Telling Omissions in Pacific Theater War Reporting

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 234–236:

Even when far back from enemy lines, standard practice among reporters in war zones was to painstakingly record, and then publish, the names and hometowns of servicemen and -women. That way, their families and friends back home could enjoy the acknowledgment of their loved ones’ courage, as well as the reflected glory of knowing someone involved in the war effort. “Names are news,” as the saying went. Publishers encouraged the practice for commercial reasons as much as journalistic ones: printing a local person’s name in the newspaper generated loyalty among readers and encouraged the purchase of extra copies, for posterity.

With one glaring, categorical exception, the reporters covering the Gremlin Special crash faithfully followed this practice. They published the names and hometowns of the survivors and the crash victims, and also the chaplains who flew over the valley for funeral rites, the planners in Hollandia, and the crew of the 311 supply plane. They included the names of not only the pilot, copilot, and radio operator but also the flight engineer, Sergeant Anson Macy of Jacksonville, Florida, and the cargo crew.

But as obvious as the reporters’ obsession with Margaret [Hastings, the only female survivor] was their tendency to overlook the 1st Recon paratroopers of Filipino descent. That oversight came despite the fact that all but Rammy Ramirez were natives or residents of the United States, and all were full-fledged members of the U.S. Army. When speaking with reporters by walkie-talkie, [Capt] Walter and [Lt] McCollom repeatedly tried to draw attention to the enlisted paratroopers, particularly the heroic jump by [Sgt] Bulatao and [Cpl] Ramirez into death-defying terrain, and their life-and-limb-saving ministrations to [Cpl] Hastings and [Sgt] Decker.

Yet in one story after another, the medics and paratroopers received little or no credit. Sometimes they appeared anonymously, as in one typical mention: “Two Filipino medics laden with supplies also were dropped by parachute.”

To his credit, Ralph Morton of The Associated Press eventually devoted some ink to the enlisted men of the 1st Recon, as did the [Chicago] Tribune‘s Walter Simmons, who focused most on Sergeant Alfred Baylon. Simmons’s interest in “the stocky, cigar-smoking” Baylon was piqued by the fact that the sergeant hailed from Chicago and had previously worked as an orderly in the city’s Garfield Park Community Hospital.

When the supply plane dropped news clippings about the events in Shangri-La, Walter reacted angrily in his journal to how little acclaim his men received. “So few reporters have given my men the credit due them and are always bringing in outsiders for credit. I certainly hope that when I get out of here I can give the credit to those who deserve it and [to] my enlisted men, who made possible the rescue of these people. It has definitely been no cake party jumping into unexplored country and climbing mountains over the damnest trails ever seen. No complaining, but just slugging along, doing their job.”

As the paratroopers’ leader, Walter received glowing mentions in the press reports. Reporters gave him the title of “rescue chief,” as Ralph Morton put it, presumably to distinguish him from the native chiefs. But throughout the mission reporters used his unloved given name, “Cecil.” And they routinely added an “s” to his last name, calling him “Walters.”

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Filipino 1st Recon Battalion (Special) in New Guinea

From Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff (HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 141–142:

In November 1944, Earl Walter and sixty-six jump-qualified members of the 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion were sweating out the war in “strategic reserve,” stuck in steamy but peaceful Hollandia [now Jayapura], Dutch New Guinea. The closest thing to excitement came when their battalion was renamed the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion (Special), known as the 1st Recon. The new name did nothing to change their idle fate. Neither did Walter’s promotion from lieutenant to captain.

As months passed, Allied forces under General MacArthur kept busy retaking the islands of the Philippines—one after another, from Leyte to Luzon, Palawan to Mindanao. As the fight progressed, paratroopers from the 503rd and 511th regiments carried out their dangerous and heroic missions on Corregidor and Luzon.

All the while, Walter and his men yearned to get out of the heat of Hollandia and into the fire of war. Their battalion’s devil-may-care motto of Bahala na! a phrase from the Tagalog dialect of the Philippines that can be translated as “Come what may!” [also compared to Inshallah] The more time passed without a mission, the more it seemed like a taunt. The problem, as Walter and his men saw it, was that nothing came their way.

While awaiting orders in Hollandia—some eighteen hundred miles southeast of Manila—Walter’s men pressed him for news. With families and roots in the Philippines, they wanted the honor and the satisfaction of driving the enemy from their homeland. They craved payback for more than two years of Japanese occupation. They wanted revenge for the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which Japanese troops killed or brutalized thousands of captured Filipino and American soldiers along a forced hundred-mile march to a prison camp. Newspapers had detailed the atrocities, fueling a combustible mix of fear and hatred of the Japanese, perhaps nowhere more so than among the men in Walter’s unit. One of them, Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez, had experienced the horrors of Bataan firsthand before making a daring escape.

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How NGOs Feed Corruption in Cambodia

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4386-4443:

In 2009 more than 2,000 donor and NGO organizations were based in Cambodia—more per capita than most anyplace in the world. And the money they disbursed per person far exceeded the average for poor countries receiving foreign aid. Some donors were huge government agencies, like the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department for International Development in Britain. Others were large international organizations, like the United Nations, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund. Still others were small, local groups, like the Alliance Association for Rural Restoration. It appeared to have fewer than a dozen employees.

Overall, so many donors and NGOs were pursuing projects in Cambodia that they were tripping over each other. Several reports on their work noted that many didn’t coordinate with each other and ended up spending time and money on duplicative projects. The government often had no idea what they were up to. “Some of them, particularly the smaller ones, I don’t know what they are doing,” said Im Sethy, the education minister. No matter. The foreigners stationed in Cambodia savored the lifestyle. “People move here just because it is a nice place to live,” said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch. “There’s Internet, restaurants.”

For many aid workers this was a delightful change, given where they had been based before. Jean-Pierre de Margerie, head of the World Food Program office in Phnom Penh, had just moved from a posting in North Korea. Richard Bridle, head of the UNICEF office, and Douglas Broderick, head of the UN’s mission in Cambodia, had been stationed there, too. In Pyongyang they led controlled, constricted lives. “The government was always playing mind games,” de Margerie recalled. Phnom Penh, in comparison, was quite pleasant.

But for the WFP and other UN agencies much of Cambodia was still listed as a hardship post, just like North Korea or Burma, with commensurate salary supplements. In those other countries, though, they couldn’t walk along the riverfront and stop in any of half-a-dozen espresso bars and pick up one of the two better than average English-language newspapers.

Teruo Jinnai, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, had worked previously in Tanzania—and Rwanda “just after the genocide,” he said. By comparison, he said, Cambodia was like a ball of clay that he could shape any way he wanted. “Here I have found my own passion. Here, I can work and cause the result I am after. In France, or America, you don’t see results. But here I can set my own target. If I want Cambodia to be like this or that, I can see the result. So that gives you more power, more energy, more passion.”

Critics of the donors and NGOs often noted that they favored expensive Basque, northern Italian, and Japanese restaurants that charged more for a meal than some Cambodians earned in a year. That may have been unfair; you don’t have to live like the people you are helping to be compassionate and effective. Nevertheless, it was clear that these people had a lifestyle they wanted to protect.

Though their work was challenging, it was often rewarding. Many were highly paid, and Cambodia charged no income taxes. They could live in sumptuous homes and hire as many servants as they wanted.

If they cut off aid to the government, as the human-rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs, or at least their postings. In a Brookings Institution report entitled Aid Effectiveness in Cambodia, two Cambodian economists argued that donors were eager to begin programs that required their continuing participation and assistance because they “wish to maintain their presence in Cambodia.” The donors’ favorite project: good governance, an objective certain to require many years of work. So far it had produced few if any useful results. At one point in 2008, the Brookings study found that donors were pursuing 1,300 different projects nationwide, and 710 of them were ongoing, meaning they required a continued donor presence to keep them running.

So what happened each year when the donors’ meeting came around again? Hun Sen stood before them and one more time said, this year, we are going to reform education, health care, land usage. Every year human-rights groups and opposition candidates cried out: Hold back your donations until they end land seizures, illegal logging and corruption, until teachers stop selling test scores and doctors stop demanding bribes!

But most every donor in the audience had spent the past few months negotiating contract renewals with their home states or organizations, agreements allowing them to continue their work for the coming year. Here at the meeting they were to announce what they were now planning to do and how much they intended to spend. Human Rights Watch and the others were asking them to rip up their new contracts and go home, jobless.

Naturally, none of the donors said that bleak possibility was the reason they would not hold back aid. Instead, they argued, “If you hold back money, the people most affected would be the poor,” explained In Samrithy, the NGO liaison coordinator for the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a donor umbrella group. He acknowledged that corruption was so rife that government officials helped themselves to money and goods that donors had dedicated to the poor. Even when they “distribute rice to the poor who they have evicted from their homes—they take some for themselves,” said Kek Galibru, director of Licadho, the human-rights group. “They can’t help it. It’s a habit.” Still, In Samrithy said, “the poor won’t get the services they need,” if aid is cut off. As for the corruption, he explained it away. “Some money goes this way or that way. But it’s useful if some of it reaches the poor. Not all of it does, but some does. That’s better than nothing.” That was a popular rationalization among donors.

A few months after parliament passed the 2010 anticorruption law, a routine government census turned up about 2,000 ghost workers—phantom employees whose salaries went into their supervisors’ pockets. The government declined to prosecute, saying, “We must first warn those individuals who are getting money from ghost names,” as Cheam Yeap, a senior member of parliament, put it.

The next month, Hun Sen addressed the annual donors’ conference once again and promised one more time that soon “we will have the capacity to fight against this dangerous disease” because “corruption will damage our institutions.” The donors awarded him $1.1 billion—the largest pledge in a generation.

Some Cambodians and others remained astounded by the donors’ behavior—even people who worked for them. “I don’t understand their policy,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of another donor umbrella group. “The government has learned that the donors are not serious.” He leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly, as if he were confiding a secret. “They do not stand behind what they say. Sometimes I don’t think some of the donors are really here to fight corruption.”

Year after year the foreign donors continued meeting with the smiling health minister who flattered, and coddled, them. They reached agreements to begin new projects and then joined their friends or lovers at the new Greek place for dinner. After the donors handed over the money to build a new health clinic, the deputy minister took out enough to pay his son’s school tuition bill. The assistant minister took enough to buy new tires for his car. His deputy simply stuffed some cash in his pocket. After all, government commerce was carried out entirely in cash. When the clinic was finally built, so little money was left that the contractor had to use cheap and flimsy building materials, raising the real risk that the structure would collapse in the next big storm—just like that new school building in Kampong Thom.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Old Japanese Cemetery Kanji

I’ve been helping to decipher some old gravestones in the newly renovated Mo‘ili‘ili Japanese Cemetery (est. 1908), a candidate for the State and National Register of Historic Places. Here’s a short list of deciphering aids.

Dates

紀元 Kigen ‘record-origin’ (counting from Emperor Jimmu, 660BC)
明治 Meiji 1–45 (1868–1912)
大正 Taisho 1–15 (1912–1926)
昭和 Showa 1–64 (1926–1989)
平成 Heisei 1–? (1989–?)
行年~才 gyounen/kounen — sai ‘age at passing: — years old’
~生 ‘born (on) —’
~亡 ‘died (on) —’
~寂 ‘died (on) —’
早世 sousei ‘early death’
生児 seiji ‘just born’
嬰児 eiji ‘infant’

Names

~家之墓 — ke no haka ‘(X) family’s grave’
~先祖 — senzo ‘(X family) ancestors’
~代々 — daidai ‘(X family) generations’
法号 hougou ‘Buddhist name’
戒名 kaimyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
法名 houmyou ‘posthumous Buddhist name’
俗名 zokumyou ‘secular name’
釈~ Shaku ‘Shak[yamuni] (the historical Buddha)’ (in many posthumous Buddhist names)
~妙~ myou ‘mystery, miracle, wonder’ (in posthumous Buddhist names)
~信士 shinji/shinshi ‘honorific title for men’
~信女 shinnyo ‘honorific title for women’
~童子 douji ‘honorific title for boys’
~童女 dounyo ‘honorific title for girls’
~尼 ama ‘nun’ (sometimes marks posthumous names for girls)
~県~郡~村/町 — ken ‘prefecture’ — gun ‘district’ — mura/machi ‘village/town’

Mantras

南無阿弥陀仏 Namu Amida Butsu ‘Hail Amida Buddha’ (= Kannon, Pure Land [浄土 joudo] Buddhism)
南無妙法蓮華経 Namu Myouhou Renge Kyou ‘Hail the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’ (Nichiren Buddhism)
倶会一処 Kue Issho (a phrase from the Amida Sutra suggesting) ‘we will meet again in the Pure Land’

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What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.

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Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197:

In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.

During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.

A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.

So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.

The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.

Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.

If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”

The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?

By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.

The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.

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