The Remaining Right Side of the Buddha
Part 4: The Election Approaches
Friday - May 21, 1993
The next day was Friday - elections were set to begin in two days. Jack and I went over to the offices of the CCC - an NGO coordinating organization with a good library. There was a bulletin board there with announcements from which we learned of a press briefing occurring ten minutes later. We hopped on a moto-taxi to go check it out. There were four speakers representing NGO's and they described conditions in Cambodia in terms of health/nutrition, environmental concerns and land mines. The health/nutrition situation in the countryside - we heard from the speaker - was abysmal. Farmers and fields had been victimized by unscrupulous international pesticide companies. In some areas as much as 70% of the land was unusable for farming due to the presence of land mines. There was an estimated one active land mine per person in Cambodia. Despite the fact that UNTAC's mandate included
a mine-clearing operation, little or nothing had been accomplished in this regard - it was considered a "Cambodian problem". Most of the land mines were being discovered by Cambodians one limb at a time. Many amputees could be seen on the streets in and around Phnom Penh.
In the city of Poipet, land mines were being used to protect the market at night from theft - each evening they were buried in a perimeter around the market area and each morning they were dug up.
One of the speakers at the forum was from Church World Services. After the briefing I asked her about viewing the videos we'd missed the night before. She said no problem so we headed to their offices, this time with better directions. Both documentaries had been made recently and had limited airing on television - one had been broadcast in England and the other, produced in Australia, had been denied an airing on the national Australian network but was to be shown in 35 other countries. The first, by William Shawcross was entitled "The Killing Field Election" and the second, by John Pilger was "Return to Year Zero."
As seen in the films, the human rights organization Asia Watch had already declared that UNTAC had failed in its mission. They said that the elections would not be "free and fair" which was obvious to everyone in the country. The greatest injustice perpetuated by the UNTAC affair was the fact that UNTAC leadership refused to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the past. During UNTAC inaugural ceremonies, the Khmer Rouge representative, Khieu Samphan was given the respect of a valid leader. Ordinary Cambodians were excluded from these ceremonies so as not to witness this injustice. When Khieu Samphan first arrived in Cambodia after years in exile to participate in the peace process, he was attacked and beaten by an angry mob. Although some claimed that the attack was the work of a rival party, there is no doubt that this man was widely despised by the Cambodian people.
During their training in Cambodian culture and history, UNTAC workers were told that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for "over 100,000 deaths." It is a fact that at least a million died and some reports claim the number is three times that. Most UNTAC workers' knowledge of this episode in history came not from UN briefings, but from having seen the film "The Killing Fields."
Upon leaving the offices of Church World Services, Jack and I split up - he to the bank and I to the Lao Embassy to apply for a visa. We met an hour later returning to the CCC office to peruse their library materials. Later, hailing a moto-taxi, we determined to head back to the Capitol for a late lunch. As we rode I wondered out loud if our driver new where we were going. "He said he did," was Jack's reply. As we passed the logical turn for the Capitol I suggested to Jack that we see where this guy takes us and just go there. We headed farther and farther away from our original destination eventually spotting a restaurant that looked inviting. We thanked the driver for relieving us of yet another meal at the Capitol, paid our fare, and settled in for a feast of noodle soup.
After lunch, I visited the UNTAC Human Rights office to meet a friend of a friend from back home in the States. This guy was well versed in the ways of Cambodia and had a deep understanding of the historical context of these elections. He had been in Cambodia quite some time and strongly recommended that I get myself an air ticket for Bangkok just in case it became suddenly necessary to flee the country. I asked him if he thought this was a real possibility and his reply was that, with the Khmer Rouge, anything was possible.
Back at the Capitol there was much to read - many articles on Cambodia in that day's Bangkok Post and The Nation (also from Bangkok) and a cover-story in Time magazine. The press made it sound like things were really heating up. People were hoarding riel notes in case they had to flee the country with all their money and thus there was a shortage of large notes in circulation. Considering that the largest note was worth about twenty cents, US, the wealthy must have required some rather large bags. Flights were filling up and some government officials were making preparations to leave. I felt that the press was exaggerating the situation on the streets, however, saying things like "shopkeepers are boarding up their shops" and conveying a general sense of fear of which I saw little evidence.