Why Cambodia Anguish Endures
Thousands of refugees flee yet another fight in a Southeast Asian nation still torn by its recent past.
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Once again, Cambodian soldiers are fighting each other. Once again, Cambodian civilians are fleeing, by the thousands, toward sanctuary in Thailand. Once again, governments are voicing concern while relief groups worry about a new batch of refugees.
When it comes to turmoil in Cambodia, a nation that has been a battleground for much of the past five decades, stark questions present themselves: What is it about this place that has brought so much violence and pain? Will the killing end? Should anyone care?
An elderly man named Poth Am, a veteran of the country's many wars who now lives in a squalid Phnom Penh apartment building, doesn't take long to boil things down. Cambodians fought "to protect their country" until 1953, when their French colonizers went home. "But all the wars since then have just been fighting for power," he adds, sitting in a grimy white tunic and black pajamas. "For so many years now, it's just been fighting for power."
The struggle for power is commonplace, but Cambodia has seen an unparalleled confluence of players and forces: a monarchy, a colonial history, aggressive neighbors, and the powerful ideologies of the cold war.
Cambodia was once a powerful kingdom - the civilization that built the famous temples of
Angkor periodically dominated much of Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 14th centuries, until the Thais and the Vietnamese gained strength.
If the French hadn't taken control of Cambodia in the middle of the 18th century, historians argue, its two neighbors might well have cut the country in half. But the Cambodia of the 1950s - a peasant nation topped by a royal aristocracy - emerged from French colonial rule a weakened and unsteady state.
"Cambodia had vulnerabilities that other countries didn't have," says a Western historian who declined to be quoted by name. "It was a kind of harmonious place, where people got along.
"And suddenly it was beset by people who represented a whole range ... of thought and intellectual movements - a number of which attacked the parts of the society that kept it reconciled: monarchy, religion, family."
Caught in the middle
In the Indochina of the mid-20th century, the ideological burners were turned up high. Chinese and Soviet communists were looking for new places to export their revolution. Americans were beginning their attempts to contain communism. Just as they had been pinned between Thais and Vietnamese, Cambodia's 7 million or so people soon got caught in the middle of much larger forces.
The country was not so much a sideshow to the American war in Vietnam, the historian says, but a "crossroads" of ideologies and cold-war conflict. "It didn't have a very hard shell to withstand this bombardment."
The onslaught took many forms. Cambodia's longtime monarch and occasional head of government, Norodom Sihanouk, feigned neutrality in the Vietnam conflict, but gave sanctuary to North Vietnamese communist fighters and allowed China to ship arms through his country.
That policy brought an undeclared war from the US and the former South Vietnam that included large-scale bombing and smaller-scale invasions. Sihanouk was overthrown by a military leader in 1970, but US support could not help Gen. Lon Nol defeat two communist insurgencies.
When the Khmer Rouge or "red Cambodians" marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, they ensured that their power over their countrymen was absolute. Then they set about creating an agrarian, egalitarian, and collectively organized economy. They emptied the cities, banned money, and sealed borders.
Rule of the Khmer Rouge
Ostensibly intended to revive the glory of the Angkor era, Khmer Rouge rule instead evoked its brutality. Somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Cambodians died during this time, many of them executed in paranoid purges or killed for being part of the intellectual or upper classes.
The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, demanded the same obedience that Angkor rulers had claimed from their people.
He cultivated a close relationship with China that put Vietnam on edge, given centuries of difficult, often-violent relations between Vietnamese and Chinese. Pol Pot also attacked parts of Vietnam, eventually provoking a counterinvasion that began in late 1978. The Vietnamese then installed a less zealous but nonetheless authoritarian regime of Cambodian communists trained in Vietnam. Many Cambodians fled - most to camps on the Thai border - and began a protracted war against the regime in Phnom Penh.
Vietnam's departure from Cambodia in 1989 paved the way for a multiparty peace deal in 1991 and a UN-backed election in 1992. This process, supported by the countries of Southeast Asia and bigger nations whose ideologies and conflicts had afflicted Cambodia, was intended to solve what had long become known as the "Cambodian problem." Many Cambodians took it seriously, coming home from exile and refugee camps.
The election was a partial success. Cambodians voted in huge numbers, for the first time in their history, but the aftermath of the contest was marred by power politics. A royalist party led by Sihanouk's eldest son won the majority of seats in the new legislature, but the second-place former communist party, created by Vietnam and in power since 1979, insisted on sharing power.
The resulting coalition, headed by First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, was never a happy marriage. Last month's violent outburst and the continuing fighting in the northwest between troops loyal to the two leaders are expressions of Cambodians' lingering inability to stop fighting over power.
Kao Kim Hourn, a US-educated political scientist here, says that "Cambodia today is a by-product of modern history, a by-product of the cold war." He adds: "This historical baggage still has not been gathered up.... We have an entrenched, deep-rooted mutual suspicion."
Even so, Cambodia today is a calmer and more prosperous place than it has been at any time since the 1950s. The violence is not on the epic scale of the 1970s, although the bickering continues. Mr. Hun Sen, confident in his hold on power, promises a fair election next May. Prince Ranariddh, ousted and in exile, calls his former co-premier a despot.
It seems certain that the world will be a lot less interested in Cambodia's political evolution than it was earlier this decade. But several foreign residents here recall a jarring scene at the capital's airport in the days that followed the July 5-6 political violence. As foreign businesspeople, development workers, and diplomats boarded evacuation flights, Cambodian bystanders stared at the planes - with looks of anxiety and abandonment on their faces.
CAMBODIA'S RECENT HISTORY
1953: France ends colonial rule.
1955: King Norodom Sihanouk abdicates to become a political leader.
1970: Sihanouk is overthrown by Gen. Lon Nol. War in neighboring Vietnam results in US entering Cambodia to chase Vietnamese communist guerrillas.
1975: The Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist group, takes over Cambodia.
1979-80: Vietnam invades and installs government run by Khmer Rouge defectors, including Hun Sen. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flee to Thailand. Sihanouk's forces and Khmer Rouge launch guerrilla war.
1989: Vietnam ends its occupation.
1991: An international agreement calls for elections.
1992: A UN-run election results in victory for the party of Sihanouk's son, Prince Ranariddh. But the ruling party under Hun Sen, installed by Vietnam, threatens to split country. Power is shared between the two men as 'co-premiers.'
1993: Sihanouk becomes king again.
1997: In power struggle, Hun Sen ousts Ranariddh, whose forces are beaten back as thousands of refugees flee to Thailand.