- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Feb. 10 return to Cambodia of opposition leader Sam Rainsy after a year of exile is a ray of hope in that war-scarred, corruption-rife country. The Bush administration quickly welcomed the promising development.

Mr. Rainsy, former finance minister, made the mistake of taking on the Communist Prime Minister Hun Sen after the rigged election of 2003. He charged that Hun Sen who had a majority, but not a constitutionally required two-thirds vote to form a government, had paid a $25 million bribe to Prince Ranariddh, elder son of former King Sihunouk, to create a ruling coalition. Mr. Rainsy held a public rally in front of the National Assembly to level his charges and narrowly escaped death when several grenades went off in the crowd, killing 16.

When Mr. Rainsy accused the prime minister of complicity in the attentat, Hun Sen sued for defamation and Mr. Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison. He fled the country. Recently, the king pardoned Mr. Rainsy, who returned expressing words of reconciliation and healing. It is hoped he is in no danger and continues to fight the Hun Sen government.

Cambodia has not totally emerged from the genocide committed in the late 1970s by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. It is estimated 2 million of its best and brightest, nearly 25 percent of its people, perished in the killing fields near Phnom Penh, its capital city. The executioners themselves were not immune from the purge as Pol Pot eventually targeted many of them for torture and death.

Pol Pot died in 1998. None of the Khmer Rouge leaders has since been brought to trial before a domestic or international court. Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, received amnesty in 1996 in the name of “national reconciliation.” The U.N. continues to press Cambodia to try as soon as possible the principal alleged war criminals, including Mr. Sary, Noun Chea, Pol Pot’s “brother No. 2,” and Khmer Rouge kingpin Khieu Samphan but no date has been set, perhaps because China views the trials as a “waste of time.”

As another sadistic feature of their crime against humanity, the Khmer Rouge peppered the country with land mines and even included the area surrounding Angkor Wat, the national treasure. Everywhere one sees beggars with missing limbs and hideously scarred faces — land mine victims who were soldiers or even innocent farmers — receiving no government aid.

Since 1999, when Vietnamese forces withdrew from the country, the Cambodian people, largely rice farmers and fisherman, have been ill-served by their government. The tourist concession at Angkor Wat has been sold to a Japanese consortium, including several public officials, who mulct millions annually from the high admission fees charged visiting tourists.

Even the horrific killing fields of Choeung Ek, a short distance from the capital, command a hefty fee from sightseers, with the proceeds going to Japanese and other politically influential Cambodian interests.

Mr. Rainsy now has Herculean work cut out for him as he pledged on his arrival at Pochentong Airport to “do whatever it takes for the country to progress.”

Road infrastructure is poor. People everywhere talk of corruption in the government, but it is a way of life. Advertisements on billboards warn that child sex is a crime, but brothels flourish in the capital involving clearly underage females. In a country where the per capita income is $300 a year, 15-year-old virgins are sold for $600.

Cambodia has Asia’s highest national prevalence of HIV, with an incidence of 2.6 percent among adults 15 to 49. Ads for a popular brand of condom plastered on the back of rickshaws proclaim, “Pleasure you want; protection you trust.”

Public health is a serious problem. Poverty, malnutrition and poor health services have produced some of the worst health conditions in the world. It is a rare Cambodian who has not had malaria or tuberculosis. Ubiquitous mosquitoes also spread deadly dengue fever, which particularly affects children quarantined in roadside health centers.

The livelihood of fisherman is in serious jeopardy on the Tonle Sap, one of the world’s most productive fresh-water fisheries, where daily hauls per hectare are 30 times the North Atlantic’s.

China plans to dam the Mekong to the north for a hydroelectric project that will disturb the area’s unique ecosystem that provides natural flood and drought mitigation. The Hun Sen government does nothing to rally U.N. opposition to the project.

Cambodia needs to develop. A recent report by the U.S. Agency for International Development said it ranks 130 among 170 nations in life expectancy, educational attainment and real income. Its principal industries are rice farming, fishing and some mining of precious stones, minerals and, lately, tourism.

Were it not for the wonder of the 12th-century temples of Angkor Wat, which Cambodia eventually won back from Thailand as a result of the French annexation in 1907, there would be little to induce a tourist to visit.

If Cambodian history is any measure, there is little basis for optimism. But, there is potential for real progress if the government can be reformed, disease controlled and the nation’s wealth fairly shared with its tormented and exploited people. Meanwhile, national elections are two years away.

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He recently visited Cambodia.


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