Cambodia: Learning English, Learning Democracy

May 30, 1993|By SUSAN A. JANOSKI

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. -- Imagine a three-story yellow stucco schoolhouse with tiled floors and whirring ceiling fans pushing 90 degree heat out the open windows, beyond the balustrade to the paddy fields that subsume the outskirts of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

This school is an historic place. It has outlasted several generations of violence. It may outlast several more. It was to this school that I was brought, from Baltimore, to train a cross-section of Cambodian society as interpreters for the first Cambodian elections in 38 years. My students were to make possible communication between Khmer-speaking voters and international election supervisors, who spoke English.

The program is only a small part of the electoral component, one of seven parts of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), a mission that employs approximately 15,900 military personnel, 3,600 civilian police monitors and 2,500 international civilian personnel. An additional 50,000 Cambodians were trained to run the polling stations in conjunction with 950 international supervisors who were flown in on the eve of last week's elections. The presently estimated cost of this enormous two-year operation is $3.7 billion.

In order to qualify for the interpreter training program, open to Cambodian men and women of all ages, candidates had to pass a basic English test. They came from all walks of life. These students illuminate some of the people behind the costliest United Nations peacekeeping mission ever.

Only a handful of countries are poorer than Cambodia. In a recently published U.N. survey, Cambodia's human development index ranks 0.186 out of a possible 1.000. (The United States ranks 0.976. The two countries ranking closest to Cambodia were Somalia and Afghanistan.)

It was difficult to detect this poverty in the classroom at first. Students walked into class at 7 each morning, often wearing the latest trends in Thai fashion, always neat, carrying themselves in a slow stately gate with straight posture that is characteristic of Cambodians. It was when I asked the students to bring a new notebook so they could keep a journal, then saw a look of discomfort on some faces, that I realized that even the smallest added expense to their budget could pose a financial problem.

These select students were paid in U.S. currency to go to school for ten weeks. Upon successful completion of the program, they were paid an additional salary of $240 to $340 for two weeks of electoral work. To a full time U.N. employee, getting $150 a day for expenses in addition to base pay, the Cambodian salary may seem small. To a Cambodian whose average monthly salary is about $20 to $30, the amount was enough to lure nervous interpreters out of the safer confines of Phnom Penh to one of the 1,430 polling sites among Cambodia's 19 provinces.

The Cambodian interpreters were promised protection at the polling stations by U.N. military observers. They were not able to select which province they would be sent to, despite predicted reports that attacks could occur during the volatile election week. The Cambodians are no strangers to the assault of adversaries. As I learned from my students, they are also brave.

There is a long history of violence in Cambodia. Age-old fighting with the Siamese (Thai) empire and Vietnam has evolved into a modern day economic battle for Cambodia's precious forests and gems. Ninety years of French colonial rule and a brief occupation by the Japanese during World War II gave way to the first Cambodian elections in May 1955, won by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. A short period of relative calm was upset by the Vietnam war spilling across its borders and covert U.S. bombing on its frontiers.

An abuse of power, corruption, political killings and torture were evident in the era of American-backed General Lon Nol, yet a new pinnacle of bloodshed was to follow.

When the Maoist rebel guerrilla soldiers fighting the Lon Nol government came into the capital from the jungle, many Cambodians thought they were being liberated. These guerrilla soldiers, the Khmer Rouge, soon claimed the lives of 1 to 2 million Cambodian civilians in three years (1975-1978) via methods of cruelty on par with the Nazis in global crimes against humanity. There has been no trial yet for the Khmer Rouge.

The yellow schoolhouse is located on a small dirt road, jutting off a boulevard that heads out of the city. One of my female Cambodian students, now in her forties, walked down that same boulevard in 1975, as a child, when the Khmer Rouge evacuated all Phnom Penh residents at gunpoint. She recalled waving goodbye to her school and hoping she would soon be able to return to its classrooms. Three years of forced manual labor in the countryside ensued. Eighteen years later, she is back at this school as a part of the 1993 UNTAC Interpreter's training program.

The students' voices best explain the Khmer Rouge years. In an open essay assignment, a student in my class writes:

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