Cambodia Struggles To Overcome Legacy Of Its Brutal Past


Poth Am fought in five armies to achieve this: A large, high-ceilinged room on the third floor of a grimy, garbage-strewn apartment complex in Cambodia's capital. Eight members of his family live here together, the space partitioned by plywood and cardboard. Bamboo latticework takes the place of window glass ,and most of the light comes from the doorway to a narrow balcony. A Buddhist altar dominates an open area where Poth Am's wife unrolls a plastic mat for visitors, and Poth Am sits cross-legged on the tile floor.

"Since the election, nothing has improved," he says, referring to the UN-supervised elections of 1993 intended to inaugurate an era of peace and reconstruction in Cambodia. "Everything is so complicated, there are no laws, there is so much corruption. Nobody cares."

Poth Am admits he is a bitter man, but he is not alone. Cambodia's climb up from two decades of turmoil is proving to be a slow process riven with missteps and unmet expectations. Perhaps most distressing to a former soldier like Poth Am is that the rule of law remains an abstract concept in most of Cambodia.

"There are guns everywhere," he sighs. "If you don't believe me, just come around here at night. The government says we have laws, but no one respects them."

"What is called for is a thorough and massive and quick reform of the military and police forces," agrees Kao Kim Hourn, who views the problem from his more rarefied perch as the director of a government-backed think tank called the Cambodian Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

Mr. Kao knows these are just words. "We've been talking far too much. Our problem is implementation." Referring to men like Poth Am, he adds: "I think the people are losing confidence."

Road of turmoil ...

An apt metaphor for Cambodia's current situation is National Route 5, a highway linking Phnom Penh, the capital, with the country's second-largest city, Battambang, and continuing west to the city of Sisophon, near the Thai border.

At various times since the UN election, the road has been declared safe, but in recent months Khmer Rouge guerrillas have attacked villages near the highway and blown up a couple of small bridges. Banditry is a more pervasive problem, with soldiers routinely stopping vehicles in order to collect an unofficial toll of about a quarter or less.

The men assigned to guard Route 5's many bridges are poorly paid, and standing in front of an oncoming car holding an M-16 probably seems as good a way as any to augment one's income. Men of more obscure origins occasionally stop cars and rob travelers of more valuable possessions.

The condition of the highway itself varies from a fairly smooth two-lane blacktop to a rutted dirt road that still shows the signs of Cambodia's decades of civil strife. The poor condition of the roadway serves the criminals, since it is much easier to stop a vehicle traveling at 15 miles per hour than one doing 50.

The condition of Route 5 is "an indication of Cambodia still being a very weak state," says one diplomat in Phnom Penh.

... and of progress

At the same time, the activity along the side of the road suggests more hopeful things about the country's future. Route 5 is lined with houses on stilts, in the Cambodian fashion, some presiding over prosperous-looking rice fields. Others have been turned into roadside shops, and the variety of goods being carried on the backs of bicycles, motorbikes, and pickups show a healthy level of commerce.

But Poth Am is not in the mood to consider what the country has achieved in recent years. A wiry man with thinning black hair that flops over a squarish, lined face, he recounts the armies he has served as a paratrooper and medic. His last rank was lieutenant colonel.

After World War II, while in his late teens, he joined the Khmer resistance fighting against the French colonial administration. He served King Norodom Sihanouk after Cambodia received its independence in 1953. When the monarch was deposed in a right-wing coup in 1970, Poth Am joined the forces of the US-backed dictator, Gen. Lon Nol, and fought the communists trying to take over.

When the Khmer Rouge brutally took control in 1975, he hid his background as a soldier. The Maoist revolutionaries did not believe his stories of having been a farmer or a rickshaw driver and put him in prison for two years. Four of his 10 children died during Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s.

After the Vietnamese evicted the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh and installed another communist government, Poth Am and his family moved to the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border.

For most of the 1980s and the early '90s he served in two rebel armies based along the border.

Given the crime and the scarcity of jobs, he says he sees little sign that life will improve, even for his children.

What he has left is Buddhism, he says, pointing to an electrified, colorful image of the Buddha that cost him $28 - about what one of his daughters, a waitress, earns in a month.

If he is reincarnated, he says, he does not want to return as a Cambodian - better to be an American or a Frenchman.

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