PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Around here, no one ever forgets the Americans. Just ask the owner of Kennedy Barbers Shop.
"When I was a student, I would always see John Kennedy's face," says Binh Phong. "When he was the American president, he fought for ... peace and human rights. He was so beautiful."
Today, inside Mr. Binh's shop, the late president's photos hang where most residents put pictures of Cambodia's king and queen.
The photo is a classic Kennedy image: His gaze is tilted, into the sky. Beyond. To the next challenge he knew we'd meet.
It's the kind of image that is still associated with Americans - deservedly or not. For Cambodia and other infant democracies, Americans remain stalwarts of "real democracy," even though they may often seem to promise more to some small and strategically insignificant nations than they can deliver.
Many Cambodians say America's stature has been enhanced lately by US calls for an international tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, the 1975-79 Communist regime responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. Prime Minister Hun Sen has sniped at the US and others for once supporting the Khmer Rouge now targeted for prosecution.
But former soldier Toek Sokhon, speaking for many Cambodians, says, "We love the US because they've said that they want a trial."
"Cambodia is just like any other country struggling for democracy and struggling for freedom," says Son Chhay, lawmaker with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. "We point to America for clear-cut participation."
But Son Chhay and others note that US involvement means a little bit more in Southeast Asia than in most other places, where American intervention is checkered and deep. Among the key moments are the Vietnam War and a carpet bombing of Cambodia. In the month before this country was overrun by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, US air power was dropping food, weapons, and other supplies to anti-Communist government troops and loyalist Cambodians. But later, the US backed an ousted Khmer Rouge regime over a Vietnamese-installed government during the 1980s.
In Phnom Penh, the 1973 carpet bombing is brought up by politicians for convenient America-bashing. But rarely do you hear angry words from the city's residents.
"When I slept at night my home would shake because of the B-52 bombers - I hated the US for their bombing," said Tive Sayareth, a director for the Women's Media Center of Cambodia. As a relief worker in the '70s, she saw some of the worst battles and bomb victims.
NOW, Ms. Sayareth's impression is more positive. "The US is the country that applies real democracy and wants other countries to have freedom and democracy," she says.
All this admiration brings high expectations. In Cambodia, people expect the US to deliver big - next week world donors in Tokyo will discuss how much money to give. The Cambodians interviewed for this story expected the US to fund land-mine clearance, aid to the rural poor, education reform, building a rule of law and better labor laws, increasing public salaries, decreasing the size of the military, boosting the civil-service sector, and weeding out government corruption. There was even a request to import American character.
"It's natural for people to look to the US," a Western observer here notes. After World War II, a major theme of US policy had been both the military readiness to confront the Soviet Union and the willingness to distribute aid to bolster its allies, he says.
"With the Americans helping us we are poor," says Som Poue, working her sugar cane drink cart on a city street and selling liters of gas from empty soda bottles. "But without the United States' help, the Cambodian people would be dead."
Today's truth is a bit different. Cambodia used to be part of the centerpiece in America's geopolitical scheme, winning a disproportionate amount of aid and attention since the Vietnam War. But Vietnam is no longer a threat, the Khmer Rouge are only a memory, and the current regime, while potentially menacing to its own people, is barely a ripple in the international ocean. Unlike nearby troubled Asian economies, Cambodia has an economy too weak to create ripple effects.
Cambodia takes a back seat to Iraq, Russia, and China, as well as Southeast Asia neighbors Malaysia and Singapore, in US foreign policy concerns. And, at the same time, the United States is rivaled by communist China and Vietnam in aid and influence here.
So Cambodia has Most Favored Nation trade status, despite a shoddy labor record. And even though the new chamber of its parliament, the Senate, has not yet been appointed nor all its rules created, Cambodia is expected to get most of its $1.3 billion aid request.
But many here are frustrated when American politicians come in with big-time promises and don't deliver. Many cheered when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California won passage of a House resolution calling Prime Minister Hun Sen a war criminal. Cambodians listened intently when Mr. Rohrabacher challenged Hun Sen on the federally funded Voice of America and told Cambodians that America would be there for them. Rohrabacher even met with resistance troops loyal to Norodom Ranariddh, the co-prime minister ousted in a '97 coup, and called the soldiers democracy's real freedom fighters.
But, when political factions struck a deal last year, some soldiers didn't want to go back to the government, recalling Rohrabacher's democracy speech.
Many Cambodians, while noting their countrymen understand little about the power of a congressman and the role of the US State Department, still feel cheated.
"The intellectual community was very upset with Dana Rohrabacher," says Sorn Samnang, history department chairman at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. "[He] destabilized this country."
Al Santoli, Rohrabacher's foreign policy adviser, said the congressman was trying to build political and economic pressure on the regime to help build a rule of law. His strategy faltered after the political factions struck a deal, Mr. Santoli says. "I think a lot of people want to throw money at Cambodia, but a number of us care about Cambodians and are in this for the long haul."
Says opposition leader Son Chhay, "Rohrabacher always said things that gave us false expectations of American foreign policy. He acted as if he were a man of hope, but he never delivered on those hopes. There weren't enough people [in government] like him."