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No Holiday in Cambodia

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
July/August 2011
Washington Monthly


Reporting in Cambodia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I often ended my day at one of the many restaurants or bars in the capital city of Phnom Penh along the slow-moving, chocolaty Mekong River. There, aid workers and journalists gathered to drink Tiger beer over ice and snack on bowls of sliced chicken flavored with slivers of piquant ginger and tiny, powerful chilies. In the run-up to the local elections in 1999, Cambodian human rights groups and opposition parties had been reporting numerous instances of intimidation, from beatings of opposition campaigners to money being handed out to village chiefs to convince people to vote for the ruling party. This type of intimidation had become common in Cambodia during the 1990s: the crime pages of the local newspapers read like horror-movie scripts, with stories of villagers beating to death petty thieves whom they'd caught, or people handling disputes by taking an ax to the other person.

All of the aid workers, many of whom had lived in Cambodia since the beginning of the massive United Nations assistance program in the early 1990s, had heard about the intimidation; some had traveled to villages and seen the effects in person. Only two years earlier, in 1997, a group of Americans working for the International Republican Institute, a democracy-promoting NGO, had attended a rally of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, along with around 200 party supporters. In what seemed to be a well-planned attack, someone tossed four grenades into the crowd, killing at least sixteen people, maiming at least 100, and leaving limbs and other body parts scattered around on the street. The leader of the IRI mission in Cambodia was seriously wounded in the attack.

But whenever I brought up the problems with the elections, and the general chaos, intimidation, and thuggery that was coming to characterize all of Cambodian politics, my expat acquaintances responded as if I'd committed some terrible social solecism. Turning the conversation to the unpleasant, even brutal nature of Cambodian politics forced people to put down beers or stop talking about the latest affairs in Phnom Penh's incestuous expat community—and, more important, it deflated the promise of the UN aid effort, the largest in history. “Look at how far the Cambodians have come since the Khmer Rouge era,” one aid worker told me. “You have to admit it's impressive—even if there are problems with the election, they are having an election, one generation after a genocide.” Another aid worker, who had spent considerable time in villages where opposing the ruling party was once tantamount to a death sentence, said, “Sure, there are some problems. But they're still holding an election.”

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