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Cambodia Finally Comes to Terms With its Horrible Past
The Washington Diplomat / December 2006

By Larry Luxner

In the 1984 epic film "The Killing Fields," New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg inadvertenty gets separated from his Cambodian assistant and interpreter, Dith Pran, while covering the 1975 takeover of Cambodia by the murderous Khmer Rouge.

Throughout most of the movie, Pran witnesses unspeakable horrors as he struggles to stay alive in a barbaric "re-education" labor camp. The atrocities portrayed by director Roland Joffe are among the most horrific ever seen by moviegoers — yet according to Sereywath Ek, they don't even scratch the surface.

"The reality was much worse," says Ek, who since December 2004 has served as Cambodia's ambassador to the United States.

Ek said the Khmer Rouge — led by dictator Pol Pot — killed about 1.8 million of the country's eight million inhabitants in the space of only four years.

"It was pure genocide," said Ek, interviewed at the mansion on 16th Street that has served as Cambodia's embassy since 1955. "During the Holocaust, Nazis killed Jews, and in the [1915] genocide, Turks killed Armenians. But in this case, Cambodians killed Cambodians in the name of a new ideology. Pol Pot dreamed of building a new society. It's a very sad story, a story of four years of suffering."

More than a quarter-century after it took place, that genocide is once again making headlines as Cambodia gets ready to bring those responsible to justice.

The court will officially be known as — get ready for this — the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea.

Scheduled to commence in early 2007, the court will have jurisdiction over serious violations of Cambodian and international law committed between Apr. 17, 1975, and Jan. 6, 1979, the period during which the Khmer Rouge was in power.

"During that time, they isolated the country. They had some embassies in China, North Korea and Albania, but we were completely isolated," said Ek. "They killed all the engineers, doctors, professors and intellectuals — anybody who was educated — because they felt these people were a threat to them."

Ek himself was lucky. He left Cambodia in 1970, five years before the Khmer Rouge took power, to study in France, where he finished high school and went on to earn a master's degree in political science from the Institute of Political Studies. He also pursued Southeast Asian studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In addition to working as a journalist for the French daily Le Figaro, Ek was also director of the Bangkok office of Funcinpec, a royalist Cambodian political party begun by former King Norodom Sihanouk and now part of the current governing coalition. later serving as a member of the Cambodian Parliament, where he represented the Phnom Penh district. Ek's only other diplomatic experience is serving as Cambodia's ambassador to the Philippines.

Ek — who supervises a staff of six at the Cambodian Embassy — said that as bad as the Khmer Rouge was, popular support for the regime didn't spring up in a vacuum.

"In 1970, we joined the war against the communists, but that was a big mistake," he said. "The American bombing of Cambodia convinced many Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge. They dreamed of building a new society with no rich or poor people, but that meant the bourgeoisie had to be eliminated. There were some labor camps, but during the time people stayed in those camps, they were eliminated one by one."

Despite its Buddhist roots and the fact that 95% of Cambodians revere the Buddha, the Khmer Rouge targeted monks as well.

"Pol Pot said religion was like a worm in your stomach," Ek recalled. "They said the monks were useless people and killed them all."

The biggest war criminal of all was clearly Pol Pot, but he escaped justice by dying a natural death in 1998. By mid-2007, some 10 Khmer Rouge leaders will be facing trial, though only two are actually in detention at the moment.

One of them is Ta Mok, the former head of Cambodia's southwestern region known as "the Butcher." The other is Kang Kek leu, known as Duch, the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng interrogation center. Both have been charged with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Althought Pol Pot is gone, other leaders, including ''Brother Number Two'' Nuon Chea, former head of state Khieu Samphan, and former foreign minister leng Sary, are living free in Cambodia.

The war-crimes tribunal will be composed evenly of Cambodians and foreigners, and will sit in Phnom Penh. The three-year budget for the war-crimes trials is about $56.3 million. Of that, $43 million will from the UN and $13.3 million from Cambodia.

Ek says it's important for Cambodia to punish those who were guilty of genocide and human-rights atrocities — and then move on.

"We're still a very poor country, but I'd say things are moving fast. We had 21 years of war, but we're recovering, and I think we're moving in the right direction. We have a booming garment industry, and this year, we're expecting 1.6 million tourists."

Per-capita income is still only $400 a year — one of the lowest in Asia — and 40% of its 14 million people live below the poverty line. Yet things are definitely looking up.

Relations with the United States have warmed considerably since the dark days of the 1970s; the Cambodian Embassy here reopened in 1993 after having been shuttered since 1975. Nearly a year ago, Cambodia received a delegation of eight U.S. senators led by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon). Last June, the country was visited by the Navy's Adm. William J. Follon, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

Only a month later, Cambodia signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the United States that guarantees U.S. investments in the country.

"This is the beginning of a free-trade agreement with the United States," he said."Malaysia and Thailand already have FTAs with the U.S., so this is the first step. We've also been a member of the WTO since October 2003, and we hope to be a member of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) by next year. So we are integrating ourselves quickly."

Cambodia's economy grew by an astounding 13.1% last year, led by the country's $2.2 billion garment export industry. Of that total, $1.8 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, socks and underwear went to U.S. buyers such as Wal-Mart, Nike, Levis and Columbia Outdoors. The industry keeps 300,000 Cambodians, mostly women, gainfully employed.

The prospect of rich offshore oil deposits is also luring foreign investors to Cambodia. Experts estimate the waters off Cambodia contain 40 billion barrels of crude.

"By 2008, Cambodia will be able to export oil to the world market. We think this will completely change the nature of Cambodia," he said.

Cambodia's largest trading partners are the United States and China, while China is the top foreign investor in Cambodia. "They invest mainly in agriculture. In China there's no more land, so they come to Cambodia to plant crops," he said.

Ek also sees potential investment coming from the nearly 400,000 Cambodian nationals living in the United States, most of them in California. In fact, the government maintains consulates in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Another crucial sector of the Cambodian economy is tourism — and people are drawn by the country's unique Buddhist cultural heritage.

"We got our religion from India. In fact. Cambodia was Hindu up until the 12th century," he said. "In terms of religion, education and language, we are much closer to India. In that way, Cambodia is different from Vietnam, which got its culture from China."

The country's top tourist attraction is the ancient city of Angkor Wat, and its top market is South Korea, followed by Japan; an estimated 300,000 Americans visit the country annually as well.

"Cambodia is a new destination," he explained. "Many tourists have already visited Thailand and Malaysia, and now they want something new."

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