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The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History

Part Five: New Roots, New Growth, New Upheaval

Within Cambodia, a sense of normalcy slowly returned. But the coalition continued to occupy Cambodia's seat in the U.N., and the crushing effects of war and international embargo kept the country one of the poorest in the world. In 1987, per capita income was estimated to be only $160 annually -- ranking 195th out of the world's 203 countries. It was a situation that could not continue indefinitely. The isolation carried a heavy price for Vietnam as well as Cambodia. Bogged down by the continuing fighting, and faced with the prospect of diminishing Soviet support as the global political situation changed, in June 1988 the Vietnamese announced plans to begin a gradual troop withdrawal. Their stated goal was to have all of their forces out of Cambodia by 1990.

The Vietnamese announcement cleared the way for real progress toward peace. In July 1988, leaders of the four warring factions held their first face-to-face meeting, in Indonesia. The talks were inconclusive, but they did pave the way for future progress.

The announcement of a Vietnamese withdrawal had another effect, as well: it sent supporters of the guerrilla coalition scrambling for a new policy. After years of propping up an alliance formed around the Khmer Rouge, they were now faced with the horrible prospect that Pol Pot might return to power in the vacuum created by the Vietnamese withdrawal. They had forgotten the old adage: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

As the Vietnamese troops pulled out, however, the situation on the battlefield remained largely unchanged. The Phnom Penh government's army consisted of about 35,000 troops; they held their own in most areas, and the guerrillas made only minor inroads into their territory.

Gradually a framework for peace began to emerge. In 1990 the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council put forth a plan calling for the creation of a Supreme National Council (SNC) to be composed of six representatives (two from each faction) of the guerrillas. As negotiations continued, a series of ceasefires were declared and more or less ignored. A formal ceasefire was finally adopted in May 1991, and despite constant violations by the Khmer Rouge, the agreement held.

Norodom Sihanouk, meanwhile, after "retiring" and "returning from retirement" several times, was elected to a position as the thirteenth member of the SNC, as its nonvoting chairman.

On October 23, 1991, the agreement was at last signed and formally accepted by all sides. The plan called for each army to demobilize 70% of their troops, while the interim functioning of the government would be handled by the U.N. until elections could be held in May 1993. It was the largest and costliest peacekeeping operation ever undertaken by the U.N., calling for nearly 22,000 soldiers and administrators.

It was also in October 1991 that an internal shakeup within the Phnom Penh government led to the removal of Heng Samrin from his position as General Secretary of the communist party. Samrin, who had opposed a U.N. role in Cambodia, was replaced by Chea Sim. Hun Sen, who had long held the post of Foreign Minister, was chosen to represent the Phnom Penh government in the upcoming election for Premier. Like Heng Samrin, Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge cadre who had defected from the Eastern Zone in 1977.

By November 1991, U.N. personnel began arriving in force. Sihanouk, too, returned to Cambodia, greeted by cheering crowds. Khmer Rouge representatives to the SNC arrived as well, but were greeted less warmly: their villa was attacked by a mob, and Khieu Samphan, the leader of their delegation, was beaten and nearly murdered. He fled the capital in an armored car.

Against this uncertain backdrop, the U.N. began the massive task of repatriating the nearly 370,000 refugees from the camps in Thailand. Sporadic fighting continued in the countryside, however, and the Khmer Rouge grew increasingly intransigent. They first denied U.N. peacekeepers access to areas under their control, then refused to disarm. The Phnom Penh government, too, was accused of violence directed at Sihanouk and Son Sann loyalists. Their actions, however, paled in comparison to those of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge began a campaign of harassment directed at the U.N. Several peacekeepers were kidnapped, and others were murdered. Several civilians, particularly ethnic Vietnamese, were also massacred. In April 1993, the Khmer Rouge closed their offices in Phnom Penh and sent a letter to the U.N. withdrawing from the peace process, under the pretense that there were millions of Vietnamese still in the country illegally. Still, however, the other parties moved forward as planned. By the end of April, the last of the refugees had been repatriated.

As the Khmer Rouge stepped up their threats to disrupt the elections scheduled to begin on May 23, many observers feared that the specter of violence would keep the voter turnout low, enabling the Khmer Rouge to claim that the winner of the elections did not in truth have wide popular support.

The dire predictions turned out to be unfounded. Despite the threats, 4.2 million of the 4.7 million registered voters went to the polls. The FUNCINPEC party, headed by Sihanouk's son Norodom Ranariddh, won 58 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly; the Phnom Penh faction won 51 seats, Son Sann's faction won 10 seats, and a right-wing party won the remaining seat. Initially, however, the Phnom Penh government contested the results, and it was not until June 21 that Hun Sen formally conceded that they had lost the election. However, fearing that the country would be ungovernable without some semblance of a consensus, Ranariddh consented to allow Hun Sen to assume the role of "co-prime minister." The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, began stepping up their attacks against the fledgling government.

Despite the prominent roles played by Hun Sen and Ranariddh, there remained a part for Cambodia's consummate politician: Sihanouk himself. Reviled by many, but revered by still more, Sihanouk declared that he had "no right to resist the will of the Cambodian people" who were calling on him to return to the throne. On September 24, 1993, he signed a new constitution and once again assumed the position of King of Cambodia. His powers, however, were limited. Under the terms of the constitution, the king was selected by a five-member throne council. In poor health, Sihanouk spent much of his time outside the country, seeking medical treatment, and the majority of power remained in the hands of the two Prime Ministers.

The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, continued their attacks, routinely targeting civilians, and sowing land mines in rural areas. They still enforced their policies through mass murder: In October 1994, for example, a group of seventy villagers in Battambang province were captured by the guerrillas, who opened fire on them for no apparent reason. Fifty were killed.

Still, it was clear that the balance of power had shifted. Isolated diplomatically and economically, the Khmer Rouge at last began to disintegrate. Defections took a heavy toll on their ranks in the wake of the 1993 elections. In August 1996, Ieng Sary, one of the highest ranking members of the Khmer Rouge (by some accounts second or third in rank, below Pol Pot) defected to the government in exchange for amnesty, taking many of his soldiers with him.

Unfortunately, violence between the factions in Phnom Penh escalated drastically as the Khmer Rouge disintegrated. Hun Sen still controlled the strongest segment of the military, and he did not hesitate to exploit his power. In one particularly brutal attack, dozens of supporters of a popular opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, were killed in a grenade attack on a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh in March 1997. The violence underscored a disturbing truth: the demise of the Khmer Rouge would not necessarily mean the onset of peace.

In June 1997, rumors began to suggest that several more high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials were considering peace negotiations. Determined to continue fighting, Pol Pot responded in typical fashion: He executed his longtime Defense Minister, Son Sen, and ten members of Son Sen's family. The execution further splintered the remaining guerrillas. It was Pol Pot's final mistake: the last of his devout followers could no longer deny the brutality and futility of their leader's methods. Pol Pot was effectively overthrown by an internal rebellion in the fall of 1997, and was "convicted" in a Khmer Rouge show trial. Confined to "house arrest" in the last enclave of Khmer Rouge control, he died on April 15, 1998. Official accounts claimed that he succumbed to illness. Others suggested that he was murdered by his former followers.

In Phnom Penh, meanwhile, the collapse of the Khmer Rouge led to a cynical contest between Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Each man courted the defecting Khmer Rouge, knowing that the last of the guerrillas could tip the balance of power in his favor.

In July 1997 Hun Sen dispensed with the any pretense of cooperation. He overthrew Ranariddh in a coup. Ranariddh went into exile, while a handful of outnumbered, outgunned soldiers held on to a small stretch of territory close to the Thai border. Meanwhile, the UN estimated that at least 90 members of Ranariddh's party were murdered during and immediately after the coup.

The coup, however, once again left Cambodia diplomatically isolated. Under a Japanese-brokered peace plan, Ranariddh was tried in absentia on the Hun Sen government's charges that he was conspiring with the Khmer Rouge and smuggling arms; after his conviction, he was pardoned by the King and allowed to return to Cambodia to participate in the elections scheduled for July 1998. However, Hun Sen's forces continued their campaign of intimidation: A dozen opposition candidates were murdered in the weeks preceding the elections. The violence made a mockery of the international community's pledges to uphold "free and fair" elections. Hun Sen won the elections, but the opposition protested the results. Again responding with force, Hun Sen dispatched riot police to quell the protests. At least 18 persons were killed. The protests, however, brought the country's government to a virtual halt. In November of 1998, an agreement was reached under which Hun Sen became the Prime Minister, while Ranariddh accepted a position as President of the National Assembly.

In the wake of the agreement, a measure of stability has returned to Cambodia. Meanwhile, attempts to establish a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge officials have stagnated. A climate of corruption, intimidation, and impunity remains, and the country's dismal human rights record shows few signs of improvement.

More than twenty-five years after Year Zero, the Cambodian people are still waiting for a future where their hopes will be fulfilled. The greatest obstacle is the legacy of the last three decades. If the future is to be brighter, Cambodia must build upon her greatest asset: the resourceful of her people. Her fate rests on whether the new government chooses to harness the Cambodian people, or to bind them.

No tree can survive when cut from its roots. But the roots which sustain the tree may destroy the foundation of all structures in their path. It is this which must be remembered, when the seeds are sown.


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