Out of the Heart of Darkness

Cambodia's brutal past has given way to hope, but the symbols and victims of war still remain

CAMBODIA, like other places that have witnessed terrible things, seems to demand solemnity.

This country, the heartland of Southeast Asia, is where the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot spent almost four years trying to create a paradise of equals through murder and repression. In this century alone, the country has had to withstand a parade of interlopers - France, United States, China, and Vietnam - who successively used Cambodia for their own ends.

But Cambodia was also the scene of a remarkable multinational effort, brokered by the US, China, France, and other nations, that has left the Cambodians in charge of their country. Whatever the faults and failures of the operation to bring democracy to Cambodia, the election sponsored by the United Nations in May 1993 was an accomplishment of magnitude.

William Shawcross, a chronicler of some of Cambodia's grimmest days during the Vietnam War and after, wrote recently that he had ``rarely seen anything so moving as the joy with which ordinary Cambodians defied violence and intimidation and grabbed the opportunity the world gave them to express their wishes.''

Some of this exuberance lingers, but Cambodia still feels an uneasy balance between its brutal past and a calmer future. The government remains at war with the Khmer Rouge, again waging guerrilla warfare. The economic agenda is daunting. There are signs that the government, or at least the military, may once again be resorting to the violent intimidation of its critics.

The precariousness of the Cambodian transition is seen easily in Phnom Penh, a capital city of jarring contrasts.

In the main market, the clothing merchants do a good business selling T-shirts emblazoned with a sign warning, in Khmer and English, of the danger of land mines. Underneath a skull-and-crossbones symbol are the words ``Cambodia 94,'' as though the country were the host of a World Cup soccer match instead of an estimated 7 million explosive devices hidden in the soil.

Nearby is a man on crutches asking for money. He is missing a foot, in all likelihood because of a land mine. Some 35,000 Cambodians have been similarly injured in recent years. De-miners report that both the military and the Khmer Rouge continue to lay mines in the ongoing conflict. Suddenly the T-shirts seem bizarre and tasteless. But they are an accurate souvenir. Many Cambodians are very busy replacing the chaos of the past with a consumerist present. Some government officials have adopted this culture of money, and tales of corruption abound.

``The name of the game in Cambodia since the election,'' says one aid worker, ``unfortunately has been money.''

The city has its share of restaurants and bars catering to expatriates, tourists, and the Cambodian elite, although some have closed since the boom days of the UN operation. One of the strangest establishments is called ``Heart of Darkness,'' a black-painted zone of Western-style trendiness that one could more easily find in lower Manhattan. The name evokes Joseph Conrad's novel of the same title, of course, and ``Apocalypse Now,'' a movie inspired by the book that director Francis Ford Coppola set during the Vietnam War. The instability caused by that war created the conditions that allowed the Khmer Rouge to take power in 1975.

At some level, the T-shirt makers and the owners of ``Heart of Darkness'' are exploiting some of the more painful parts of Cambodia's recent past to market their products. Some might find the strategy unpalatable.

But it seems more likely that the country is simply moving on, and that the time for solemnity is fading in Cambodia.

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