Everyone's back and all is changed in Cambodia

January 25, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The hated Khmer Rouge spend their days here in the seclusion of a heavily guarded government guest house, a stone's throw from the bridge over the Sap River that Khmer Rouge guerrillas blew up in 1973.

The middle section of the bridge has never been replaced. It is a fitting symbol of the arrested state of development that has paralyzed Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and killed more than 1 million of their countrymen.

And now their leaders are back, just down the street, returning within the framework of a U.N.-brokered peace plan.

Their return, though, is just one of a series of remarkable changes that have swept the city under the nascent peace process.

A mile down the pungent, dusty, teeming streets clogged with motorbikes, bicycles and honking automobiles, the French, Thai, Malaysian and Australian flags fly above recently opened diplomatic missions.

A luxury hotel imported piece by piece from Singapore is full of U.S., British and Japanese diplomats waiting to move into French colonial villas now under renovation.

And soldiers can be seen in the heart of the city, which is nothing new -- except that these have blond hair and don't carry guns, the first U.N. peacekeeping forces to arrive.

"The signing of the peace agreement was a great achievement -- you have to recognize that," said Ieng Mouly, a guerrilla leader who sits on a reconciliation panel set up under the accord. "But we must also succeed at implementing the agreement if we want a successful peace process in Cambodia."

He and most others involved believe that free elections and a large-scale U.N. presence will ultimately prevent a Khmer Rouge comeback.

At the intersection of Streets 51 and 254, Cheang Bun Neang and his wife, Uy Phally, live in a changing neighborhood.

The Australian mission just moved in down the block. From their front door, they can see the French tricolor flying over a nearby villa.

Mr. Neang, 42, makes serum at the Soviet-Cambodian Friendship Hospital and earns the equivalent of $30 a month. Ms. Phally, 40, mother of four, now serves food and drinks at wooden tables on the sidewalk outside their home to help make ends meet.

"I suffered during the Lon Nol regime," said Ms. Phally, a talkative woman with golden skin and wavy, shoulder-length raven hair tucked behind one ear. "I suffered during Pol Pot time. We are suffering now -- my husband works hard but cannot earn enough money to live on.

"I pray the new government," she said, "will do good for the people."

With U.S. backing, Gen. Lon Nol deposed Cambodia's longtime ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, in 1970, then fell to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in 1975 after five years of civil war and U.S. bombardment directed at Viet Cong sanctuaries inside the country.

The Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the cities and began the systematic extermination of Cambodia's educated classes in their genocidal agrarian revolution, which finally fell to a Vietnamese invading force in early 1979.

Driven to the mountains on the Thai-Cambodian border, the Khmer Rouge and two non-Communist resistance factions then began a civil war against Vietnamese occupation forces and their client regime in Phnom Penh, a war that did not end until the peace accord was signed Oct. 23 in Paris.

The United Nations' work is to be in consultation with the Cambodian reconciliation panel, the Supreme National Council, made up of representatives of all four warring factions.

Sao Tith, 55, a tall, solidly built man, squatted on his haunches in front of a bicycle pump and an oily tire repair kit, his business on the sidewalk. He stared at the guest house where Khieu Samphan, now the Khmer Rouge's nominal leader, was staying. No one was allowed to enter the house and ask questions, and soldiers surrounded the neighborhood.

Mr. Tith's answer to the question on everyone's mind -- can the Khmer Rouge come back? -- was reassuring.

"Impossible," said Mr. Tith, who lost two brothers and his mother to the Khmer Rouge. "We do not believe in them anymore, and we will not support them anymore. Not like before [in the early 1970s], when they came to the villages and made some propaganda, people gave them rice and chickens and let their children become soldiers. Now, they will get nothing."

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