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Comment: One-eyed memory - Cambodia in the '80s

Comment: One-eyed memory - Cambodia in the '80s

Life in Cambodia during the 'communist' regimes of the 1980s has long been a subject of debate. Philippe Hunt offers

his memories.

IN the past, three articles have been published in the Phnom Penh Post, recalling the 1980s in Cambodia, each responding

to the previous one, in a perfect dialogue of the deaf. You might think, on reading such diverging accounts of

the same reality, that one or other of these authors is lying, or deluding him/herself. And yet all of them are

Cambodian specialists, or "experts"... In fact, I think Boua Chanthou, Soisick Crochet (a friend, and

an acquitance of mine) and Michael Vickery were all, on the whole, saying the truth. Or rather, half of it.

I certainly can't claim to be a Cambodia expert, and my only claim to having anything at all to say about these

matters is that I arrived in Phnom Penh in January 1988, to witness the last 14 months of the People's Republic

of Kampuchea (PRK), and the first 14 months of the State of Cambodia (SOC). During that period, and since, I have

had numerous conversations with a large number of Cambodian friends, in Cambodia and elsewhere, and also with two

or three "experts". However, I wish to speak essentially about what I saw and experienced personally:

I shall therefore be taking a somewhat narrow, but also less ideologically coloured, view of things.

I can readily understand those Cambodians and NGO or UN workers who occassionally lament the loss of the relative

simplicity, of the relative taintlessness, of the measure of solidarity which characterized Cambodia before the

collapse of Soviet and Vietnamese aid, and before the correlative conjuring up of countless new NGOs and other

agencies, not all of them with the most avowable motivations (I am thinking in particular of prose-lytisers), or

even Cambodia before the massively 'successful' UN operation 'to end all UN operations'.

But I also understand those among my Cambodian friends who are delighted with the greater (though ever so precarious)

freedom they enjoy, and also, in some cases, with their greater prosperity. Nor am I complaining at the availability

in Phnom Penh today of foie gras, Pont l'Evêque, Santenay and other delicacies... though the Hungarian liqueurs,

Cuban rum, Czech beers and Soviet crab meat of yesteryear were not so bad (and they were so cheap!).

When I arrived in Phnom Penh on 21 January, 1988, having had to wait six months for a visa (because of stupidity

on one side and rigidity on the other), I found myself constrained, like all Westerners, to live in a charmingly

decadent hotel, Hotel Samaki ("Solidarity", a key word in the phraseology of the time) where we had to

pay an extravagantly expensive rent (whereever did those hundreds of thousands of dollars go?...not to repairs

or staff salaries). All distinguished Westeners, 60-odd people, including a Pole, and a couple of Cubans and East

Germans, who were suspiciously working for humanitarian agencies, had to live, work, and also to a large extent

socialise in two hotels (Samaki and Monorom), soon to be joined by a third, the Hotel Blanc. This promiscuity was

not without its drawbacks, contributing to a gaol mentality... and even in those heady days, not all Westerners

were of the highest calibre. But on the whole we did form a 'community' of people, almost all of whom shared to

some extent one objective: helping a ravaged country, to which our own countries, and most of the UN system, were

behaving abominably.

We knew that part of the plethoric staff in the hotel only had one task: to spy on us - especially, quite understandably,

on the dozen Americans among us... though many of them worked for the most unobjectionable of agencies, such as

AFSC. One of those Interior Ministry spooks was my regular badminton doubles partners: this amiable gentleman hardly

knew a word of French or English, and I've always wondered how he could do his job, except to rely entirely on

NGO and UN drivers, who had to write reports to their ministry, that of Strange Affairs, as it was then known.

In fact, several of these prying drivers were among our best friends, and their reports never seem to have damned


As I was not working for a 'humanitarian' agency, but was a "dependent spouse", to quote the endearingly

elegant UN lingo, my main problem apart from the climate and the unavailability of decent books (this has not changed

since...) was that we were not supposed to have personal relations with Cambodians. But then the Western 'community'

was a trifle limited (not only in numbers) and unfortunately we couldn't see much of the few Cubans, Indians, Hungarians,

East Germans or Poles (who were as sad as we were about this), much less of the more numerous Soviets and Vietnamese.

In spite of this I soon managed, using some simple tricks, to move beyond the narrow circle of hotel staff and

drivers, and to meet some cadre from various ministries. We would meet at a pagoda, at markets or in restaurants.

This only made life a little more exciting. But of course we could never go to their house or flat (except when

there was a wedding), and they found it even harder to come to our rooms, or even to the offices in the hotels.

To leave Phnom Penh, even if you were only going to Takhmau, Tonle Bati, Oudong or Kien Svay, you had to have an

authorization - which was partly justified by security considerations.

After several months, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs authorized me to have contacts with cadre in two departments

of the Ministry of Education. Clearly, there were many obstacles, and constraints, regulations which we never saw,

but on the other hand most of us were all too pusillanimous. Self-censorship is often more oppressive than straight-forward

censorship, and as soon as some foreigner started to drive a car, to go unauthorized to the Takhmau floating restaurant,

to buy a motorbike, a car, it became painfully obvious that most had been terrorised, not exactly by "paper

tigers", but by airy-fairy, rumor tigers. To give an example, I always went straight to the offices of my

friends in ministries, never bothering to go to the "relex" (relations extérieures) offices...

and yet none of my friends were arrested or transferred to Preah Vihear!

Difficult as realtions were officially supposed to be, they tended to be very easy in reality. People were extremely

fond of foreigners, especially of those who like them spoke French (English was spoken by only a handful of Cambodians),

and whenever this was possible, we were given a marvellous welcome. At weddings, we, not the newly-weds, seemed

to be the stars of the evening, and I will never forget the hospitality in Pursat... or the splitting headache

I had the morning after!

Towards the end of 1988, I even managed to organize a meal in the best restaurant of that time ("Number One"),

with a few foreigners, and cadre from the ministries of education and agriculture, and from Pursat's provincial

Women's Association. This bisque, this stuffed goose and this Christmas log were no mere party: something was changing.

Many people spoke quite openly, provided there was no other Cambodian nearby, apart from the rare, precious "amis

sincères", and in particular about a golden era, before 1970, which seemed largely mythical to us.

And also, of course, of that era when the entire country was transformed into a concentration camp, or another

paranoiac Doctor Strangelove's laboratory.

There was then no visible sign of that obscene wealth which now sullies some areas of Phnom Penh; the traffic was

as chaotic as now but far less dangerous, consisting as it did almost entirely of bicycles; mendicity was practically

unknown, and prostitution was only a cottage industry, not yet the main one in the country. Banditry was unknown:

though many blockheads abroad (including journalists) seemed convinced that Phnom Penh was a dangerous place, it

was actually even less dangerous than my home city (Brussels)... and as I had just spent some three years in perilous

New Haven, Connecticut, where there was an unofficial, but not unreasonable, 4pm curfew, this almost complete security

was a most welcome change.

In February 1989, a few weeks before a new Constitution was promulgated, some close Cambodian friends told us delightedly

that from then on we would be able to go to their house, and they to ours. I immediately started to take advantage

of this thaw, organising meals with Cambodian and expatriate friends, as well as NGO visitors to Cambodia. Improbable

guests included members of the Norodom family, and people from United Nations Border Relief Operation UNBRO, and

from Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde, which did not yet have an office here...

A few others expatriates were also doing this, but more colonial mores, foreigners only meeting other foreigners,

or even preferably those of their country, were already widespread.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education was asking me to give some lectures. The atmosphere was relaxed, people

were even more talkative. The few firecrackers with which the Khmer Rouge (or others...) marked major anniversaries

(such as 7 January) made little difference, and the infamous Interior Ministry circulars which occasionally resurfaced

had no real impact. Even the sad events of May 1990, when some people were gaoled for wanting to set up a new party,

were not going to prevent us from continuing to meet, and talk.

As for the fears which had followed the (U.S. and China-engineered) collapse of the first Paris Conference, the

Vietnamese troop withdrawal of September 1989, and the first advances by the Khmer Rouge (no one was terribly worried

about their allies), they had on the contrary created an even tighter bond between the majority among us who cared,

and our Khmer friends.

For the tenth anniversary, in 1989, a few houses had been repainted... especially (already!) on what is now Mohavithei

Norodom. With the new Constitution, which a.o. re-established the right to private property, the first signs appeared

that some people had very rapacious hands and capacious pockets. With the worsening military situation, more beggars

(handicapped soldiers and internally displaced people) started roaming the streets and approaches of Phnom Penh.

Banditry of the violent sort also emerged then, in Phnom Penh and on the road to Kompong Som... meanwhile, the

first Mercedes, BMW's, Peugeots and Volvos appeared as a symptom of... you know what.

After over three years of almost total absence from Phnom Penh, I came back, in early 1994. Newspapers (not books...)

were now numerous, tasty French delicacies could be bought in quasi-modern shops, which actually had fridges! There

were no cows, no buffaloes or pigs left on the streets, they had been decisively replaced by the vehicles of an

emerging middle-class, including those who had milked UNTAC and other complacent cows. There were any number of

NGO's, local or international, including quite a few eager to 'save' Khmer souls (they were often 'recycled' agencies

from the refugee camps: refugees so often need to be 'saved'). A dozen of them were trying to deal with human rights...

but then it seems that there are today 88 NGO's dealing with children and their rights... I must be imagining this!

Civil servants were as numerous, as badly paid as ever, but in addition to these long-established woes, they were

bewildered, indeed paralysed, by the bickering between, and occasionally within, the parties of the "coalition"

(or "sinalition"...), and even the most loyal beginning to worry about their increasing relative poverty.

They were continuously being invited to commune (often silently) in these new Western rituals, "workshops"

and "seminars" (such strange words, when you think of it). The 'Old Church Slavonic' of these ceremonies

was invariably some form of English, and French-speaking Cambodian cadre in their 50s are to this day being generously

taught that language, for their own good...

There were festering piles of rubbish everywhere, as consumerism was now rife. There were brothels all over the

place, many under the fancy name of "hotel", "night-club", "café", "Kara-OK".

Indeed, how else could so many hotels have survived? Many of my friends were wearing "Western" (i.e.

Thai) clothes, they looked wealthier, and they were no longer so thin. There was as little electricity as before,

and rather less water. And many people, terrorised, were afraid to leave their houses after dusk... at least until

one ring leader, a former minister of telecommunications, was briefly detained. In the wake of the glorious disappearance

of over 200 UNTAC vehicles an amazingly (or not so amazingly) well-organized (militarily organized?) banditry was

prospering. Equally prosperous was another sector of the economy: trafficking in human flesh, especially young,

especially female. Trees were disappearing faster than ever, mostly but not only westwards.

I was very happy to be able to read Phnom Penh Post, the Quotidien du Cambodge and other papers in French and English,

and I was glad that most of my friends were living in less straitened circumstances. But I was not convinced that

things were really improving. Banditry comes and goes... and comes again, and the other problems which were restored

or aggravated in 1989 or 1991-92 are still with us. Newspapers, human rights organizations, the rare MP's (or ex-MP's)

who speak their minds are not feeling too safe, and some things are still mentioned only sotto voce, or in one-to-one


Of course I could not end this with a "conclusion", but I would like to offer some slightly more general

remarks. The society I knew in 1988-89 was not very inegalitarian, there were limited structures of solidarity,

the expression of opinions was discouraged (though not entirely successfully), the country was in the throes of

a foundation myth (the Sangkum) of a somewhat mythical hope (peace, and later the miraculous UN), and of a fear

which occassionally seemed exaggerated (the return of the hated Khmer Rouge). The fear hasn't materialised (though

infiltration and purported dissidence may now change this), the myth is being kept (barely) alive, and the hope

has evaporated. UNTAC, which utterly failed in many of its missions, has however contributed to giving people a

renewed taste for freedom for basic rights, for the rule of law. The country is less isolated, information circulates

much better (including dis- and mis-information).

The worst defects of '88-89, poverty and dependency; the religion of hierarchy and the absence of a democratic

mentality (institutions are secondary); widespread ignorance of what is happening in other parts of the world;

suspicion, lack of solidarity, unawareness of there being a common good; embezzlement, graft and clientelism: all

these were not born in 1979, and they have not disappeared in the 1990s. Some of these features, none of which

are unique to Cambodia, or to the so-called "Third World", have got worse, some have lost a little of

their force.

It seems to me that today's Cambodia is as largely undemocratic as the Cambodia of the 80s was largely non-communist.

It may well be a pity in both cases - of course, I am not thinking of forms, institutions, grimacings and posturings,

but of actual values, ideals... if such words can still be used at all, without evoking hypocrisy or gullibility.

And of course foreigners, their agencies and their governments, have a good share of responsibility, through their

bumbling, and their pusillanimity...not to mention hidden agendas. Though of course the ultimate responsibility,

in any country, has to rest with its own people, with its own government.

As for the future, I must admit that I am no Ta Hora.


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