Three (old) Letters From Cambodia

Posted on Feb 18, 2009 08:49:00 PM by Andrew Lam
[ filed under: conflict asia ]

These three pieces were written over 2 visits to Cambodia in the early 90's, way before the internet. I am posting them now in light of the current Khmer Rouge Trial going on in Phnom Penh. I was sent to Cambodia in 92 then 94 by Pacific News Service, then again in 1999. I even managed to interview some former Khmer Rouge fighters in Siem Reap the first time around.

In any case, these below are some vignettes of
my experience when I was a cub reporter a long, long time ago.


Andrew *

Three Letters From Cambodia

By Andrew Lam

Phnom Penh - The old woman wrapped in a faded sarong is screaming at a flame tree on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh this morning. Passers-by eye her warily. A young teenager in school uniform - blue pants and white shirt - pauses, taps on his own temple, then giggles. "Chkuot (crazy)," he says.

The old woman is not alone. The world's attention has moved on but Cambodia, after three decades of warfare, remains a country plagued with problems, chief among them mental stress and mental illness. Approximately one out of three people suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a recent survey found based on 700 in-depth interviews conducted by TPO (The Transcultural Psycho-Social Organization). In all, up to 40 percent of Cambodians have trauma-related mental illnesses and 15 percent are virtually incapacitated.

It's a country full of disturbing flashbacks and nightmares and murderous impulses. "It's alarming," says one foreign health worker. "If you count up all kinds of mental related symptoms, it's probably two out of three people."

But Kall Kann, director of the Dutch-supported TPO program, warns "people should take the survey with a grain of salt..There are not enough statistics to make accurate measurement of the problems here." Kall, 30, lost four members of his own family during the Khmer Rouge reign when more than 1.5 million Cambodians perished. Essentially everyone old enough to remember the war is related to, or knows, someone who was killed.

Kall says he is strong, busy, and optimistic. Above all, "I focus on one thing and I can forget about the rest. This is my survival skill." Yet Kall also warns of "a culture of mistrust and violence here that affects everyone. There is peace now but the problems and violence continues."

Kathleen Hayes, managing director of the small but influential English language Phnom Penh Post, says, "Cambodia is a country where most people have been personally traumatized and the rest are nurtured by those traumatized people." There are very few positive models, she adds. "The police brutality is legendary here."

Sophal Ear, a World Bank officer and Cambodian American who comes here frequently, observes, "The threshold for violence seems really low in Cambodia. I think it has something to do with the value of life in Cambodia. Beating someone to death isn't going to land you in jail. You can't count on the courts, so you get retribution immediately."

Violence, in fact, becomes part of the communication process, says Doctor Mustafa Elmasir, a consulting psychologist from Palestine. "Cambodians are not known to talk about their problems. They simply hold it in and then express it through violent acts."

Thus treatment is a Herculean task. How can an individual be treated for a disease that has, in effect, infected the whole society? Worse, in a country where surviving is the order of the day, where violence continues, where land mines have created more amputees per capita than anywhere else in the world, and where the poor-rich gap is so vast now that the poorest feel dehumanized, psychological treatment is the lowest priority.

Traditionally, people with mental problems have been chained to their beds or simply left by relatives to die in the forest. Some seek solace in Buddhism but Kall is skeptical. "Buddhism is interpreted as acceptance of karma here. People are told to accept their fate so they don't deal with their problems adequately."

Ultimately, individual treatment is not as effective as group treatment, says Dr. Mustafa, who hails from the Middle East. "Counseling in Cambodia has to be done within the context of family and village."

Kall cites the case of a woman whose father and husband were killed during the Khmer Rouge time but remade her life and the life of her children. Then her two sons stepped on landmines?one was killed, the other injured, and she went into withdrawal.

TPO's health workers approached her repeatedly until she finally told her story. "She cried for three hours and then she kept telling her stories until she got better," Kall recalls. But TPO went further?they asked neighbors to help the woman, and with their help she opened a baked goods shop. She is now a workshop volunteer with the TPO group in order to help others like herself.

She is an exception. Cambodians seem caught in a curious dilemma: the past holds such a grip on the present, but it is a past that has very little way of expressing itself, except through flashbacks and nightmares, and through violence.

The government, pressured by the various NGOs, now requires medical students to take courses in mental health. "Cambodia needs a lot of help," says Kall," unfortunately much funding is drying up as the outside world perceives needs elsewhere."

Without proper treatment, Kall says, sighing, the country will be in limbo a long time. "If people are sick and can't work, the economy is never going to grow."

Sophal Ear, on the other hand, says he is optimistic when he goes to Cambodia, depressed when he leaves: "Still these days, I tell you, if there's a will, there's a way for Cambodians. After the Killing Fields, I think we, as a people, decided that survival was up to each and every one of us. We've been to the bottom, and there's nowhere else to go now but up."

In Cambodian mythology, men and women once competed to build the tallest mountain and the women, apparently through shrewdness and cunning, won.

Today in Battambang, the Mountain of Women towers over her squat rival, the Mountain of Men. But the mythic victory now seems bittersweet. After 3 decades of war and four years of genocide by the Khmer Rouge, almost two out of three Cambodian adults are females.

"The women survived starvation and hardship under the Khmer Rouge much better than the men," observes Robert Piper of the United Nations Development Program. "But in peace time they are the ones who most need help."

Krun Narin, 45, lost her husband and three of her five children to the Khmer Rouge. Repatriated from Thailand by the United Nations, she lives with her two surviving children in a cardboard shack in Battambang.

"The UN gave me some money and some rice, but that didn't last long," she says.

UN administrators in charge of the repatriation program admit they should have paid more attention to the disproportionately high percentage of refugees who are single women. Away from the communal security of the refugee camps, many are falling through the cracks of a shredded social fabric.

"The result is even greater urban drift and homelessness, which will make rebuilding Cambodia that much more difficult," one official observes.

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, impoverished women from the countryside have set up house in ramshackle huts - forming what one Cambodian America calls "rings of desperation," around the capital. While 85 percent of Cambodia still lives in the countryside, the loss of men has ravaged the rural labor force, leaving widows and their families no choice but to seek a livelihood in the capital.

The stung Treng province, Dara Sann, whose husband died fighting for the Hun Sen government, recently slaughtered one of her three oxen and sold its meat at the market. "without my husband I cannot plow the field myself," she says, trying to hold back tears. "Soon I will have to sell my land and maybe move to the city."

The lack of men is a problem that extends far beyond economics. In Cambodia's pantheon of divinities, none embodies the Khmer soul so much as the goddess Apsara, whose divine role is to entertain heroes, kings and gods. It is Apsara's image that holds up the vast stone columns of Angkor Wat. It is Apsara, too, who graces the doors of temples of Phnom Penh's newly built villas.

Chuong Riem, who lost her right leg in a Khmer Rouge land mine explosion, confides that she has lost all hope. "My mother says ?a woman without a leg is not a woman,' and that even if I find a man to marry, my husband would leave me," she says. She sits on her wheel chair all day, looking out in the courtyard of the hospital. Soon, though, she will have to leave for an uncertain future.

In a majority female society it is, ironically, the men who hold the clear advantage as a precious commodity. Polygamy, once practiced only by the rich, has become increasingly the norm as more and more women, willingly or unwillingly or under pressure, share husbands or boyfriends. "I have four wives in four different villages," one taxi driver in Battambang boasts happily, "and they are all happy to see me when I visit."

But if the women now seem more desperate, they are anything but the passive sex. In sheer numbers they form the backbone of the country's labor force and of family life.

"Women work a lot harder than men in Cambodia, but with less pay and no gratitude," remarks Sarah Colm, an American who had worked as editor of the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia in some years.

She pondered the positive difference women might make in the election, now that they also form the majority of Cambodia's electorate. But many Cambodian women seem more concerned about marriage than about election and the vote.

Bonn Srey, 29, a beautiful, dark skinned woman who witnessed the death of all 13 members of her family at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, is convinced she is ugly. "My skin is so dark, nobody would marry me," she confided. She has been a maid to a family who took her in ten years ago. "I don't think much about my future."

What about the triumphant myth about the Mountain of Women?

It has started to rain. "I don't know about the story of the Mountain of Women," Srey responds as she stares out to the street where children are laughing and chasing one another in the muddy water. "I only know in Cambodia there is a Mountain of skulls."

PHNOM PENH?The first thing Pon, the motorcycle taxi driver, wants me to see is the Killing Fields. It's 9 miles outside of Phnom Penh, a museum of skulls and bones, and it's only $5 round trip on his motorbike, plus himself as tour guide. How can you beat that?

"Maybe after," the young man smiles optimistically, "we go shooting AK-47?"

"Shooting AK-47?" I ask, a bit appalled.

"Yes, 25 cent, one bullet." Pon volunteers. "You can buy rifle, too, for maybe $150 dollars, maybe less, maybe more."

Buy this. Buy that. The handsome driver in his mid 20s is selling his country's war wounds most cheerfully.

When I said no to shooting, no to Killing Fields (seen it), Pon, without missing a beat, offers, "I know girls. Very good. Very young. Beautiful. Maybe 16 year old. Only 15 dollars. She go your hotel. OK, OK?"

Pon is lying. The girls can be as young as 13 and come knocking at your hotel room, offering themselves for $5 or less.

"No girls," I tell him and Pon is a bit crestfallen. The look in his eyes seems to say, "What the hell are you doing in Cambodia then?" And, frankly, I'm beginning to wonder myself.

He isn't about to give up, though. With some desperation he offers, "OK, ganja, very cheap. I know where. One kilo, 20 dollars." That's a lot of marijuana at retail, enough to get you a decent used Honda Civic back in America.

Welcome to Phnom Penh, a kind of sex, drug, and gun Disneyland. It helps that the biggest gangster in the country is a one-eyed prime minister named Hun Sen whose army and the police run the joint.

Run afoul of any of his policemen?many recruited directly from the Khmer Rouge camps as recently as two years ago?and they will kill you without thinking twice.

This is how hit and run drivers are usually handled, and so are robbers and motorcycle thieves. Street justice is condoned by both the state and the people, a shared contract born from years of violence. One day, while walking, I came upon a scene where a bicycle thief had been murdered by a lynch mob. His body lied in a pool of blood. People walked by without paying it much attention. Nearby, two policemen sat on their jeep and smoked cigarette and chatted.

So much time is saved this way. No court trial. No arrest. Crime solved.

"It's a culture of mistrust and impunity," Kall Kann, the director of a mental health organization complains. "People don't participate in public life. They close their doors and shut their eyes."

Marijuana is supposed to be illegal. So is pederasty, not that it would mean anything to the beer-bellied German who walked past this morning with his 14-year-old Vietnamese girlfriend holding onto his hand as they enjoyed the serene view of the Mekong river.

In fact, there's a Happy Pizza restaurant. The pies come in "happy" and "extra happy" and I'll let you imagine what green stuff is sprinkled on the slices. People are known to get so happy from eating the potent pizza that they crawl away, laughing and crying. In Phnom Penh, everything is priced in dollars and if you have enough dollars everything is possible. You can hire bodyguards complete with AK-47s and grenade launchers for about $3,000 a month?as many Chinese businessmen have. I see them escorted here and there carrying black briefcases, taking advantage of the lax import-export laws to sell Chinese products as Cambodians.

It's like Casablanca here in World War II, where wheeling and dealing is the name of the game, but Phnom Penh is not glamorous, just sad. It hurls contradictory images?monks praying and policeman executing, young prostitutes grabbing customers' crotches and studious students in school uniforms walking nonchalantly by, incense and ganja smoke, festivals and coups, human rights activists and corrupt generals.

"I've been here for two years and I can't seem to leave," said Steven, an English teacher. "I go by the brothel in the morning for a quickie. Then I go by after class for another. At night I go see my girlfriend." He makes $6 an hour, around $700 a month, enough to get high and have sex all day long, that is, between classes. "Where else can you beat that?"

The newest brothel area, Sven Pa, eight miles from town, is a village made up entirely of prostitutes, most of them Vietnamese girls. This is a legacy of the 20,000 UN troops brought in during the 1992-93 period and the demand for prostitutes resulted in thousands of Vietnamese girls being trucked in from rural Vietnam.

"It's atrocious," says Robert Wood, a businessman who employs many Cambodian women in his silk business. "Those underage girls do not belong in brothels, they belong in school."

Indeed. But who will support them while they're in school? There's no easy answers. Foreign support is drying up. One teenage prostitute was quoted in a paper recently as saying "I'd rather sell myself than starve." And, considering that, Cambodia is no welfare system, it sounds practical enough a statement.

After a while I give in to Pon and he takes me to the shooting range. It's an expensive pastime here. It's 10 bucks to rent the gun for an hour, bullets are 25 cents a pop. But there are all sorts of foreigners here, playing soldier. One Jamaican man is talking on the phone to someone quite openly about some kind of illegal sales as his bodyguard prepares his gun for him. Another Frenchman is talking on his cell about something related to Khmer antiques. They all have rifles with them, ready to massacre the posts thirty yards away.

I shoot. I feel a rush of adrenaline. I shoot again. I imagine that I'm shooting at all that's despicable and vile and corrupt in the country?initially. The thing is I grow to like it. The weapon in my hand is a powerful thing. It pulverizes the post in matter of seconds. I lose myself in the process of shooting.

Then suddenly I see why those policemen and soldiers are addicted to this game. It's thrilling. You feel powerful seeing things blown up, torn to shreds by your own action.

Behind me, Pon applauds wildly. Afterward, at lunch, he begins to show another side of himself: He talks of his five-year-old son. One day, the boy asked him?after hearing news on the radio, that Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader responsible for 2 million deaths here, had died?"Papa, what is Pol Pot?" he asked. And Pon was stricken silent. "I don't know how to give answer," he says. "So I say don't worry about it. Pol Pot is dead."

Yet I wonder. One afternoon I visited a few villages just twenty miles outside of Phnom Penh, and the poverty was staggering. People have no electricity and life is mud and rice fields and wood and ramshackle huts and nothing else. The market consisted of three stalls and yams, it seems, was the major commodity. The city, on the other hand, seems to float on a new money and extravagance?a kind of opulence that makes rural people restless.

"The poor-rich gap is more vast now than ever before, especially between rural and urban," Kall Kann, the mental health worker says, sighing. Pol Pot isn't dead. It seems to me that conditions are ripe, even if the superpowers no longer want to play the game, to keep his spector around for a while longer.

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