Cambodia: still a 'sad, little, broken country'


EVERY ONCE in a while, amid the brain-numbing, forest-destroying spew of paper that crosses a reporter's desk, there's a report worth reading. One of these landed on my desk last week.

In a mere 23 pages, Oxfam America, the private, third-world development organization, has reminded us that Cambodia is still the sad, little, broken country that all the "great" powers turned it into in the 1970s.

The Oxfam report is worth reading because it pulls at us to look squarely at something we all know but would rather not confront: our share of the responsibility for having made this demoralized country a monument to how powerful nations can swallow small ones and then spit them out when their usefulness is over.

Simply put, the Cold War powers, for their own adversarial purposes and with little if any thought about the 7 million Cambodians, extended the Vietnam War in 1970 to the fairly exotic, sleepy and neutralist nation to the east.

For five years, the Cambodian government, as a stand-in for Washington, fought against the Vietnamese communists, backed by Moscow, and the resurgent Khmer Rouge, Cambodian guerrillas who were creations of Beijing.

Rice farming was replaced by American "carpet bombing" and Khmer Rouge terror sweeps. Peasants fled to the towns and cities. The capital, Phnom Penh, grew from 600,000 to 2 million. Malnutrition, like a slow death, began killing children and old people by the scores, as surely as a visit by the plague.

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh victorious -- and coldly brutal. They emptied the city, indeed all the towns and cities in the country, driving the population into the countryside on foot.

They said it was a march into a glorious, agrarian revolution. I was one of the foreign witnesses to this "glory." The roadsides leading out of Phnom Penh were littered with the bodies of those who didn't survive the march.

Over the next four years, Cambodia became a vast forced-labor camp, a gulag of starvation, torture and slaughter. The Khmer Rouge executed virtually all of the country's educated people -- doctors, teachers, engineers, monks -- as the Maoist-inspired movement set out to indoctrinate all those whose minds were less fully formed. The exact death toll will never be known, but at least a million, maybe two, died. Madness had descended.

Relief did finally come, but it arrived in the form of occupation, not true deliverance. The Vietnamese, having fallen out with the Khmer Rouge years before and now fed up with draining Khmer Rouge assaults on their border, sent in their large army at the end of 1978 and drove the maniacal guerrillas back into Cambodia's western jungles.

Hanoi did set up a new Cambodian government in Phnom Penh, but it was the Vietnamese and their soldiers who essentially ruled the ruined country for the next 10 years, long after their welcome had worn out. They left, under international pressure, in 1989.

Meanwhile, as the Oxfam report usefully recalls, the Khmer Rouge had continued to sow disruption and fear from their jungle bases, assisted by indirect aid from Hanoi-hostile Western nations, including the United States.

The same Western nations also quietly saw to it that Cambodia's seat in the United Nations remained occupied by the Khmer Rouge, while at the same time expressing outrage at the atrocities. The end of Vietnamese rule was followed by a U.N. peace-keeping force and a $2-billion effort to stir a recovery process. This project culminated in relatively free elections and a new, multiparty government.

Yet so shattered is the country and so robbed of an educated leadership class that the recovery has not gotten very far. Twenty years of trauma has sapped the people. Old pre-war habits have crept back, like rampant government corruption. The Khmer Rouge, although not strong enough to try to seize power again, still practice torture and sow fear in the countryside.

Nowadays the glorious revolutionaries, who hold about 10 percent of the country, are kept in business by Thai merchants and generals along Cambodia's western border with Thailand. These profiteers, who claim to know nothing of Khmer Rouge misdeeds, fill the Khmer Rouge treasury in return for the valuable gems and timber found in the areas the guerrillas control.

Thailand has been an ally of the United States for a long time, and a recipient of considerable American aid. It was from Thai bases that a good portion of the American bombing missions in Vietnam and Cambodia were carried out. And it was from Thailand that much of the Western aid went to the Khmer Rouge DTC after the latter were driven into the jungle. This materiel reached them indirectly, by first going to weaker, noncommunist factions who had joined the dominant Khmer Rouge in an anti-Vietnam coalition.

These days, as the Oxfam report calmly lays out, although the government of Thailand repeatedly denies it has any role in the illegal border trade that keeps the Khmer Rouge viable, the trade is brazen and documented and still Bangkok refuses to allow international monitoring of the border areas.

There's a U.S. statute, the Foreign Operations Bill, that says "the president shall terminate assistance to any country or organization he determines is cooperating, tactically or strategically, with the Khmer Rouge in their military operations."

Oxfam has asked Washington to put pressure on Thailand. It doesn't seem an unreasonable request.

Sidney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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