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Covering Cambodia's wars

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Former war correspondent Jacques Bekaert spoke to th Post about reporting from Cold War-era Cambodia, and his new work as a diplomat with the Military Order of Malta.

Photo by:
SEBASTIAN STRANGIO

Jacques Bekaert, a former journalist who first came to Cambodia in 1983, in Phnom Penh last week. 

How did you first end up in Cambodia?

When I was a child I once read in a magazine an article about Angkor Wat, and I was quite fascinated by it. It was the most magical place, and I thought one day I might go and see it. In the 1960s and 1970s I was covering mostly American politics, and Vietnam and Cambodia were a very important part of what was happening in the States. At the end of 1978, I had the opportunity to come to Thailand for a few weeks. I arrived after New Year, and by then Vietnam had occupied Cambodia and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. Then the editor of the paper in Bangkok, The Nation, suggested I move to Thailand and cover the new war. I asked the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok for permission to enter Cambodia, and finally, four years later, I got a visa - in 1983. The reason that there was an official withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, and they decided to invite journalists.

I spent the first few days at Le Wat Phnom, which used to be the residence of the French governor. There were a lot of constraints: you couldn't really go where you wanted and somebody was always following you. We followed the Vietnamese troops to the border, and returned for another week to the Monorom Hotel, which at that time was the hotel for "capitalist" guests. Then I started working for the BBC and was going a lot to Vietnam. Finally I was able to come back, due partly to the fact that there were some changes in the politics of Vietnam, the doi moi opening, and the pressure of what was happening in the Soviet Union. Then in 1992 I was asked by the Order of Malta to ask King Sihanouk, who had just come back to Cambodia, to allow it to open an Embassy here, because they needed somebody who knew the country to help out with their leprosy programs.

What do you recall about Prince Sihanouk?

I first met him in 1981, and he was at that time living in the south of France in a small villa called Villa Kantha Bopha. I remember at my first meeting with him, he told me that Cambodians were not going to solve this situation for themselves: only the international community could do it. At that time, very few people paid much attention to him. And then there were years where nothing much moved. There were several meetings between Hun Sen and Sihanouk in France, and it took four years before the Paris Peace Agreements were signed at the end of 1991.

The UN came, and its first mission was to provide the conditions for a free and fair election. It was very naïve: you don't implement Western-style democracy in a country where it has never existed and is not part of the culture. But one very positive point of the UN presence here is that it left a civil society, several Cambodian NGOs in the field of human rights were established at that time and are playing an important role. It also established a freer press.

Did you ever get the impression Sihanouk felt uncomfortable being a part of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which included the Khmer Rouge?

From the very beginning. Actually, he didn't want to enter the alliance but there was so much pressure from the West and from his own party.

Sihanouk never believed that the resistance could beat the Vietnamese: he was realistic enough to know that the Vietnamese army was very strong and that all it could do is apply a bit of pressure. At the end, the peace process would be only possible if China and Vietnam agreed that they had to stop the war - and that's exactly what happened. No, he didn't believe in the war, and as he said many times that you will never change the geography of the region: Cambodia will always be next to Vietnam and Thailand. They are much more powerful neighbours so we have to take that into account.

How do you think history will judge Sihanouk?

When he was appointed by the French in 1941 he was 18 years old and he had never thought he would be King. It was a difficult period, during WWII, and he had to learn a few things. [In 1953], he managed to gain independence [and] I believe the 15 years that followed were probably the best years in Cambodia in a long time. The country developed, and in 1969 Cambodia was the biggest exporter of rice in Southeast Asia. The country was not perfect, but I think most people were happy. If you were a teacher, you could live quite well on your salary. And Sihanouk gave back to Cambodia some sense of pride in being Cambodian, which otherwise existed only in the dreams of Angkor.

As for the alliance of the Khmer Rouge, he probably didn't have much choice. He otherwise could have retired from politics, and gone into retirement in France, but that would have been very difficult for Sihanouk. By and large, I think his role has been more positive than negative.

In comparison to that period, how do you view the current trajectory of development in Cambodia?

It's certainly not easy, with the global economic crisis coming. There are a lot of things that are undeniable: there is corruption, there is traditional culture. But no country stays motionless: if you talk about somebody like Hun Sen, he was definitely the politician who was the smartest. That became very clear in the 1980s. He understood things much more quickly than others that people did not want communism - so the Constitution was changed. He understood that people wanted peace more than anything. The danger for is that once you are in power for so long, people around you tend to tell you what you want to hear.

When you were working on the border, did you ever go into the Khmer Rouge zones? What was your impression?

It was a totally different atmosphere to the Sihanoukist or KPNLF zones. It was very strict, we were constantly being watched and we never knew whether people were telling us what they thought or what they were told to say. The Chinese told them that they should change and be more flexible, and apparently food distribution was quite equal. Of the people that escaped the Khmer Rouge zones and reached the other camps some went back. They thought it was tough but there was a fair distribution. The Khmer Rouge had the support of hundreds of thousands of people, and some peasants clearly would have benefited from them. [The KR] had this old Khmer attitude that was very, very strong, the idea that Cambodia can do anything and doesn't need any help to do it. One of their ideas was that Cambodia could realise communism in three or four years, much faster than anyone else on earth, and that communism was the best mechanism to have full autonomy and not rely on anybody.

What is your view on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?

I hope it is useful, but it comes very late. Will it reveal something we don't know? I doubt it: we know much of what happened. It may let us hear the leaders explain what they were trying to do. And there's the question of whether they should limit the trial to five people. Good justice will require more than five and there is strong evidence [to indict other suspects], but I don't think it will happen. For most Cambodians today, the main concern is how to live on a day to day basis, and with the economic crash, thousands of jobs have been lost already. Probably the greatest value of the tribunal will be in education: showing what a professional trial is.

Hearing Duch speak could also yield some insights.

The problem is, Duch is speaking because he has converted to Christianity and he has a sense of guilt. But the others will never admit it. Nuon Chea said he does not remember. Khieu Samphan said he did nothing wrong, and that he was just a marginal character. And Ieng Sary will play on the fact that while he was certainly not the best, he was not the worst in the regime.

Can you tell me a little more about the work you are doing over here with the Order of Malta?

Firstly, you have to distinguish between Malta and the Order of Malta. There is the Republic of Malta, where for centuries the Knights of Malta were in charge. They were kicked out of Malta by Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century and when the British were going to give it back to the Knights they decided that they would keep it for themselves. The Order of Malta lost its territory but the Italians gave us a micro-state in Rome. It's a unique case. [The Order] is the smallest country in the world: it has its own stamps, its own money. There is only one full citizen, who is the head of state. And the rest are Knights of Malta - there are about 13,000 or 14,000 - although I am not one of them.

Why was it established here?

The reason the Order of Malta was established here is that ... it formed a fairly large program for the eradication of leprosy. The work we do here is useful because leprosy is not very glamorous and not many people are interested in it. We have a hospital and a rehabilitation centre, just north of the Japanese Bridge. In Kampong Cham there is also a leper village, which dates from the 1950s, but there is no medical reason to isolate lepers. Once they have received the proper medicine that has been put together by the World Health Organisation, after two days they are no longer contagious. That is why they should be treated as soon as possible. Many people - not just in Cambodia - still think that there is something dangerous about lepers.

Interview by Sebastian Strangio

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