Do you know how one can turn a little child; say 5 or 6 years old, into the most productive beggar? I did not know, but I was told by a mother who was pimping her own girls at night, while forcing them to beg during the day:
“Make sure that the kids are suffering from malnutrition, that their bellies are swollen, hair unnaturally light-colored, and tears rolling down their cheeks. And when the children begin bringing home loads of money, prevent them from recovering. Whenever in doubt, there is UNICEF in Phnom Penh, as well as many NGO’s: they will coach you on how to prevent your children from malnutrition; so do exactly the opposite and you will never be poor.”
There are thousands of them, child beggars, working the intersections and the sidewalks, in front of virtually all the tourist attractions. The Police do not care, or are too corrupt to intervene. The citizens don’t care, as they don’t seem to care in many other places, including India.
Visual horrors are quite common in Phnom Penh: there are people, mostly men, with all sorts of deformities, sometimes with missing faces, with missing jaws, with empty eye-sockets; almost all of them begging. Amputees stick out their stumps at the car windows in traffic jams; women expose their tumors.
But children, their plight is always hard to swallow. It is because they do not choose their destiny; they are brought to this hopeless existence, by their compassionless parents or other custodians.
Of course the intersections of Phnom Penh are far from the worst I have ever experienced here.
Let me side-track a bit, and tell you what the most terrible stuff I have faced in Cambodia is:
Some 15 years ago I participated in the process of shutting down that notorious neighborhood of brothels, called Kilometer Eleven, the name derives from the distance of the area to the center of the capital.
Kilometer Eleven, was much worse than hell; that is, if hell exists at all. It was the Southeast Asian center of sexual slavery, a place where rape was institutionalized. It was a town of filthy shacks, serving as sex parlors that mainly offered young children and minors, to ageing, pot-bellied European sexual tourists. And it was all in the open, not even trying to hide from the eyes of the corrupt police, government officials and the military.
At some point, the UN, some international NGO’s and us – investigative journalists and war reporters operating in the area –had enough. We pulled forces and began a smear campaign against the State, which was basically acting as a pimp, even jailer, instead of as the protector of the most vulnerable and defenseless.
One day I hooked up with a Khmer-born Reuters reporter, we grabbed a car and ‘infiltrated’ the place, with small cameras, recorders and notepads. We ‘hired’ two girls, one Khmer and one Vietnamese; we took them to a room, and as they were getting ready to undress, we told them that we did not come for sex: we were here to talk, to help.
The Khmer girl was too terrified to testify, she began shaking, begging us not to photograph her. We fully complied with her wishes. But the Vietnamese girl, who happened to be born in a tiny village near the border, obviously had nothing to lose anymore.
She was unsure about her own age. A Cambodian gang of traffickers had kidnapped her when she was very young. They raped her – they gang-raped her, holding her in the fields for two days – on the way to Phnom Penh, right after smuggling her through the border. Then, they locked her in one of the bamboo shacks, at Kilometer Eleven. A day later, the first customers arrived. “I was still bleeding after what they did to me”, she said. “But they said they would kill me if I didn’t have sex with that white man.”
She was probably 12 years old, maybe one or two years older or younger, I could not tell. And she was dying… Dying from AIDS. The marks were visible, and there were other syndromes clearly there, too. And she knew it – she was a smart girl.
“I want to go back to Vietnam”, she said to us. “I want to go home.”
That night, I had a hardened war reporter crying on my shoulder, in some bar on the river; weeping like a child. “Why?” he sobbed. “How can they? Are these people really human?”
But before that night arrived, we had to part with the girls. We packed our things; our equipment, and we told them that we would do our best to get them out of there. We were going to give them some cash, so they could pay the pimps. The Vietnamese girl refused to take money. She looked me straight in the eyes: “Take me home, please. I want to go back to Vietnam”.
It was clear that she was saying, without pronouncing it: “I want to die there, in my own country.”
“I cannot now, but I promise that you will be going home, soon.” I made my pledge. I bowed to her, as if she was a woman much older than me. I left. I never saw her again.
We got out, into the broad daylight. There was an entire platoon of bouncers guarding the place. No woman could escape; to make it anywhere near the road, the river. Some of the guards were armed. They had blank looks – totally cold eyes of hardened killers.
And all around, European men, in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s; drinking beer, flip-flops on their feet; some naked from the waist-up, hairy, boozing up, filling time in between cheap intercourse, defined in Phnom Penh, as ‘shags’.
At this point, my colleague could not control himself, anymore. He pulled out the camera and began photographing this entire scene: of bouncers, guards, and the muzzles of the European sex tourists. I was afraid he had gone mad. But I followed him almost immediately, as at this point, we had been discovered anyway, and nothing really mattered much more, except getting the story out.
We began working like maniacs. And then something incredible happened: those drunk, fat, old bastards began getting up: they ran towards us, with beer bottles as weapons. They could not run fast: they were too pissed and those flip-flops they were wearing slowed them down.
But the guards were much faster.
“Don’t go down to ground!” Screamed my friend. “Whatever happens, stay on your feet!”
We just about managed to get inside the car. They’d kill us if they could, I am sure. The driver was sweating and screaming, he burned the tires, backed up on a slimy dirt road, and managed to pick us up, on time. Then stuff began hitting the hood; ugly smacking sounds, breaking glass. But no shots were fired. And we were getting away.
We passed our images, data and interviews to the NGO’s. Stories got out. We were not the only ones working on this. Eventually Kilometer Eleven was stormed: and it was one big show, a charade: The police, army…The girls were given shelter, and most of them were sent back home.
But I swore I would never go back to Cambodia again. I did not want to spend one single dollar in that country, nor one single unnecessary hour.
Of course I returned. One always returns to Cambodia, if one is working in this part of the world; there is no way to avoid it.
The returns were never pleasant: I once came under incoming fire, from a platoon of deranged fishermen, on Tonle Sap Lake, as I was sitting, totally exposed, on the roof of a speedboat, wearing just my shorts, with a cigarillo hanging from my mouth.
Months later, I spent several thoroughly Kafkaesque hours chatting in the Royal Palace, with the wife of the Prime Minister, Hun Sen. Also known as ‘Lady Macbeth’, she poured her heart out to me that evening, with no restraint, and for no apparent reason, other that both of us ‘met’ at the entrance to the Palace, waiting for wife of Japan’s PM Keizo Obuchi.
And during one of those genuinely Cambodian nights, I fell off my bed, onto the hard tiled floor, as my entire hotel began shaking – that was when the tanks of the then Second Prime Minister, ‘Lady Macbeth’s husband, were getting merrily engaged in staging the coup of 1997.
Surely great memories – all of them! Who wouldn’t love Cambodia?
And I came back, again, this time after six years absence. As in Vietnam, I was filming here for my debate/movie with Noam Chomsky. We had mentioned Cambodia, and I needed some visuals to illustrate what we discussed.
The Phnom Penh that I remembered was one of the most miserable places in Asia: decaying French villas, surrounded by dirt and extreme poverty, once impressive facades were now sheltered by barbed and electric wires; beggars everywhere, and those wide French-era sidewalks dotted with dangerously deep pot-holes.
Since then, things have dramatically changed. Phnom Penh, as reported by The New York Times, was becoming a new ‘luxury destination’.
The city was getting really wild: French gourmet restaurants, hedonistic designer boutiques, posh hotels, galleries charging US$250 for masks made from paper, or US$70 for clay elephants, which would go for US$10 in neighboring and incomparably richer Thailand.
Ten years ago, there were so few cars that the joke was: nobody knew on which side of the road people were supposed to drive: on the left like in Thailand, or on the right like in Vietnam? Now the city was fully abandoned to the car lobbies, with no public transportation. The traffic jams became legendary, and pollution outrageous.
“The government is corrupt, and the oil company of Cambodia, belongs to the people who are simultaneously in the private and public sector. They make sure that nothing public gets built”, explained a driver while we were stuck in an unyielding two hour traffic jam, on the way to the airport.
That was very similar to what was happening in Indonesia and the other equally corrupt and failed States, glorified in the West as ‘democratic’. From my observation, to gain the ‘democratic’ sticker, the population of the country, simply had to allow its elites to plunder the place, mostly on behalf of the multi-national companies.
The Cambodian rating at Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ stands at 157(2012), from a survey of 174 nations, putting it below Angola and just a bit above war-torn DR Congo, which is synonymous with a total humanitarian catastrophe. And the reality is probably much worse, as this Berlin-based organization is often biased; its indexes are making Communist and progressive countries all over the world, look much worse than those that are violated by the ‘free market’.
The Human Development Index of Cambodia stands at 139 (2011), lower than that of Congo Brazzaville, Laos and the ‘disappearing’ island-nation of Kiribati. Cambodia is one of the most brilliant examples of a failed State.
This city – the capital of one of the poorest countries in Asia – is now clogged with Range Rovers and Lexus SUV’s. Just as during the pro-US corrupt dictatorship of Lon Nol, all the wealth and sleaze are concentrated in Phnom Penh; that old whore that goes with anyone who offers the best price, and therefore, by definition, it goes with the West. In the meantime, the countryside is starving; it is devastated by the lack of medical care, education, and staggering food prices.
Cambodia does not produce, it only consumes. Or more precisely, those who are running it, are consuming everything that is possible to grab, including the substantial foreign aid.
All this is, of course, happening in front of the eyes of ‘International Community’, represented by ‘experts’ and ‘advisors’, who are full of praises for this compliant, ‘gentle’ and ‘humble’ Cambodia.
Of course the international experts love this country endlessly! Unlike the heroic, hardworking and proud Vietnam, which after being devastated by several wars conducted against it by the world powers, is now once again standing on its feet.
The Foreign advisers could easily spend decades and centuries in Cambodia, getting their great salaries. They are making sure that nothing will improve here, under the present system, which they are helping to design and to implement.
“We don’t produce anything, almost”, explained Ms Sokheang Sun, the owner of a small restaurant near the Royal Museum. “We import food from Vietnam and other countries. Cambodia will soon collapse if it continues like that. I studied to be a lawyer, but to pass the Bar exam, I was told to pay US$20,000 in bribes, and so I decided to open my own business instead. I wasted several years, studying.”
While Cambodia is importing upmarket food for ‘luxury tourism’, its people in the countryside are crossing the border, illegally, into Vietnam, whenever they get sick or hungry.
I went several times to the remote borders; not to the main drags, where the police takes money from foreigners for so-called visas (a sort of legitimized entry fee of US$20), but to the places still dotted by the craters from US carpet bombings; to the humble villages full of traditions but also pain and desperation, to the countryside where the great majority of Cambodians still live, or more precisely survive, from subsistent farming.
“We are desperate”, the Mayor of a village, Prek Kres, once told me. We were right on the border with Vietnam. The guards on both sides were sleeping or drinking; one could cross back and forth on the dusty road made of red soil.
“But the international organizations are saying that you are doing well”, I pretended I was confused. “They say Cambodia is fine, and that you have… you know… a democracy… Many political parties and stuff like that.”
He spat on the ground, under his feet. “You can’t eat political parties”, he uttered, pensively. “When we get hungry, we cross. When we get sick, we cross…” He waved towards Vietnam.
“Tell me about the war?” I asked. “Did you bomb them from here? Did Cambodia shell Vietnam?”
“We bombed them all the time”, he confirmed. “Cambodia was trying to provoke Vietnam. You look like you know, so why do you ask?”
“I know, it, but they don’t know it…” I said. Then I also spat under my feet, in a show of bonding with the Mayor. “You know… them…” I pointed at the nearest crater still visible from the road.
“Oh, them… Well, then tell them.”
“Listen…” I decided to ask him the question, which would be definitely considered ‘indecent’ somewhere in New York or London or Sydney, even at the UN offices. “Were those Khmer Rouge folks really Communist?”
“They were degenerates, not Communists”, this came back from my interpreter. The Mayor said something much stronger, which seemed to be untranslatable. But he was not done, yet. He pointed towards the red flag with the yellow star, flying over the Vietnamese border post. “These people are Communist…” He did not spit this time. He just brought his right hand close to his temple, which could have been some sort of salute. But maybe I was just imagining it.
We stood at the border covered with craters, now little lakes. This is where the first skirmishes between Khmer Rouge and Vietnam began, and one of the points where the Vietnamese army invaded, most definitely saving further millions of Cambodian people from certain death. But the West preferred to see this action as an invasion and occupation; not as liberation. The U.S. condemned Vietnam, demanding at the UN an immediate withdrawal of its troops and a return of the legitimate government — meaning Khmer Rouge — to power.
And Cambodia sold out again: instead of facing its past with dignity and honesty, it traded the truth for cash and aid, and as part of yet another business deal, began marketing itself as a victim of Communism.
“They did not have any love songs, can you imagine? They only had their propaganda songs!”
I was at the so-called Killing Fields, and a young guide was giving the official genocide sermon, to a group of bored Malaysian tourists, and to a bunch of ageing Europeans, who had embarked on that ‘luxury’ oriental adventure sojourn, with a sip of ‘real drama’: the Killing Fields, the genocide, and Pol Pot…
“Can you, but can you really imagine; no love songs?” The guide rolled his eyes. The Malaysians looked thoroughly depressed. They tried to imagine, but they couldn’t. The Europeans wanted more; the lack of love songs did nothing for them: they were here for the real bloodbath stories.
“Excuse me”, I asked politely. “Could you please tell us about those 500,000 to 1 million Cambodian people who died during the US carpet bombing of the countryside? You know, when they used those heavy strategic bombers, B-52s; when they, like in Laos, used ‘all that flies, against all that moves?’”
The guide appeared stunned.
“I never heard about this”, he finally uttered.
The Malaysians were still in their ‘no-love-songs-under-Khmer-Rouge’ mode. The Europeans were shooting militant looks at me. I was ruining their vacation: You don’t pay 3,000 Euros to hear how the West, once again, butchered millions of people, and how most of what they were told on Western TV screens, was a bunch of lies.
“What about telling us something about how Mr. Kissinger… you know who he was, right? How Mr. Kissinger supported Mr. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and how he kept asking the Chinese to help support them, too…”
The guide hated me; from that moment he refused to talk. The European tourists hated me. The Malaysians were still neutral; I needed them on my side.
“The world without love would not be good”. They immediately took me for their own; warm smiles and stuff. Now I knew: Should the European tourist hordes decide to attack; I had my Asian contingent ready to defend me.
According to Yale University research, ‘the Cambodian Genocide program’, Mr. Kissinger had shown once again a very colorful way of bringing things into perspective. This is what he said while discussing the Khmer Rouge with Thailand’s Foreign Minister Chatichai on November 26, 1975:
Kissinger: "You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them."
And Former US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, kept winking creepily at the Chinese delegation in 1979:
“I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.” According to Brzezinski, the USA “winked, semi-publicly” at Chinese and Thai aid to the Khmer Rouge.
A few years ago, I spent some time with Mr. Van Nat, a painter who was ordered to paint portraits during the massacres at the notorious School S-21, which the Khmer Rouge had converted into a brutal torture factory (it is now, one of UNESCO-designated sites called “Memory of the World”). Mr. Van Nat was one of the few survivors of this sinister institution, as well as the author of a book called, "A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21" (White Lotus Press).
“It was terrible”, he explained, “But the Khmer Rouge did not kill one or two million people. There was simply no capability to do it. I estimate in total that they killed up to 200,000 men, women and children.”
That’s of course awful, but who killed the rest? All statistical data points out, that in the 1970’s, Cambodia lost approximately 2 million people.
A substantial number of people vanished as a result of U.S. carpet-bombing. The U.S. Air Force had been secretly bombing Cambodia, using B-52s since May 1969. Facing defeat in Vietnam in 1973, the savage carpet-bombing began, in order to support Lon Nol's regime, which was a de facto US puppet government. Historian David P. Chandler writes:
When the campaign was stopped … the B-52s had dropped over half of a million tons of bombs on a country with which the United States was not at war — more than twice the tonnage dropped on Japan during WWII.
The war in Cambodia was known as "the sideshow" by journalists covering the war in Vietnam and by American policy-makers in London…about 500,000 soldiers and civilians were killed over the 4-year period. It also caused about 2 million refugees to flee from the countryside to the capital.
The only goal the US had in the region during that period was to prevent Communist movements and true nationalist leaders, from maintaining or taking power in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, blessed with priceless natural resources.
By supporting the Khmer Rouge, the US demonstrated that there was nothing Communist about Pol Pot and his clique.
The self-proclaimed Maoist, radicalized in Parisian cafes during his exile in France, Pol Pot was no Ho Chi Minh or Mao. And he managed to grab power only thanks to US terror against Cambodian civilians: it was dreadfulness and misery brought about by the carpet-bombing that was supposed to prevent Cambodia from choosing the same (Communist) path as Vietnam, that opened the door for Khmer Rouge takeover.
Some 2 million peasants fled to the capital. Many were injured; all were starving and decimated. How many died as a result of US bombing is uncertain, but at least 500,000 and possibly as many as 1 million, or even more.
Those who arrived in Phnom Penh, as well as those who stayed in the countryside, hated Lon Nol’s regime, and they hated the urban elites for siding with those who were bombing their country to the ground.
The Countryside knew nothing about Communism. By then, all it knew was hate, which was borne out of terrible suffering. Were Pol Pot to tell the peasants to kill the urban elites and members of the middle class under the banner of the football club Colo-Colo in Santiago de Chile, or under some advertisement for diapers, they would not hesitate for one second. It was horrible revenge killing, not an ideological massacre.
The uncomfortable truth is that the genocide came from the air, not from the ground. And there is no memorial to the victims that were annihilated by the Empire. And shockingly, I know of no research done by Cambodians themselves on the subject. No funding, no research, it appears. And only the ludicrous “Communist Genocide” theory is generously rewarded.
After the carpet-bombing displaced millions, bombs and bombies that dotted the countryside, prevented millions of farmers from returning to their fields, another fact that is hardly mentioned: the fact that it was definitely not possible to feed the country under such conditions.
The entire nation was paralyzed, displaced or dead. Add mismanagement and the idiocy of the Khmer Rouge cadres and you get all the essential ingredients for the famine and the other horrors.
But what cynicism it takes on the part of the West to blame the Cambodian tragedy on Communism!
And again, what discipline and willingness to collaborate, on the part of Cambodia!
At the airport, the immigration officers were once again on a power trip. They got their new toys from the West: cameras and fingerprint readers.
I arrived one hour before departure, after sitting for two hours in a horrendous traffic jam. I felt sick from an overdose of carbon dioxide. Sick and exhausted: I wanted to go back to Vietnam, or home to Japan. Instead I am about to board Thai Airways to Bangkok with a connection to Kolkata.
Everybody is on the edge. Immigration officers look and behave as if they are stepping out from some film about a fascist junta. They show unrestrained spite for the passengers.
I try to be civil: I put the departure form where my visa is, as my passport is as thick as a Proust’s novel. The dude pulls the form out, then throws my passport back at me and demands I find the visa. That’s clear harassment, but I find the visa once again. He fingerprints me, photographs me; and then throws the passport at me. It flies and ends up on the floor. He and his cohorts begin to laugh.
And that is exactly when I have enough. I tell him, clearly and loudly, so it resonates, to get out and pick up the passport. Then I say what I think about him, in Bukowski’s language, not in the language of Byron, and also what I think about his fingerprinting machines, his cameras and his mother.
Suddenly everything changes. He leaves the booth, picks up the passport, apologizes and hands it back to me, as I did to him earlier, and as it is done in Asia: with two hands.
The message is clear: in Cambodia, those who have power, are murdering, torturing and humiliating only those who are weak and frightened.
By screaming at him, I demonstrate that I am not afraid, which in turn makes me extremely scary.
It works; it always works in the places like this. But it is one of those sick; very sick moments, and I already had too many of them in my life.
“Have a nice flight”, he tells me, in a servile voice.
I say nothing. I want to get out of here, fast.
Thai Airways is on time. As it rolls down the runway, I repeat as I have so many times before: “never again… I don’t ever want to come back to this country”.
But I know I will. I cannot resist Cambodian stories, as most Malaysians can’t resist love songs and horror movies.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.