Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Culture Of Violence

Can Anyone Destroy The Legacy Of Pol Pot?

By Ron Moreau NEWSWEEK
May 4, 1998 Issue

SOCHUA MU MAKES HOUSE CALLS. AS a leading opposition politician, she visits the terrorized widows of party officials who have been murdered since last July, when Second Prime Minister Hun Sen violently grabbed power. Mu can't meet all the widows: human-rights investigators suspect that some 100 of Hun Sen's opponents have been murdered since the coup. But she does what she can, helping one survivor flee the country, comforting a 12-year-old girl whose father was gunned down before her eyes. Most recently, Mu counseled a woman whose husband was shot to death as he was walking home from a party meeting. As he lay dying he described his killers in detail, but the men he identified walk by his house daily, taunting his widow. ""There is no justice in Cambodia,'' says Mu, 44. ""Men with guns rule.''

Pol Pot is dead, and his Khmer Rouge movement is collapsing--but that doesn't mean peace is coming to one of the most heavily armed countries on earth. Even the few remaining gangs of Pol Pot's former comrades can still kill; last week about 50 suspected guerrillas, some wearing masks, attacked a fishing village on Tonle Sap lake just north of Phnom Penh, killing 23 ethnic Vietnamese men, women and children. But the Khmer Rouge remnants are only minor contributors to Cambodia's larger culture of violence. Political debates are increasingly settled by gunfire. The mayhem is likely to increase as Cambodia approaches elections in late July. And even the costs of political violence are small as measured against the death toll produced by renegade government security forces and gangs of heavily armed punks out to make a quick buck.

Nobody can quantify the national plague of murder, rape and robbery. According to human-rights workers, every year hundreds of Cambodians across the country are killed, wounded, kidnapped, tortured and unlawfully imprisoned by soldiers, police and officials who are lusting after power, money, land and cattle. Gunmen working for syndicates dealing in gambling, prostitution, illegal logging and drug smuggling take their toll as well. Not even foreigners are immune. Last week a young French journalist was robbed by two government soldiers waving AK-47 assault rifles as she traveled along a central Cambodian highway. Then that night she was relieved of her purse and cell phone by a young gunman who stepped out of the shadows of Phnom Penh's Royal Palace.

At the top, Hun Sen's government relies on violence to survive. The United Nations' Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh has documented 41 cases of extrajudicial killings and executions and 13 disappearances, all believed to have been carried out by forces loyal to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) in July and August. Investigators are also looking into the deaths since last September of an additional 50 opposition activists. Most victims had ties to the party of First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, the leader ousted by Hun Sen. But other opposition parties have not been spared. Last January, a schoolteacher who was active in former Finance minister Sam Rainsy's political party was gunned down along with his 4-year-old daughter. ""Pol Pot's twisted philosophy and practices still prevail in Cambodia,'' says Rainsy. ""We live in a communist-style state which uses the military, police, militia and spies to threaten and control people.''

In a country inundated with guns and brutalized by a violent past, how much of the violence results from criminal behavior is impossible to know. ""Clearly, widespread political intimidation is going on,'' says a Western diplomat. ""But the hard-pressed and paranoid opposition may be exaggerating the extent of the violence. To them anything that happens is political when a killing could be the result of a land dispute or love triangle.'' Indeed, some of what appears to be political violence could simply be the result of Cambodians' inability to work out their personal problems peacefully in a society where violence has been commonplace for a generation.

Hun Sen, who is known to have a hair-trigger temper, tells foreign diplomats that he is discouraging political violence. He is largely keeping to himself while observing a monthlong mourning period for his mother, who died in March. Still, he says he is meeting daily with local CPP officials to spread the message that they should not intimidate the opposition in the run-up to the election. ""He says he is telling his people that for the CPP's victory to be recognized internationally, they can't go too far,'' says a Western diplomat. ""It's better to lose a good election, he says, than to win a bad one.'' The sentiment is admirable. But Cambodians will take it seriously when they see their leader begin to arrest, prosecute and imprison the gunmen who are destroying their lives.

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