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Memorial Day Revisited

by Bert Hoak

In many respects Memorial Day is the most sacred of American holidays. It transcends all Races and Creeds to give homage to those who have paid the supreme sacrifice, have given their lives for the cause of Democracy. All Americans have cause to be thankful. Indeed, many in Europe and Asia can be grateful for the American blood shed for their freedom.

The United Nations failed... Yet the praise and homage for those who lost their lives in the struggle in Southeast Asia, the confusing and bloody conflict that raged in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, somehow that tribute rings futilely -- like the clang of a wooden bell. Some may think that this is because America "lost" the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, the truth is sadder still -- America, by her incompetent actions or thoughtless inactions, has chosen to lose the Peace.

Even as one despotic leader falls in Indonesia, another rises in nearby Cambodia. The new Cambodia dictator, Hun Sen, is surely a force to be reckoned with. A former minion of the genocidal Pol Pot, Hun Sen was the leader of the puppet government established by the Vietnamese two decades ago. After agreeing to a United Nations sponsored election in 1993, Hun Sen and his notoriously corrupt Cambodian People's Party (formerly the Cambodian Communist Party) refused to accept the results of that election.

The United Nations, even with 15,000 UN troops present, failed to enforce the results of the election that they themselves conducted allowing instead a hastily arranged coalition government that in effect, stole the election from the rightful winner. Perhaps the United Nations was intimidated by the 200 political assasinations that took place during the election campaign, or maybe the UN was cowed by Hun Sen's ruthless military might. In any event the result was the same -- a legitimate election that cost 2.7 billion dollars and hundreds of lives was rendered useless, and the Will of the people was ignored.

After four years of incredible corruption and power abuses on both sides, Hun Sen destroyed what little legitimacy that remained from that election by overthrowing his co- prime minister in a bloody coup. He handpicked a replacement for the deposed leader and now claims that this charade of a government is legitimate. Furthermore, Hun Sen and his cronies claim that the next election which is scheduled for the end of July, an election that is fully controlled and orchestrated by the Cambodian People's Party, they claim that this election will somehow be free, fair, and legitimate.

But where does America fit into all of this? And what does Memorial Day have to do with it?

In many respects America has been more involved and committed in Cambodia than any other nation. Yes, America made mistakes. In many instances the mistakes were horrifying, inexcusable, and perhaps unforgivable. But it is not for us to serve as apologists for a brutal military industrial complex. Nor are we to make excuses for the failed and incompetent foreign policy of those years. For us remains the difficult task of trying to fulfill the promises made to those Americans who sacrificed their lives in the hopes of bringing Democracy to Southeast Asia.

The American government today appears to be poised to make the same mistakes we made in the past... to support a corrupt despot simply because that despot has power. Somoza in Nicaragua... the Shah in Iran... Douvalier in Haiti, and Marcos in the Philippines. They had so much in common -- they were corrupt... they were powerful... they were supported by America, and they all fled on American helicopters. As President Johnson said of Philippine "President" Marcos "Yes, he's an SOB, but he's OUR SOB!"

And here we are, ready to do it again, to ignore the plea of the people, brave people who are willing to risk their lives to vote for a free goverment. So willing is our goverment to back another powerful despot that America is looking well into the future... Hun Sen's son is a cadet at West Point!

Memorial Day... a day to honor our dead, but more importantly, a day to fulfill the promise we made to those dead. Remember well the Viet Nam Monument in Washington. We will certainly see it on television during the holiday weekend... that long somber monument on which are etched the names of 57,000 Americans who gave their lives in the hope of bringing Democracy to Southeast Asia. That is what they were told they were fighting for... That is what they believed they died for.

Yes, we honor these men and women and the sacrifice they made. But it is our task to fulfill the promise by making a stand for Democracy in Cambodia. And if we fail to make that stand -- as individuals and as a Nation, then we fail those honored dead, and for them Memorial Day will be little more than a hollow tribute for 57,000 Americans who died for a Bright Shining Lie.

-- May 1998

Editor's Note: Mr. Hoak served as a UN Electoral Supervisor during the 1993 Cambodian election. He returned to Cambodia where he operated a successful business. As the situation deteriorated Mr. Hoak became increasingly involved in Human Rights issues. His outspoken condemnation of the July of 1997 necessitated his departure from Cambodia. Mr. Hoak remains active in the struggle for Human Rights and Democracy in Cambodia.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other contributors to this site.

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