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American Woman Helps Former Khmer Rouge

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1997


In her knit blouse, cotton print pants, and comfortable shoes, Linda McKinney looks all set for a trip to the mall. She's got a Jeep Cherokee in the driveway and a classically middle-America source of concern: A contractor is putting a new roof on her house.

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But this isn't suburbia, it's Cambodia. And Ms. McKinney isn't going shopping, she is headed out to visit former members of the Khmer Rouge, the Mao-inspired rebels who ruled this country in the 1970s and killed more than a million of their countrymen in the process. Since then they have led brutal lives in Cambodia's jungles, stealing rice from villagers, killing wild animals for food, and kidnapping Westerners for money.

Perhaps it's no surprise that someone who served in the Peace Corps and on the staff of California's famously liberal former governor, Jerry Brown, should find herself in the Cambodian countryside helping ex-guerrillas. But McKinney does seem to have found a niche where she can exercise talents for bringing people together and putting common sense into action.

"An angel come from heaven," pronounces Chuk Rin, the commander of the Khmer Rouge fighters and their families who have benefited from McKinney's efforts. (See story, Page 7.) Two years ago she even convinced American officials to donate US military rations to feed the Khmer Rouge defectors - a post-cold-war moment if ever there was one.

"I always have time for Linda McKinney," says Kenneth Quinn, the US ambassador to Cambodia. "She reached out to a part of society that others didn't reach out to," including land-mine victims and poor single mothers.

McKinney gets more than supportive words from US diplomats - over the past five years her programs have received roughly $1.25 million from the US Agency for International Development.

In an era when the idea of helping people in other countries is increasingly out of fashion, not to mention the growing congressional unpopularity of using US tax dollars to do so, McKinney's efforts seem to be an example of doing good and doing it well. She has succeeded the hard way, remaining personally involved in her projects and keeping her attempts to help Cambodians narrowly focused. Any effort at social change "has to start in the small places, and it has to go deep."

Linda McKinney is a straightforward woman, satisfied in her work without being overbearing, and modest without being piously so. She says she is "uniquely privileged" because she knows that what she does in Kampot has made a difference. "I never see it as some sort of ultimate sacrifice. I see it as exactly the opposite."

Well, maybe a little sacrifice is involved. She seems pretty happy that a steadier supply of electricity in Kampot has recently made it easier to keep fresh butter on hand for breakfast.

* * *

The problems that McKinney has addressed were born in the cold war, which took hold of Cambodia with murderous intensity. When nearly a century of French colonialism ended in 1954, communist groups began struggling for power, and the country was gradually drawn into America's conflict in Vietnam. Massive bombardments and minor invasions by US and South Vietnamese forces set the stage for Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Their terrible rule was brought to an end when Vietnam invaded at the end of 1978, establishing a more restrained but still authoritarian communist regime. The Khmer Rouge then fought the Vietnamese-backed government from the countryside.

Isolated, preoccupied by civil war, Cambodians could do little to solve their problems during the 1980s. But Vietnam's decision to withdraw its troops in 1989 opened the way to peace. Cambodians around the world - a diaspora driven out by seemingly ceaseless war - took notice.