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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

22

THE YEAR THAT DREW US BACKWARDS

The Khmer Rouge troops are once again advancing on Battambang. Hun Sen accuses FUNCINPEC of colluding with them. In February, 1997 is already shaping into a troubled year.

I visit Lum Aung in her office in the National Assembly near the Royal Palace. There is little I can do to support her. Seeing her whenever I come to Phnom Penh is no more than a gesture of friendship. Though navigating deep waters, she is still idealistic.

‘Remember Cabramatta?’ I say as I greet her in her office. I am remembering how we recently met when we were both in Australia. It may not have been as remarkable for her as it was for me. Lum Aung had asked me to go with her on the train from Milsons Point, where she was staying on the affluent North Shore, representing Cambodia at a conference. Sihanouk supporters had asked her to come to meet them at a club in Cabramatta, a suburb north-west of Sydney, home to a large Asian community.

On a Saturday night, after her work at the conference was finished, we reached Cabramatta Station close to midnight then we threaded our way to the club. The directions we were following led to a dark alleyway. I bustled my carefully groomed companion to the only well-lit doorway, hoping that we had reached the chosen place. We stepped through into the light and immediately, before she could open her mouth, Lum Aung was greeted with a standing ovation. She moved to a dais and began to speak. The club was crowded with many of the listeners standing. They absorbed every word she said.

Here in her office in Phnom Penh Lum Aung brushes talk of Cabramatta aside. She is worried about the growing tension between the FUNCINPEC and the CPP. From the time that the election result was patched together there has been strain between the two prime ministers: Prince Ranariddh and Mr Hun Sen. There is real danger that armed conflict will spread across the country once again.

Every year the Krom Akphiwat Phum team takes a week away from Battambang to reflect on what has happened and to plan for what is next. We are finishing breakfast in a small café at the back of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

It is Easter Sunday morning: clear, early, sunny. We are on the way to Sihanoukville. The noodle soup, rich with chicken and topped with fried garlic and chilli, is, we all agree, particularly delicious. These friends have known starvation and I enjoy watching them relishing good food. Our meals are inevitably silent. I respect this concentration on what they are eating. ‘We have a meal to eat, not to talk.’

This must be the fifth year we have taken time away for reflection and planning. I am thoughtful; Easter Sunday is, for me, the culmination of the Holy Week theme of Jesus’ death and resurrection, of light overcoming darkness. The twelve Cambodians are looking forward to arriving at the beach.

Ean calls for the bill. He frowns in concentration as he looks from the invoice on the table to the calculator in his hand. If this was happening in Australia I would be embarrassed. Here I grin and tease fondly. If Ean can ever find an inconsistency in the bill he is delighted. It won’t matter whether he finds we are undercharged or overcharged: he will point it out to the waiter in a manner so friendly that nobody needs to lose face.

Our next meal will be seafood by the sea.

There comes the sound of an explosion nearby. In an instant the morning shatters. I hold my breath. Three more explosions come, each following closely on the one before. Then movement begins again.

The waiter says that he thinks some garment workers are demonstrating in front of the palace or over near the National Assembly. Since trade unions began in the factories earlier in the year, there have been many demonstrations. The police are often heavy-handed in their reaction. I worry about such young women with so much to lose; everywhere that the poor stand for their rights there are brave or naive people with everything to lose.

Our route to the coast does not take us in the direction of the demonstration. We cram into the ute and set out. The very simple guest house where we stay has no TV. It is Monday before we are confronted with the images on CNN.

We see, against the backdrop of the Royal Palace, body parts littered across the road, the dying lying with the dead. There is an image of a very young girl. Her long hair is soaked with blood. Her face is frozen in shock and bewilderment. Her legs are missing. She is trying to stand up. Later she dies. We piece together the information we can find.

This was planned as a peaceful political demonstration led by the opposition leader Sam Rainsy. He has been supporting exploited young garment workers. The newspapers report that the small group of demonstrators carried placards: ‘Down with the Communist Judiciary’ and ‘Stop the Theft of State Assets’. They had gained official permission for their demonstration. Troops in full riot gear came from a nearby street and encircled them. Persons who are never named threw grenades into the demonstration. It is reported that at least sixteen are dead and one hundred and fifty injured.

After the first grenade was thrown, Sam Rainsy’s guard threw himself on top of his leader. He died; Rainsy was protected from the next barrage of grenades. Onlookers claimed that the men in uniform, identified as members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard, impeded those who tried to pursue the attackers, that some then blocked bystanders from rushing to the aid of the injured.

By the time we hear of this there is already international reaction. We talk of the contrast between this and the total lack of coverage of the massacre in the Mong district in Battambang Province. The heartbreak of the attack on the train to Battambang rated not a mention even in the local press; there were no eyewitnesses. During this horror bystanders recorded images that could be flashed across the world.

A US citizen is among the injured. He is medevaced out of the country. Family and friends of the Cambodians who died honour them where they fell. This is a new gesture. People bring flowers and set them on the blood-darkened soil. The authorities remove the flowers. People bring more. Again they are removed.

In the decades of dying there has not been the chance for any of the factions to publicly honour their dead. I recall Nee’s childhood memory. Someone who came to the family to whisper the story of his father’s death first whispered, ‘You must not cry. The family will be punished if you cry.’ I wonder whether the tears and flowers for the March ’97 dead may in some way serve to honour them all.

We sit, the Krom team and I, on a blue plastic tarpaulin in a quiet place close to the sea. We remember village people who have risked their lives for the sake of justice. We remember the Battambang train.

We remember the dead.

In mid-year the pressure peaks. The political tensions between the two parties of the reluctant coalition have become irreconcilable. There are even growing strains between CPP members and their leader Hun Sen. Some CPP politicians are sandbagging their Phnom Penh homes.

I am worried for Lum Aung. She is making plans for her mother’s safety but she intends to go nowhere. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘I have no husband or children depending on me. I can stand firm for what is right. No need for me to run.’ I nod, though I worry. ‘Same as you,’ she says.

On July 4th Prime Minister Ranariddh of FUNCINPEC flees to France. Lum Aung stays in Phnom Penh.

There are two days of fierce fighting in the capital. The CNN channel shows frightened civilians scampering and hiding from the crossfire. Troop carriers patrol the streets, major thoroughfares are blocked. Soldiers are using shoulder-held rocket launchers. Airlines halt flights to and from Cambodia. Thirty thousand Cambodians flee to Thailand. They include many FUNCINPEC members of parliament and their families. By the evening of July 6th FUNCINPEC soldiers, still officially part of the army of the nation, are routed with a huge loss of lives and many arrests.

In August the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Cambodia publishes a report: ‘Memorandum to the Royal Government of Cambodia: evidence of summary executions, torture and missing persons since 2–7 July 1997’. They document ‘41 and possibly up to 60 politically motivated extrajudicial executions’. Stories of torture are detailed.

Nobody knows where Lum Aung is; she has not left the country. She is moving from house to house: she knows that other members of the government have been found and executed.

The site of the grenade is once more the place to lay flowers for the dead, even though authorities routinely clear flowers away.

Within three years a stone stupa will be erected to mark this place. Two days after the stupa is completed it is found in a sewerage outlet at the edge of the lake. Supporters, those who remember the dead, retrieve it and set it back in place. The following month it is destroyed where it stands: ‘Pounded to rubble.’

It is rebuilt within two weeks. This time it is taken in the night and thrown into the Mekong from the new Japanese Friendship Bridge. It is re-erected the very next morning and ground to dust in the afternoon. Later that same afternoon supporters erect a new stupa placing ashes of the dead and a Buddha statue inside. A bulldozer is used to crush this one. People are injured in the surrounding chaos.

The US Ambassador requests the King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, to intervene. Finally the municipality grants permission for a new stupa. It is completed in August 2000.

An inscription reads:

To the heroic demonstrators who lost their lives on March 30th

1997

for the cause of justice and democracy.

The tragedy occurred 60 meters from this monument

on the sidewalk of the park across from the National Assembly.

Chet Duong Dara, medical doctor/journalist, 29

Hann Muny, bodyguard, 32

Yung Srey, female garment worker, 21

Yos Siem, female garment worker, 36

Sam Sarin, bicycle repairer, 50

Ros Sir, high school boy, 17

Yung Sok Nov, female garment worker, 20

Chea Nang, high school teacher (passer-by) 28

Nam Thy, motordop driver, 37

Chanty Pheakdey, high school girl, 13

Unknown others.

The Cambodia Daily in reporting this adds a postscript: ‘We remember your courage and will not forget you for “remembrance is the only paradise out of which we cannot be driven away” (Jean Paul Richter).’

Toul Sleng, a few kilometres across the city from this monument, is the prison where some sixteen thousand inmates were tortured. Most died under torture; some survived to be executed later. It is all recorded meticulously. At least six thousand images of children, women and men are preserved; many are photographed before and after torture. This evokes horror; there has been no resolution. It is the scene of a crime, not a memorial.

Village after village throughout the country has a killing field where the bones of the brave and the bones of the innocent lie covered with a thin layer of earth. In a cave of the mountain Phnom Sampeu in Battambang Province there is an open pit of bones, some with rotting clothing still clinging.

Most Cambodians of the generation who suffered shrink from these places.

When US military officials asked permission of the Cambodian Government to search for bones of a few American soldiers missing in action, Hun Sen aptly replied that they were welcome but would find that his country had too many bones.

The Krom team talk to me seriously as the country prepares for the second election to be held in July 1998. ‘Help our people to be brave enough to vote,’ they say. ‘Be an official election watcher. Do this for our country,’ they say.

I cannot comprehend the courage that is needed to persevere with democratic elections.

A young American doctor and I arrive at one of our allotted polling booths early.

It is 6 am; I am an ‘accredited observer’ with my identification pinned to my shirt and my checklist in my hands. My task is to observe and to ask questions if I need to, but not to challenge or to touch anything.

Election day in the first booth has a carnival atmosphere even at this early hour. There is music. Crowds of men and women waiting to vote watch through the lattice window as the small timber classroom is prepared for voting. The chairman of the five-person Polling Station Committee upends a tin ballot box stamped ‘Donation from Japan’. The observers in the booth and the watchers through the window are shown that it is empty. Then it is locked, sealed and made ready.

The booth opens to the waiting queue at 7 am. Most of the men who sit behind the tables to administer the ballot are schoolteachers. They maintain order in a way that seems to me obsessive: there is one correct way to fold the ballot paper, one correct way to place it in the box, one correct way to dip one’s finger into the indelible ink to prevent re-voting. None of the voters seem daunted.

Women with babes in arms and children clinging to their sarongs approach the cardboard shelter of the polling booth with reverence. A young man with an infected leg heavily bandaged hops unaided across the room on his muscular healthy leg. A blind man is guided by the chairman.

The ballot paper has thirty-nine party logos, each with a party name below it. Many of the voters are illiterate; the task is to make a mark, any mark, close to the logo of the party of choice.

My colleague and I ask questions and record answers without knowing whether what we are told is naive or sinister.

‘I am recording the voters in pencil instead of pen because pencil is easier to rub out.’

‘I am guiding the voters’ hands while they put their ballot in the box because many do not understand that the fold of the paper must face towards them.’

‘I am tearing off plenty of ballot papers from my stub and stamping and folding them in advance because many more people may still come to vote.’

We spend time in each of eleven polling stations in a remote location then watch the sealed boxes with their official papers brought to a central location after the polls close. When we hurry to Battambang to radio our observations to Phnom Penh we are told that the result has already been declared to the world. This was a free and fair election.

My American friend returns to his country; he gives me his tape of the music of Les Miserables.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy