Wednesday, October 26, 2005

In killing field, Khmer memories for sale

By Seth Mydans International Herald Tribune

CHEUNG EK, Cambodia The people who live at the edges of the Khmer Rouge killing field here say it seems that the ghosts of the victims have finally departed and left them in peace.

"We used to see them, but now they have gone to another life,"
said Svay Phreung, a caretaker who lives in a small shack on the grounds
where 8,000 people were slaughtered three decades ago.

Over the decades, the pits that held the bones here have become the most venerated place of remembrance of the 1.7 million people who died during the brutal rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

And so it came as a shock to many Cambodians when the government announced last spring that it had leased the Cheung Ek killing field to a Japanese company to manage for profit.

"It is commercializing the memories," Youk Chhang, director of the leading archive of Khmer Rouge materials, said when the lease was announced. "Memories cannot be sold, cannot be contracted."

But in fact the deal should have come as no surprise.

The market is hot now for government assets and prime real estate: universities, courts, hospitals, police stations, ministry buildings and even a piece of the palace, which are being sold or bartered as if the place were going out of business.

It is the latest wave in the corruption that, hand in hand with lawlessness and impunity, have crippled the country's emergence from the destruction of the Khmer Rouge years.

Cambodia has become a self-devouring nation in which just about everything seems to be for sale or lease: forests, fisheries, mining concessions, air routes, ship registrations, toxic dumps, weapons, women, girls, boys, babies.

Well before the deal for the killing field, the government gave a well-connected private company the concession to earn millions of dollars managing Cambodia's national symbol, Angkor Wat.

Land values in the capital, Phnom Penh, are estimated to have tripled over the past five years, and the market is so hot that small lakes are being filled to create more prime land to sell.

"There seems to be a frenzy, a momentum to grab up anything you can," said Miloon Kothari, the special rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations, on a visit here at the end of August. "The decisions seem to be dictated by money and political expediency."

Prime Minister Hun Sen brushed aside the criticism, saying, "one guy, a United Nations representative, gave a press interview. He came just for money. He regarded Cambodians as thieves."

The most prominent of the current deals are being accomplished in a burst of secret land swap agreements with a small number of well-connected private companies.

In these swaps, the developer promises to build a replacement structure on the outskirts or suburbs of the city where land is less valuable. Since the details are mostly hidden, it is impossible to verify or disprove the widespread public certainty that payments of large sums of
money are involved.

In one deal under way now, the Royal University of Fine Arts, near the French Embassy, is being swapped for a new building to be completed on reclaimed land at a far edge of the city.

In another, the municipal police headquarters near the central market has been given away in return for a new building on the outskirts. Similar deals have been made for police headquarters in Siem Reap and Battambang, according to Licadho, a human rights group.

The main prison, just in back of the Royal Palace, has been emptied for a developer who has built a new prison on the outskirts.

Even a plot of land adjacent to the palace and belonging to the royal family has been appropriated, apparently in return for the construction of government office buildings, according to local newspaper reports.

One developer has, in effect, acquired the justice system's buildings, according to a report in The Cambodia Daily. This company is building suburban replacements for the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court, the Appeals Court and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

There are unconfirmed reports that other government ministries are also being traded away. "The government sells schools, a hospital, and now a lake," Kek Galabru, who heads Licadho, said earlier this year. "One day they're going to sell the Mekong - they're going to sell the whole of Phnom Penh."

The Cheung Ek killing field, the main execution site for prisoners from Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, 11 kilometers, or seven miles, distant, has been leased on a 30-year contract for $15,000 a year with graduated increases.

Based on figures from an official here, the company eventually will earn about $200,000 a year in entrance fees. The profits are to go to a fund that is half-owned by government officials.

The Japanese company, JC Royal, has agreed to clean up and organize the site, dulling the raw immediacy that still gives the area its haunted feel.

Kep Chuktema, the governor of Phnom Penh, who signed the contract, said the company would plant trees and flowers and improve the site while keeping the pits of the killing field intact.

The rising desire for cash, however, seems to have overcome the waning fear of ghosts. For a long time, the killing field has been surrounded by sellers of soft drinks and filled with the chants of child beggars: "One dollar, one dollar, one dollar," and, "You give me money."

The deputy administrator of the memorial, Ros Sophea Ravi, said that even before the Japanese company raised the entrance fee to $2 from 50 cents, the ghosts seemed to have departed. The children, too, said their parents had begun to let them out of their houses at night, feeling less
threatened by the wandering souls of the victims.

The caretaker, Svay Phreung, 70, who lives in a palm-leaf lean-to, said that like a caterpillar that takes time to mature, the souls of the dead must wait until the time comes for their departure and rebirth. Now that they are gone, he said, the spirit world has become quieter,
reverting to the control of the local guardian spirit, which has made its home here since long before the Khmer Rouge came.

Asked whether local spirits had been able to save any of the victims here, Svay Phreung replied: "How could they help? The Khmer Rouge banned religion."


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