victor Mallet

  • The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945 by David Chandler
    Yale, 396 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 300 04919 6

The Cambodian peace agreement reached in Paris last October is nothing if not ambitious. ‘Cambodia’s tragic recent history requires special measures to assure protection of human rights,’ says Annex Five, which outlines principles for a new constitution. ‘Therefore, the constitution will contain a declaration of fundamental rights, including the rights to life, personal liberty, security, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, assembly and association including political parties and trade unions ... The constitution will state that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy on the basis of pluralism.’

To read David Chandler’s painstakingly researched history of Cambodia and its turbulent politics since 1945, and to visit present-day Cambodia, is to understand the enormity of the task facing the United Nations as it attempts to bring peace to the country and to prepare for elections by May next year. The key to success is not the questionable commitment of the outside world to the democratisation of Cambodia, however worthy the efforts of the UN and the hundred or so charities already working there, but the determination – also questionable – of the Cambodians themselves. They need to overcome a number of obstacles. Many unskilled Cambodians were either killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and the Vietnamese invasion of 1978 or have fled the country to find a better life in America or Europe. Many officials of the lame-duck administration installed by the Vietnamese and led by the former Khmer Rouge commander and ex-monk Hun Sen – one of the four main factions under the peace plan – have abandoned the thankless task of running the country and decided to make money instead. They sell government houses for dollars and watch with resignation as hardwood trees are chopped down by their Asian neighbours. The interregnum is a dangerous period of asset-stripping.

Cambodia also lacks plausible leaders. As Chandler makes clear, the erratic Prince Sihanouk, a Francophile gourmet and amateur film-maker, has political skill and experience but does not have vision. The most conspicuous obstacle to progress in Cambodia, however, is the fatalism of ordinary people, a trait traditionally attributed to Buddhism yet strikingly similar to the passivity and dependence in the face of adversity displayed by long-suffering Zambians or Tanzanians. ‘Cambodians are at one and the same time ambitious and indolent,’ a British diplomat, quoted by Chandler, concluded in 1949. ‘More evolved than the Laotians, they lack their sense of reality and are a classic case of a people who are trying to run before they can walk.’ Six years later, the British view was little changed. ‘The Cambodians are not brave when faced with firmness on the part of the authorities,’ the Legation reported. The theme of Cambodians allowing terrible things to be done to them by their enemies or by their fellow citizens runs through the country’s history. As Chandler notes, in a comment on the decline of Sihanouk’s authority shortly before his overthrow in 1970 by Lon Nol, whose rule was a prelude to the terror of the Khmer Rouge, fatalism below cannot be a permanent substitute for leadership above. ‘The amalgam of trust, fatalism and laissez-faire that had held the kingdom together had dissolved ... The prince was probably aware of this but avoided the issue by lavishly entertaining foreign visitors – Princess Margaret of Great Britain and, a week later, the President of Nigeria – and by pouring himself into his films.’

Fatalism is still discernible, from the refugee camps on the Thai border to the streets of the capital Phnom Penh and the towns of the southern coast. The 375,000 refugees being carted back over the border in buses hired by the UN are abandoning the relatively comfortable camps with their hospitals, schools and anti-Aids posters only because of their trust in UN assistance. ‘I’m not afraid to go with the UN because the UN will provide us with food and everything,’ said 43-year-old Cham Roen, one of the first to return home. His baby boy wears a set of old keys around his neck on a red string because his parents have been told the keys are a charm which will prevent heat rash. In the southern town of Kam-pot, Khoun Som-Anh, a medical worker earning the equivalent of five dollars a month plus allowances for rice and paraffin, said that after Untac, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, ‘the salary may be higher and the country free. I hope so.’ In Phnom Penh, an official at the Ministry of Commerce asked a visiting journalist for advice on how to make rattan furniture so that Cambodia can export it: he did not know who else to ask. At the port on the Mekong River in central Phnom Penh, a 30-year-old shipping clerk, speaking good English, is adamant that it is hopeless to compete against the ethnic Chinese who dominate business in South-East Asia. ‘The Chinese are very clever,’ he said without embarrassment. ‘We Khmers are very poor.’

This is not to say that the situation is hopeless. Indeed, those who believe in the sanctity of economic growth, South-East Asian style, are pleased to see Phnom Penh beginning to emulate chaotic Bangkok. One can already smell the pollution as streets once used only by East German lorries and Russian-made military cars fill with imported second-hand motorcycles, stolen cars from Thailand and white-painted UN Toyotas. Entrepreneurs are building and refurbishing hotels, cafés, shops and video parlours. Beer and soft drinks from Singapore are on sale everywhere. Outside the royal palace, vendors are offering elephant-shaped balloons for the children. At the central market, some stall-holders sell jewellery and keep stacks of riels in full view of passersby; others are selling flowers and decorative plants. Makeshift schools have sprung up to cater for an insatiable desire among Cambodians to learn English.

Aid workers tead to scorn the luxury Hotel Cambodiana, which feels depressingly like a luxury hotel anywhere in the world, and the Café No Problem with its French cheeses, pâté and champagne, and argue that the excesses of Phnom Penh will breed resentment in the neglected countryside and promote the antiurban policies of the Khmer Rouge. Khmer Rouge propaganda in the days of Lon Nol referred to the capital as ‘the great prostitute on the Mekong’. Three-quarters of the capital’s inhabitants, however, are now themselves first-generation city dwellers, because the original inhabitants were killed or exiled when Brother Number One (Pol Pot) and his associates emptied the country’s towns in pursuit of agrarian revolution. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that livestock numbers in the countryside have recovered substantially over the last decade from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge. In the north and the south, numerous water buffalo, bullocks, pigs and ducks can be seen in the villages; workers are repairing bridges, hotels and Buddhist temples; and home-owners are putting new tiles on their roofs. Expatriates swap alarmist tales of gangsters on the roads (usually unpaid soldiers demanding cigarettes or money), but foreigners and Cambodians alike are now happily heading off to the beaches of Kop or Kompang Som at the weekends.

Cambodia is still poor, and the economy is struggling to reach the levels it enjoyed in the Sixties. Average life-expectancy is only 49. ‘There is almost no country in the world which has gone backwards so far, so fast,’ said one UN official. The roads are so bad that some villages are almost inaccessible in dry weather, let alone in the imminent rainy season. As well as 375,000 refugees in Thailand, there are some 200,000 displaced people within Cambodia’s borders, and the forthcoming demobilisation of 450,000 soldiers and militiamen will make matters worse. Landmines are a constant threat to farmers in the rice paddies, and hardly a day passes without death and injury. At midnight, when the discos and brothels of central Phom Penh have closed and the streets are silent, it is sobering to see the half-naked drivers of the town’s ‘cyclos’ (tricycle taxis) sprawled in their machines sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, or to pass a child lying down on the dusty pavement.

Chandler’s analysis of the period from 1945 to 1979 holds at least two important lessons for Cambodians and for the UN officials and soldiers who are trying to turn the place into a liberal democracy in just over a year. The first is that Cambodians have little experience of genuine democracy free from intimidation and fraud: this is, perhaps, neither rare nor insurmountable in a world of fledgling democracies. The second and more significant lesson is that the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although it was horrific and caused the deaths of an estimated one million people (one in eight of the population), was not an inexplicable or unrepeatable aberration. It was, of course, the result of a combination of special circumstances – the influence of Communism and Maoism, the corruption of the Lon Nol era, a growing sense of Khmer nationalism and hatred of the Vietnamese, the US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War – but it was not on a different plane from the rest of Cambodian history. Half a million Cambodians are estimated to have died between 1970 and the Khmer Rouge takeover five years later. Sihanouk routinely persecuted his opponents, sometimes by haranguing and humiliating them in public and allowing soldiers and civilians to beat them afterwards. ‘Many survivors of the Sixties have recalled an atmosphere of terror that pervaded intellectual circles and smothered student politics in Phnom Penh,’ Chandler comments. ‘In some regions rewards were given for rebels’ severed heads. In Kampot in 1969, several alleged dissidents were thrown alive off a high cliff; their heads were later displayed in the Kampot market.’

Chandler, a former US diplomat in Phnom Penh, has written The Tragedy of Cambodian History in a dry and admirably objective academic style. His thoroughgoing reporting of each significant week of post-1945 Cambodian politics will make this an invaluable reference work for students of Cambodia. The early pages, densely-packed with detail, verge on the dull, but his initial reluctance to jump to conclusions makes the judgments that he does vouchsafe all the more valuable. Yet the answer to the question, ‘how could Cambodians do this to each other?’ seems to elude him as it has eluded others. Nor does he portray with any vividness the reactions of ordinary Cambodians to their various rulers, perhaps because this is, on his own admission, a political rather than a social history. The closest we get are the comments of Ith Sarin, a Cambodian school inspector, who liked the early high-mindedness and egalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge rebels before they came to power but was frightened by ‘the unbounded authority of the Party over everything’ and the way the revolutionary process seemed to turn people into machines. ‘At the time,’ he said, ‘I believed some of the things they said. I loved the cleanness of their ideas.’

Chandler’s book comes to life when he delves into the characters of the principal political players, including Sihanouk. He watches the Prince’s progress from the days in the Forties when he showed a ‘juvenile ardour’ for democratic reform, through the time when he ‘did little serious thinking about long-range economic planning’ in the Sixties, to his life in exile. Anyone who puts all their trust in Sihanouk or in Cambodian democracy today would be forgetting this:

Having won independence [in 1953], Sihanouk was uncertain how to proceed. Was the game over? Was another game being prepared? He had no programme for governing Cambodia – no foreign policy, no priorities, no economic plans. Nonetheless, he had managed to lead his people and obtain their independence. He had succeeded where other politicians had failed. In June 1954, he told the French commander in Indochina, General Paul Ely, that those favouring democracy in Cambodia are either bourgeois or princes ... The Cambodian people are children. They know nothing about politics, and they care less.

And this:

In examining the Sihanouk era, one must balance the Prince’s diplomatic skills, patriotism and capacity for hard work against his tolerance of corruption and his self-centred, erratic style. Anyone trying to form a judgment about his years in power must also confront his disdain for educated people, his impatience with advice, his craving for approval, his fondness for revenge, his cynicism and his flamboyance.

The life of Pol Pot, whose real name is Saloth Sar, is similarly intriguing. Born into a family of wealthy landowners, Saloth Sar had connections with the royal palace but was only one of a group of young and soon to be radical Cambodians educated in France. Like many of Africa’s post-independence leaders, but with even more disastrous consequences, Saloth Sar’s political views were forged by a mixture of Soviet and Chinese Communism and fashionable European leftism. ‘People who knew Sar as a secondary student have commented on his ingratiating manner, his fondness for sports and his apparent lack of ambition,’ Chandler writes.

The Tragedy of Cambodian History ends with a series of personal accounts of those who experienced life under the Khmer Rouge, and a brief summary of events since the Vietnamese invasion. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to find fault with Chandler’s conclusion that the curtain had already fallen on the careers of Sihanouk and Pol Pot following the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989. ‘Neither of them went through a real fifth act, in which glimmers of self-awareness traditionally come at the price of personal destruction,’ he writes. ‘The times transformed these heroes, without their knowing it, into those left behind by the tragedy and therefore, in a sense, into clowns.’

Today, however, Prince Sihanouk is back in his palace as chairman of the Supreme National Council, the body which embraces the main Cambodian factions (including the Khmer Rouge) and which is responsible, together with the UN, for restoring the country to normality and democracy. Pol Pot has been replaced as the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge, and his party has announced its intention to abide by the rules of liberal democracy, but he still lingers on the border with Thailand, and his guerrillas are still feared throughout the country. Khmer Rouge leaders anxious to extend their influence are slow to allow the UN forces access to the territory they control, and eager to gain credibility by associating themselves as closely as possible with Sihanouk and the SNC. Far from being unemployed clowns, Sihanouk and Pol Pot are still protagonists. And there is still no guarantee of a happy ending.