CAMBODIA 2000

  • A new VFW Post
  • American expats
  • Tom's Irish Pub
  • Life after the Khmer Rouge

Text and Fotos

by

Dan Cameron Rodill

Phnom Penh

New era? We are getting yet another indication, this one from American war veterans. First, go back 25 years to the Mayaguez incident. U.S. Marines, 41, died or disappeared on a mission to rescue 39 American crew members of the container ship Mayaguez seized by Khmer Rouge naval units off the coast of Cambodia. As this occurred on May 15, 1975, weeks after the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in Vietnam, the dead and MIA's are the last names listed on the Vietnam Veterans'Memorial in Washington. (The tragedy was also one of communications: the Marines did not know that hours before their engagement the Mayaguez and crew had been released, unharmed, by the Khmer Rouge....


Fast forward. In part to commemmorate the Mayaguez incident of a quarter century ago, adjutant Richard Lane has moved to launch the first Veterans of Foreign Wars Post ever in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Lane, earning his elegibility in Lebanon and the Indian Ocean, was a Naval intelligence specialist, and operates a freight service here, TNT Express Worldwide. He's aware of the significance of this Post in such formerly hostile territory, calling it "very strong symbolism,"and "relevant to all who served in Southeast Asia."

This got me asking if one of these days we'll be seeing a VFW Post--wonder of wonders--in Vietnam, the old "dragon" itself. Lane thinks it much too soon to say. He's probably right. The scars, the involvement, the complexities went much deeper and longer in Vietnam than here in what Americans used to call the "sideshow."

And yet Cambodia was no Sunday School outing either. As David P. Chandler's book "Brother Number One" points out, the Pentagon's secret bombing both before and after the 1973 Truce Agreement destroyed or destabilized much of eastern Cambodia, creating enormous fuel for Khmer Rouge anti-Americanism. The book indicates that U.S. bombing helped build the Khmer Rouge. The anger and rage at the bombing became an explosive recruitment tool for the Khmer Rouge. It helped get them out of nowhere and into world headlines. Sceptical? See the devastating critique by William Shawcross--"Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia." The massive bombing of farmland and farmers, supposedly facilitating a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam (after the 1973 Truce Agreement?)became a spectacular gift to a little-known ex-schoolteacher, letting him propogandize and maneuver his way to the summit of Khmer Rouge power. The world came to know this mild-mannered schoolteacher as Pol Pot, in his own right a patron saint of terror and genocide or, in a French writer's interesting term, "auto-genocide," (as in a country murdering itself.)

So maybe a VFW Post, able to rise now out of such a history, might say something about future possibilities in Vietnam after all. Who knows?

At any rate, the Post here is growing, says Acting Post Commander Jerry M. Philbrook of the Defense Attache Office, U.S. Embassy. Philbrook was in counter-intelligence, 7th Transportation Group, Persian Gulf War.

"A year and a half ago," he said, this past summer, "there were only three veterans living in Cambodia."

This year there were 25 registered VFW members. By August, according to Lane, the total grew to 41. There may be quite a few more American vets here, especially from the Vietnam era. A lot live out in the provinces, and do not necessarily join anything. You'd need time to find them, assuming they want to be found. Only a handful of the 41 registered members here are Vietnam vets. The Membership, naturally, is big tent. It spans service all the way from WW II to Bosnia. The veteran from Bosnia got his elgibility two years ago.


The Irish "Embassy"

 

Here? In the Kingdom of Cambodia? The Irish, and the American VFW? 'Twill all be explained. The Post's three main organizers, Lane, Philbrook and Vietnam vet (1968-1969) David Clayton Carrad, the acting judge advocate, are scouting locations for a home. Meanwhile, meetings are held at Tom's Irish Pub(upper level) a well known place of refeshment on Street 63, off Sihanouk Boulevard. The choice is not unwise. Here is more than just ambience, although the tablecloths out front are green indeed. Tom will tell you, in a resonant brogue, "This is, you know, the Irish Embassy."
He could be exagerrating, but not greatly. The VFW organizers would know that the Irish have been here for years. The Irish Volunteers--sort of Ireland's Peace Corps--work in civic, social, educational, health and infrastructure projects. I knew an Irish Volunteer here. Call him Sean Malone: tall, fair-haired, muscular and trim from construction work in Germany. Sean had a taste for life that expanded from the day he landed in Bangkok a decade ago. The Orient bug bit him immediately and powerfully.

House Help

 
Did Tom ever hear of him?

"Sean Malone?...We're very good friends!"

"Where the hell is he?

"Back in Ireland."

  Invasion May 1, 1970.'Fish Hook,' Cambodia. AP foto by DCR



It happens. The new, computerized Ireland. Tom and Sean had been through the United Nations Trustee-Ship period here, in the early 90's, after Vietnam drove out the Khmer Rouge. That was when the U.N. presence, UNTAC, economically almost seemed to parallel the U.S. presence in wartime Saigon: tons of money creating instant inflation, massive corruption and bordellos galore, all under the rubric of Assistance and Nation Building. Sean Malone was working in the province of Siem Reap. I asked Tom, "Did he tell you about the Russian helicopter pilot flying drunk over Angkor Wat?"

"Tell me? I was in the thing!" Tom showed his hands. "Now you know why I'm still shaking!"

We agreed that Sean would be back.



I arrived for the Saturday VFW meeting. Adjutant Richard Lane explained that, as a non-member, I couldn't go upstairs, so I stuck to the bar with a war memory of the Aussie contingent in the 'Nam: a can of cold Victoria Bitter. I stopped a friendly-looking black guy.

"Excuse me, are you a Vietnam vet?"

"Hey, thanks! Do I look that young? No, I'm from the Korean War."

Must say, he carried it well. He chatted with others in the rear and they began filing up the stairs. From the barmaid I ordered another VB with Spanish salted peanuts. Tom, in that resonant brogue, revealed yet another military link to the USA. Despite reservations about the controversial American war here, he is proud to be the namesake of ancestor Thomas Francis Meagher, Civil War General. 'Meagher,'he explained, is usually spelled in the U.S. as 'Maher.' He produced a thick copy of the Irish Almanac, 1999, wherein I read:

Thomas Francis Meagher(1823-1867). [born] Waterfored, deported to Von Diemen's Island for his part in the abortive rising of 1848. Escaped and went to the U.S. Became a General in the Union Army in the American Civil War, and later Governor of Montana..


Sounded American to me, in the old rebel tradition.

When the meeting upstairs adjourned and everyone came back downstairs no one hurried to leave. Some members, like a suspicious, crusty old-timer, chose not to give their names. I was a stranger, you see. Suddenly I was "the media," if not worse. No kidding, that was how a few of them seemed to think. That is, if it was thinking at all, and not just feeling, or some routine paranoia. Right, guys. Righto. Like I really care if you're politically correct or not. So I left them to their preferred anonymity. Having covered the fall of Saigon for CBS News after its own staff fled in the panic evacuation--a fact which CBS left down the memory hole in its 25th Anniversary broadcasts this year--I didn't come all the way back here to get tangled up in anybody's ideology or stereotypes. So I let that go. Another guy was more interested in real estate, anyway. Just back from the States, he described the red hot demand where he had property overlooking Lake Tahoe. He spent 1969-1975 in Vietnam, the first year as a mechanic in the Air Force, the rest in civilian jobs. He did not wait for the Panic Evacuation of late April in 1975.

"I got out in March," he said. We agreed that when Hue in Central Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Army without a fight, you had to be smoking something very special to think that Saigon would hold out long. That's why he left and I made plans to stay. I was the journalist and this was the big one, the once in a lifetime.

A Navy vet, later a Merchant Marine, had no praise for U.S. Ambassador Martin in those final days of "the Vietnam era." He had read Frank Snepp's book and thought the Ambassador contributed to the famous panic in Saigon by failing to order the evacuation early enough. It's a Snepp(formerly CIA) vs. Martin debate, though Martin is now deceased. Any way you analyze it, those were days of high drama and tragedy. No one who was in it forgets.

One of the oldest members here of the new to-be VFW Post, a WWII vet, had just been cremated. He was looking fine lately, they said, but of his various disorders, apparently a serious kidney problem finally and suddenly did him in. One member saw it a little differently.

"He lost his will to live. Had no family either."

"Now they'll be looking for his next of kin."

Which points to an important VFW function here. The Post, as Lane points out, will undertake charitable activities which are needed in every sector of Cambodian society. This includes working with Cambodian Veterans Affairs and military hospitals. However the main priority will be American veterans and their dependents, like Asian wives who might not understand death or illness benefits. The need will be there and has to be addressed. Acting Judge Advocate Carrad has indicated that it will be addressed.


The Khmer: Being There

....As I write this, away from Tom's Irish Pub, the monsoon rain has stopped pounding the tiles and tin roofs. The electric fan feels good on bare skin, like a subtle massage. CNN, or is it the Australian channel, is coming through the wall(who can keep up with all the accents anymore from teleglobalvision?) I'm not going out yet in the puddles and flooded streets. In Phnom Penh only the more important streets are paved. You need asphalt, you stay in Bangkok. Hungry I am, something you are not always in this climate. Could go for that samlaw m'juu kreuang, that spicy sour soup with Mekong fish, interesting herbs, maybe some pineapple chunks and bean curd , a bowl of steaming rice, a salad, maybe even french fries with, yes, ketchup! A culinary contradiction? So what? I've been East and West long enough. Cold beer? There's not just Bud's and Heiniken's. How about Lao, Bayon, Angkor or the excellent Tiger? Eat and let eat, I say, and so I eat my way. The Khmer woman made that last samlaw so tasty that even Americans would like it--the ones with fairly liberated taste buds. That samlaw is not on her menu and takes time. The locals would order it. Most of her foreign trade--the Brits, French, black Africans and others--usually stick to the meat and potatoes. She can prepare that for them and fast, and dishes it right out, though you will rarely see the Khmer rushing themselves. Hectic is considered undignified. To chow down in true Khmer style, of course, you'd go with a Khmer to a busy open-air restaurant where elegant young ladies bring to the table a cooker, casserole, bowls, silver rashers, serving utensils, and they do not forget the bottles of Angkor or Tiger beer in a bucket of ice. You'd get the works, everything, and prepare it as you like, and only the Khmer will understand it all.

   

DCR and Khmer soldiers. Kompong Cham, 1973

 



How to explain the increasing American presence here, as we see in the new and growing VFW membership? New visa and residence requirements in Thailand may account for some leaving that Kingdom to live in this Kingdom. But a major consideration has to be safety. Cambodia today is safer. Safer for everyone. Even the railroad, from which three Western backpackers were seized and executed in 1994, is considered safer now than it's been in a quarter century. Travelers and tourists now pour across the borders with Thailand, something previously unheard of. In '97 I left the world-famous ruins of Angkor Wat for a return to Phnom Penh, doing the trip with a brilliant student/adventuress from Dublin, she with a tattered copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's classic "Crime and Punishment," and against U.S.Embassy advice we impulsively did it by road, 9 hours in a taxi collective, with lunch break in Kompong Cham. Travel like that today is more common, despite road conditions you will never forget. The one acceptable road for 3-4 hours is from Phnom Penh to the resort on the Gulf of Siam, Kompong Som(Sihanoukville). My only problem there this time: a squall blowing for days, by night swooshing and screaming like banshees diving in from Thailand or somewhere, rainwater seeping in under the balcony door. In most areas bandits are fewer, soldiers less likely to hassle you. The Khmer Rouge, driven by Vietnam into early retirement, are busy smuggling rubies, sapphires and timber to buyers in Thailand, or working the casino in Pailin, or just cooling out, hoping to avoid the remote possibility of facing tribunals for war crimes or genocide.

Here in the capital, Phnom Penh, tourists can visit Khmer Rouge history, like the human skulls in the "Killing Fields,"or the Tuol Sleng torture center where you were brought to "confess." There are also airy temples and palaces, and you can get a Seeing Hands massage to benefit the blind and mutilated. The well-stocked Shooting Range offers more than just pistols and the famous Communist AK-47 rifle, widely considered superior to the M-16 our grunts had to use in Vietnam. "Why not shoot a B-40 rocket?" the Range asks. Ladies welcome!

This is not to say that Cambodia is now as safe as Luxembourg. It will take years, maybe decades, before it can fully recover from the Washington/Khmer Rouge catastrophes, even if it's not swallowed up by Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east. One expatriate here informed me that modern Cambodia never had self-government and never will have it. Caution is still advised in Phnom Penh after dark. Your mugger could be someone with family responsibilities, though he's more likely a delinquent who wants a good motorbike the fast way.Praseth Pelika, the country's finest singer/actress/classical dancer, was shot and killed last year while buying a bicycle for her 7-year old niece in the O Russey Market. This was not random violence, however. Widely believed to be a crime of passion reaching into a very high level of Government, the murder has never been "solved"and no justice is in sight, despite eyewitnesses and despite 10,000 mourners at the funeral. We buy her cassettes and hear what was lost, at age 32. This year the U.S. Ambassador himself was mugged in broad daylight, while out strolling. A tour boat was hijacked and robbed, reportedly by university students who had taken a course in tourism. Just recently at Siem Reap, three sex workers were murdered. Police evidence indicates that urban punks killed them for their jewelry. The U.S. Embassy is looking for more secure quarters. Right now the barricades and checkpoints make it look harder to get into than Sing-Sing. It faced very angry demonstrations when the Pentagon bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the push-button war against the Serbs. If asked, the U.S. Embassy here could have advised someone that Cambodia's King Sihanouk has been a privileged house guest in Beijing over the years, and in fact still visits for annual medical check-ups.



That Certain Profession

 


Yes, it's alive and thriving, as you might expect. But isn't this true most everywhere else too? Tricky question. If you compare what's here to the explosion of tawdry elsewhere today, as we see in the U.S. with its boom market in T&A, S&M, soft-core, hard-core, phonerotics, videos, cyber-groping and assorted appliances, including White House cigars, the scene here may seem tame, low-key, sometimes downright genteel, not for those raised on relentless commercial hype, 24/7 titillation, Hollywood entertainment and Washington politics. It's always dangerous to generalize--anyone can find exceptions. There are exceptions, definitely. But I'll still say that in "advanced" countries sex is more an obsession, a mental problem, a head game, a power trip, a trophy hunt, whereas here it's more direct and honest. A little more, anyway. And the tawdry here, like the shacks in the "chicken farm"on the coast, are usually a function of the economy, not the culture. The girls tend to laugh it off more than you might think possible. Some even laugh after age 30.

Are bodies exploited here? Sure. But state-of-the-art exploitation? Not there yet. Needs a better economy. The corporate machinery just isn't in place yet for total manipulation and demographic control where every breast, hip,buttock, thigh,eyelash, mouth and "smoldering" expression is posed, framed and calibrated to a hidden cash register(okay, an E-account). Corporate Charley is coming to teach them his way, and franchise everything from burgers to boobs, but we're not there yet. Needs a better economy. Naivete hasn't been wiped out yet. Cambodia is still almost too poor for the World Bank and IMF to bother manipulating. Look at the international AIDS crusade, that fabulous bonanza for corporate drug and vaccine revenue. Is Cambodia reacting properly? Well, yes and no. There is in fact a prominent AIDS billboard here, in about eight languages, yet it's not sickly, clinical or depressing. People from all walks of life, male and female, are shown proudly holding up their condoms, like medals for heroism! The tone, the fun, the energy will seem too much to many of the Christian, Muslim or corporate persuasions. Too much joy, not enough shame. Doesn't even have that smarmy "Adult Entertainment" look that Americans know so well. A secret blessing of the Buddha? We cannot say. The Buddha will not say. All we know is that no B-52 has yet obliterated the culture.

Citing the religious ambience here is not meant to confuse a sensual smorgasbord with Nirvana. No one is proclaiming an ultimate sexual enlightenment, or total liberation from the sad, the sickies and the hucksters, such as we see in the West. The do-gooders who'd like to make Phnom Penh more like Pyongyang for this ancient commerce are correct in blaming poverty for much of it. The girls often support parents and siblings, besides themselves. In Asia there is even a tradition that respects and honors them for their sacrifice, incomprehensible though this may be to certain religions. It might be fine if social workers can get the girls out of the massage parlors and behind a computer terminal, or married to a beast or a sad-sack, or flipping burgers, pushing pizza and shaving coconuts, or scrubbing an NGO's tiled floors. But we're not there yet.
A Buddhist Country

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There are likely some practices here we don't know about and maybe don't want to know about. There are always some foreigners, ready to exploit. Recently porn hustler Dan Sandler was reported back. This guy caters to Internet appetites for something he calls "Rape Camp" Here he can hire cheap "actors" for cheap video. The fact that this 35-year old Sandler(the schmuck would have that first name) could re-enter the country after being expelled last year, tells us he has at least two recognizable talents: porn-pushing and palm-greasing. He'd be wise, however, to use caution here. He could find that behind that gentle Khmer smile, without any warning, a violence surpassing "Rape Camp" can explode. In fact, just after I wrote this, a most grisly example surfaced in the Province of Battambang. A mob of 500 stormed a police station and seized a man who allegedly raped and robbed two women and a girl. As you might expect, this happened in a formerly Khmer Rouge area. The people suspect that the police don't take rape seriously. Using sticks and rocks, the mob beat to death the alleged 23-year old rapist. Before killing him, they chopped off his penis. We advise Mr. Sandler and his "Rape Camp" to stay far away.

Joint ventures happen too. Kevin Doyle in the Cambodia Daily reported on East European women lured here from Romania. Norika, a bitch in Bucharest, convinced the young women that wonderful opportunities awaited them here as nightclub dancers. However, after arriving, the girls discovered that the "dancing" would be on beds at the Best Western Tai-Ming Plaza Hotel on Norodom Boulevard. They would "perform"with Chinese, Thai and Cambodian "movers and shakers". This used to be called "white slavery." The girls were threatened if they did not submit. We hear the UN Center for Human Rights is checking this one out, and looking for that "agent," Norika, the bitch in Bucharest.

Kids For Sale


The saddest racket of all? How about the trade in children? It happens here, and elsewhere. There are grown men in this world who will use a child. The Japanese Embassy intervened recently to release from prison pornographer Kazayuki Kobata, charged with paying children eight and nine years old to pose for nude photographs. Unlike the Sandler low life, the Japanese one fled the country immediately. If you think this involves only stereotype degenerates, think again. How about diplomatic elite? Yes, tweedy types, post-preppy, connected, the right schools and all that. This is no joke. The story broke a few years ago. It was discovered that members of the Australian diplomatic corps in various missions around Asia were using aid funds for child sex rings. No, I did not fully believe it either, at first, until hearing short-wave radio broadcasts direct from the Australian national legislature that was airing the scandal. It was a very big story over there. We assume they have their elite missions in order today.

Police here acknowledge a serious problem in child trafficking. Child welfare organizations say it's getting worse. Some estimate as many as 2000 child prostitutes in the country. This figure may or may not be a serious exaggeration. Nobody really knows. Whatever the number, who can deny that it's too many? To make things worse, the AIDS scare has increased the demand for virgins, increasingly younger. Battered families, desperately poor and unhappy, do sell children, sometimes into other countries, sometimes believing the children are going to work as domestics. Sad, sad, sad, sad, sad? This country needs help.

Here And Now
Yes, things are changing. No one has to sing Pol Pot's anthem now, a song which King Sihanouk, a jazz buff, called "a musical abomination." In houses and guest houses you can hear maids and maidens at their chores, singing Khmer songs--soft, high-pitched and melodic, with a warble, the harmonies more 'Indo' than 'China.' When the moto-taxi guy grins and asks you, "How's it hanging?" you know he probably doesn't mean the prisoner down the cell block. It's a much freer place these days. Still, some changes are double-edged. They can leave you wondering. I ran into an amazing example at that former landmark for war correspondents and others, the legendary Hotel Royale. Who would have guessed what it's like today? The hotel has undergone a total transformation by the noted Raffles Organization, exotic hotelieres extraordinaire. Even the swimming pool(a period foto shows me floating on back, smoking a Filipino cigarillo) is no more. Or rather, what you get now are twin pools set in a semblance of botanical paradise. With prices to match, of course, and no motley crew of international press and freelancers to disturb the stillness and the perfectly manicured ambience. Those days are gone, and how. Walk about this hotel now and be stunned. Try to keep from gawking.

A Student

The decor, the appointments, the settings, the materials, the fabrics, the stylings of Belle Epoque elegance and British colonial grandeur, upon which the sun did not set, make this practically a museum, and quiet as one, with a pleasant and costumed staff at sahib's beck and call. You're expecting the cast from British Royal Productions, but see only a paunchy, hairy guy in the perfect pool. It's quiet as an art film, or a grand mausoleum of Empire. Every square centimeter is picture book, all photogenic all the time. Exquisite? Luxurious? It's outrageous. The correspondents who used to pile back here in the evenings after a day "out at the war," seeing what policy makers rarely ever see, sweating from every every pore, would not recognize today's Hotel Le Royale. The film "The Killing Fields," based on correspondent Sidney Schanberg's experience, gives some idea of what the hotel used to be like in the good old/bad old days. (That video still runs constantly at guest houses here, to rapt travelers and tourists. See it if you did not already.)


VFW: A Symbol


Time, like the great Mekong River, does flow on. It's a good while now, even since the 80's. That was when Washington supported the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations. That odd policy was meant to punish Vietnam for its invasion, two decades ago, which drove Pol Pot and his terror machine out of Phnom Penh and back to the bush. There is still an effort to patch this broken country together again. We are now seeing even non-Government organizations, including the VFW, that are willing to pitch in.

"Here in Cambodia nearly every sector of society is in need of assistance," Post Adjutant Richard Lane says.

"There's really a lot of work to be done here," says Acting Post Commander Jerry M. Philbrook.

You know what? They got that one right..


(Dan Cameron Rodill's "VIETNAM 2000," exclusively at www.militarycorruption.com Coming soon.(We regret the delay)