Genocide to Latte
Business-in-asia.com note: In late 2002, Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino series of novels set in Southeast Asia and a frequent contributor to www.business-in-asia.com returned to Phnom Penh at the behest of his editors. His assignment was to visit and share his impressions of Cambodia today. We feel pleased to share his impressions because we feel he is a keen observer of Southeast Asia. We also believe that his piece below gives a current feel for the undoubted change that has occurred in Cambodia in the last decade but also for some of the contradictions that is Cambodia today. Enjoy!
Digesting mass murder has no clear time frame. In the case of Cambodia, between April, 1975 until August 1979 when the Vietnamese arrived, the Khmer Rouge managed to kill about one-third of the population. A bullet, a shovel or hoe were killing tools. Starvation and disease added significantly to the piles of bodies accumulated during Khmer Rouge rule. By any standards, there had been a lot of murder. Tensions between those who supported the Khmer Rouge and those at the receiving end of their wrath were still strongly felt when UNTAC forces were sent to Cambodia with the mission to bring democracy, free elections, and a fresh start where both sides could reconcile themselves with the past and each other. In March 1993 I was in Phnom Penh as a journalist covering the UN venture into Cambodia. Drawing upon this experience, I wrote Zero Hour in Phnom Penh - the only novel that has emerged from this period.
Almost ten years later, I returned to Cambodia to explore the changes that had intervened in a half a generation. “Time walks fast,” said the young Khmer woman DJ with a breezy California accent. She might have been in a shopping center in Los Angeles. But she had never been outside of Cambodia. And she was young; broadcasting in English to the generation of Cambodians born after the Khmer Rouge had been defeated. “Time walks fast,” she said again. “It seems like Monday but already it is Thursday. I like the fastness. But I don’t want to grow old. Do you want to grow old? Of course you don’t. Like me, you want to stay young forever. And I have been thinking about how much I like Santana. He wrote a song called Black Magic Woman. I wish I knew his nationality. I mean, he’s not American and he’s not black or Asian. I don’t know where he’s from. But I really think he’s cool.”
On the 7-dollar ride from the airport, the driver had tuned to an English language station in Phnom Penh. He understood English. The whole country was studying the English language. The bookshops stocked Madonna, an intimate Biography and John Grisham’s Summons. Study and How to do tapes for Chinese, French, and Japanese were displayed on the shelf. A little more than a generation before the Khmer Rouge had been killing anyone who spoke a foreign language or read foreign books. Now the streets were filled with students in their white shirts and black trousers carrying books and dreaming of riches.
The Monorome Hotel had been famous in 1993. Journalists on fat expense accounts stayed there, as they had done since the 1970s, preferably in one of the balcony rooms. It had been renamed the Holiday Villa, and had the look of an aging hooker with too much makeup. The old Royale had buckets in the main lobby catching water from the ceiling in 1993. A room could be had for $18 and the swimming pool was packed with weeds and mud. Today, the Singaporeans had transformed the hotel into a world class five star Raffles hotel with $300 rooms and offered a Champagne dinner for New Years at $70 per head.
At the old Russian market, in 1993 Khmer soldiers with amputated limbs hobbled after UNTAC soldiers who roamed the market which sold AK-47s for $75 and marijuana cigarettes in packs for 40 at $2. A decade later, the UNTAC soldiers had been replaced with tourists in their twenties looking through pirated DVD titles such as Die Another Day, 8 Mile, and Spiderman. The AK-47s and marijuana had vanished. The instruments of war and the drugs to fight pain and terror had given way to the new age of consumption. The images were not of the recent past but of the cartoon worlds churned out by moguls in Hollywood who couldn’t find Cambodia on a map.
That night was a full moon. The reflection shone over the Toulesap as I walked along the quay. I had witnessed a part of a procession, which between one and two million Khmers had participated in. On the forty-five kilometer journey, Khmers lined the street. In spots they were stood ten deep. They had come out wearing their finest clothes. I stood along the quay, a military vehicle with red light flashing and siren blaring slowly led a procession of a half dozen floats. Monks sat in rows on several of the floats. On one float was a large glass case and inside were Buddha relics - hair, teeth and bone - and the procession was taking the relics to a new stupa built in the old capital of Odong. The new temple had been built on a mountain in Ponhea Leu district in Kandal Province.The King and Prime Minister and princes and officials were at Odong waiting. What we witnessed had historic meaning. It had been over three decades since the relics had been moved. Thirty years was a lifetime in Cambodia.
Later in my room, I watched the procession on TV. The truck with the cameraman outside of Phnom Penh captured people stepping forward, handing lotus flowers, incense sticks and Cambodian flags to the monks. Some of the trucks overflowed with such offerings. Looking at the vastness of the crowd - one to two million - one couldn’t help think they nearly equaled the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. All people and all factions had, however, come together in a bond of faith and belief. Had they put their differences aside for this procession or was this evidence of healing taking place?
That same Thursday evening a one-star general killed a nineteen-year-old who had allegedly beaten up his son. The new threat to the social order were the children of the ruling class who had formed gangs and roamed Phnom Penh, claiming turf, fighting each other, and other wise raising hell as untouchables. In this case, the general had been arrested. A day later another general, a former aging Khmer Rouge commander, was sentenced in a Phnom Penh court to life imprisonment for ordering the murder of three young tourists in 1994. The Australian, British, and French Embassies applauded the sentence. Like the movement of the relics, a general’s arrest for murder and another general carted off to prison on a murder conviction appeared as once in a life time incidents. The local papers covered the UN Secretary-General’s call for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice. It was one thing to imprison one general who ordered the murder of foreign tourists, but what about his accountability for and participation in genocide, Cambodian killing Cambodian? No one raised the issue. There was only silence. Will true justice ever be brought to Cambodia? Will those responsible for the genocide be brought before such a tribunal? Or is it still the reality, that justice and truth are too threatening and divisive? A decade later after UNTAC, no one can answer these questions.
The Foreign Correspondent’s Club had just opened in the spring of 1993. As a journalist covering events on the ground, I found it a place to meet colleagues. A decade later, if there were any foreign correspondents in Phnom Penh, they had found a new watering hole. The FCC was overrun with tourists and NGOs with their toddlers and teenagers running around with the arrogance of a Khmer general’s son, racing among the tables with their pool cues and eating hamburgers. The FCC as a day-care-center, a tourist trap, a place to write postcards showed the distance between the days when UNTAC land cruisers roamed the streets, and the threat of war remained real, the possibility of genuine elections uncertain.
The new generation of tourists sat in internet cafes intermingled with restaurants where they had a communication connection with the outside world that we never dreamt of in 1993. While they were more connected in one way, in another they were more isolated, in their small booths, never giving them a chance to find that being cut off, being isolated brings advantages and insights into your location and also into oneself. Being connected gives a sense of certainty and safety. The tourists had never left home, family, friends, or colleagues. Physically they were in Phnom Penh but inside their minds they had gone nowhere. It is unlikely they would have heard of the Briton, Australian and Frenchman -all in their 20s - who in 1994 had been dragged off an upcountry train, held for two months, then killed.
In 1993, when Calvino arrived in Phnom Penh, he explored the back streets; he sought out the places where there might be a story - or a body. Sipping a latte at the Pink Elephant Restaurant with a half-dozen fellow travelers was not his way of understanding Cambodia. The old Lido was a place where the UNTAC soldiers rolled up in their white land cruisers, and with their $168 daily allowance, were a welcome sight for the mainly Vietnamese hookers who waived from the balcony. The Lido is no more. Recently, the government cracked down on prostitution in Phnom Penh in advance of hosting several regional conferences. But have the working girls disappeared from the scene or have they only faded away waiting until the guests leave? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh women in green frocks work under a hot mid-day sun sweeping the main streets. The vast complex of slums in the heart of town has been knocked down and replaced with a sprawling shopping center and office complex. Next door to his complex is a park named after the Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At the end of the day, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh is a unique crime novel as the private eye Vincent Calvino finds himself seeking to solve a private crime in the midst of a society that has suffer the trauma of mass murder. He comes to realize that any individual crime pales when compared to what happened to more than one million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. If Calvino were to return to Phnom Penh today, he would find many things unchanged - such as the fear of using justice and truth to resolve the past - and many things on the surface much changed - internet cafes, hordes of tourists, five-star hotels, and a new airport where the menu includes melted tuna au gratin, cheese cake, and latte. In Cambodia, the human conditions continues to stretch the void - from the horror of genocide to the vulgar ostentatious travelers who, in their own way, seek to have their cake and eat it, creating the illusions they have never really left home.
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