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The goodness of the Khmer spirit still present

The goodness of the Khmer spirit still present

F ormer UPI correspondent Ted Marks reflects on Phnom Penh of 20 years ago.

As a foreign correspondent in Cambodia from1972-75, I was intrigued by a recent visit to Phnom Penh. I happened to be in Bangkok on a business trip; and there was no way that I could be that close without arranging a quick stopover in one of my favorite Asian capitals.

I found the mood of Phnom Penh to be reassuring; it was, after all, the first time I had ever seen the capital at peace (however tenuous). In my day, the city was always on a war footing: soldiers and refugees jammed the streets; the threat of insurgent rocket attacks was constant; and, in my early days (pre-1973), there was the constant thump of bombs from American warplanes.

The Phnom Penh in the fall of 1994 is decidedly preferable to the Phnom Penh of the early 1970's .. not to mention the late 1970's. I am sure that hardships continue today, but at least the city isn't under an intense military siege. And while poverty is still rampant, it seems to me that there is some reason for optimism: that with a little luck, the people of Cambodia will begin to enjoy the fruits (and avoid the pitfalls) of modern economic development.

I was intrigued to note in your newspaper's issue of Sept 23 a short item about the prospect of the Royale Hotel being renovated. Your article noted that the Royale was the headquarters of the Western press during the 1970's, and that was certainly true. On my recent visit, I stopped by the hotel which was all but shuttered up. However a wedding was taking place in the eastern wing of the hotel, so I took the occasion to wander the halls of the main part of the hotel.

There were a lot of ghosts wandering those halls with me, and I thought in the interest of your readers I might recount some of the thoughts and observations which came to mind while I walked those dusty hotel corridors and toured the streets of Phnom Penh.

The first thing I noticed after walking up the front steps at the hotel was the front desk. My mind drifted back to the morning nearly 20 years ago when the Americans evacuated the city. The foreign press corps, of course, wasn't one bit surprised by that move - all of us knew the end was near and that one way or the other our posting to Phnom Penh was about to end, at least in its then current format.

Still 99 percent of the foreign press corps was immensely sad about that prospect, because to a person we had nothing but affection and respect for the Cambodian people. Most news organizations, including mine (UPI) had already evacuated their Cambodian national employees who wanted to leave. The final evacuation was just the end of a process which had started nearly two months earlier when the Khmer Rouge began their final push.

On that final morning (April 12, 1975), there was a crowd of reporters lined up at the front desk because we all wanted to clear up our bills. Even though our bags had been packed for days in anticipation of an evacuation and that the time to leave had finally come, none of us would consider leaving the hotel with an unpaid bill - and, in fact, many of us emptied our pockets of whatever cash we had with tips for the staff at the hotel.

(About a week before the evacuation, the foreign press corps had held a ritual farewell at a bizarre dinner held at La Taverne, a popular restaurant which was located directly across the street from the PTT. The food at La Taverne was always good but at this farewell dinner, the foreign press corps had drawn up its own, special menu, all the favorite dishes the press corps had grown to appreciate - hot, spicy Cambodian soup, followed by couscous and then the full panoply of La Taverne's pastry tray. One other thing: every dish in the carefully planned dinner was seasoned with local hashish. It was a poignant affair: sad, of course, because we all knew what was about to transpire. But the cooking and the seasoning turned the dinner into a bittersweet celebration of Cambodia. Phnom Penh could have fallen that night and the world would never have known about it because, if truth be known, a large part of the foreign press corps was stoned!)

In those years, most of the foreign correspondents in Phnom Penh were appalled at what was happening to Cambodia. We were all professionals and we tried to maintain our professional integrity by remaining above the politics in Cambodia at that time. But we were humans, too, and it seemed to most of us that Cambodia was always at the short end of the stick being wielded by the big powers in the region (the U.S. certainly, but also the Soviets, the Chinese and the Vietnamese).

Indeed, one of the difficulties was not to become too involved about the situation in Cambodia. Some correspondents, to be sure, did lose their impartiality, and others (Sydney Schanberg, Jon Swain) demonstrated greater devotion to the story than was, perhaps, prudent (in hindsight). But all of us, I think, believed that more than any other nation, Cambodia was a prime example of a little nation becoming a pawn in superpower politics.

No doubt the lessons of that tragic Cambodian war are still carried by the correspondents who were in Phnom Penh at the time - and who have gone on to become the pillars of the journalistic establishment around the world: Joe Lleyveld (editor, the New York Times), Dick Blystone and Peter Arnett (both of CNN), Ed Bradley (60 Minutes), Martin Woolacott (the Guardian), Jim Sterba (The Wall Street Journal), Jim Laurie (then a stringer, now an ABC-TV correspondent), Lew Simons (Knight-Ridder, Tokyo), Denis Gray (AP, Bangkok), Neil Davis (RIP). They all worked in those days out of Le Royale and I would bet that each and every one of them thinks back fondly on their days in Cambodia.

In writting this letter, I don't mean to overlook the very real hardships that the Cambodian people have encountered (and no doubt will continue to encounter). I visited the Toul Sleng museum, and was horrified by what I saw there. I looked closely at all those photographs, absolutely terrified that I would encounter one of my Cambodian friends. And I had a lot of good friends in the old Cambodian government - people who were in the government, not as a means to further their own interests, but to serve their people in the highest democratic tradition. They were gifted, dedicated people, and the fact that they lost their lives while trying to serve their country (no matter the type of government) is just plain tragic.

It is their spirit which attracted so many of the foreign correspondents in those days and, I am happy to report, that on my recent brief visit, I found indications that the goodness which is so central to Cambodia is still there.

Finally, I'd like to add that I enjoyed reading your newspaper. The articles in the issue I read were pertinent and informative. Most importantly, the newspaper appears to be diligently tracking down the truth, which is probably the most useful function you can provide to Cambodia.

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