By James Pringle
David Puttnam, once a brilliant film-maker, now a member of the British House of Lords, best known for producing the amazing movie of Khmer Rouge terror, “The Killing Fields,” stunned journalists, some diplomats, and local young film-makers last week in Phnom Penh, by praising the current Cambodian government, and its leader Hun Sen, for its “commitment to ending corruption,” and lambasting foreign journalists resident here.
In the question period following the re-screening of the epic film at the capital’s arts hub, Meta House, 30 years after the chronicle of a New York Times correspondent and his local assistant, was first screened, I told Lord Puttnam that his film, in its accurate account of the sheer ferocity of the Khmer Rouge, “had stood the test of time.”
I could have added that it was among the best movies I had ever seen, equaled probably only by “Casablanca,” a love affair of the second world war, and “Apocalypse Now,” the violent classic of the Vietnam War, in my opinion.
In his masterwork, the British filmmaker detailed the fortunes of journalist Sydney Schanberg and his late local reporter Dith Pran. But, in a speech to the British chamber of commerce the next day, he warned the present-day foreign media here not to became “just another arm of the opposition.”
He called on journalists to develop a more constructive role as the government works to develop Cambodia.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where I have received such an absolute answer from government on the issues of stopping and stamping out corruption,” Lord Puttnam said of this state run by former Khmer Rouge luminaries, which is infamous for indulging in corruption, violent suppression of democracy, and the land seizures from poor farmers, for the benefit of the greedy elite of the ruling CPP.
“I find the commitment and determination here to confine it [corruption] and root it out in very real,” he said.
Lord Puttnam, who made his comments to about 50 members of the British chamber of commerce, was recently named British Prime Minister David Cameron’s trade envoy for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
His Lordship told journalists that “the challenge for the media is that you have to decide what the role is: is it to inflame or inform?”
What Lord Puttnam does not seem to understand is that Mr. Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge to join the Vietnamese side in 1977, abhors any publicity for the Khmer Rouge at all, fearing that it would lead ordinary Cambodians once again to demand to know why they are still being ruled by some members of the old murderous regime.
Resident correspondents here know that Cambodia is regularly in the ranks of the worst committers of human rights violations among U.N. member states.
Under Mr. Hun Sen’s rule, attacks and assassinations have taken place, and besides, Mr. Hun Sen conducted a coup against the legitimate Prince Norodom Ranariddh government in 1997, undermining all the work the U.N. did to establish democracy here.
Human Rights Watch said on January 14 that Cambodian authorities responded to peaceful protests against fundamentally flawed elections with excessive force and bans on demonstrations.
Lord Puttnam, it seemed, was obviously unaware of this.
As I watched the screening of his film, my mind went back to 1970, when as bureau chief in Vietnam of the British news agency, Reuters, I flew into Cambodia on an overloaded, ramshackle South Vietnamese helicopter, which took a hit, but managed to land and take off several times in the new war zone of Cambodia.
I made several visits to the field to cover the war, something even more dangerous in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where Cambodian forces included child soldiers and the wives and children of fighting men, who shared their shallow trenches and cooked the rice.
At the press HQ at the Royal Hotel, its name then having been changed to the republican Le Phnom, following the Lon Nol government’s overthrow of the late Prince Norodom Sihanouk, reporters and photographers gathered at the tiny pool in the back garden.
Like Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain, we counted our numbers out in the morning and back in the mid-afternoon. At Reuters we had already lost two staff reporters killed in 1968 Saigon, and journalists started dying again “going down the roads” in Cambodia, as we called the dangerous sallies into the countryside around Phnom Penh.
There was an apposite line in the “Killing Fields” as the actors playing Jon Swain of the Sunday Times told Schanberg of the New York Times that he had heard the best place to seek safety when the Khmer Rouge dead-eyed zombies came in to take over Phnom Penh in 1975 was the French Embassy.
“Who told you that?” asked Schanberg.
“The British Embassy,” Swain replied with an ironic smile.
I looked along the row at Meta House and saw the new British ambassador, Bill Longhurst, crack a smile at that line in Lord Puttnam’s superb movie.
It was only the next day that I heard about Lord Puttnam’s incredible remarks at the chamber of commerce regarding journalists.
I thought just then of Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister, who virtually invented and played a crucial role in the political settlement that ended Cambodia’s civil war, who two weeks ago called for sanctions against the CPP-led government, saying that it had literally been “getting away with murder.”
I first met foreign minister Evans, who first saw Cambodia as a backpacker decades ago, in Samoa at a South Seas summit when he played his ukulele after hours, which he does well. He was suffering from a bout of hiccups and said the solution was to pour some beer from a bottle sideways into the mouth as he duly did. It was then that I heard of his acute concern for Cambodia.
Mr. Evans, who had maintained a close friendship with Hun Sen’s government since the peace process of the 1980s and early 1990s, said he had lost hope that the CPP is interested in protecting human rights or liberal democracy.
He talked of a “pattern of strategic violence used by the government with international impunity.”
Mr. Evans said that while preserving a democratic facade, Mr. Hun Sen had ruled, for all practical purposes, as an autocrat, showing scant regard for the right of free expression and association, and resorting to violence and repression whenever he has deemed it necessary to preserve his and his party’s position.
Lord Puttnam also spoke of those correspondents who were portrayed in the film, Schanberg, Haing Ngor, Al Rockoff, Swain and Dith Pran, and mentioned Elizabeth Becker’s work on exposing the Khmer Rouge.
He expressed regret than Haing Ngor and Dith Pran had died (Haing Ngor killed by Cambodian gang members in Los Angeles who wanted to steal the locket which contained his only picture of his late wife who perished in the Khmer Rouge inferno).
He mentioned that the great Australian film cameraman, Neil Davis, had helped give him essential background on journalists working in Cambodia, and was later killed in a failed coup by Thai military in Bangkok.
And so, I was thoroughly taken aback by Lord Puttnam’s glowing remarks to the British trade group about the current regime here, and his criticism of the mainly young, struggling journalists who report from Cambodia. So much admired by me and many others in the past, he had shown himself in the last few days to be completely out of touch with modern Cambodia.
So many photographers and reporters died to report the truth of Democratic Kampuchea, but in these latter days he had no time for their successors.
Lord Puttnam implies he knows better than those on the spot, and those who went through the war and its aftermath, and know the reality of it all.
Reluctantly, I have to say I have a message for Lord Puttnam, the man whom I had so much admired.
You should get yourself well briefed, as you did in making the movie, on talking to young journalists here.
If you can’t inform yourself on the reality of what is going on, I would advise you to go back to the House of Lords and maintain silence on matters such as the present political situation in Cambodia, and the foreign journalists here, of which you have, at this date, so little knowledge—remembering “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
James Pringle worked as a correspondent in the Vietnam and Cambodia wars, and in Maoist China, for Reuters, Newsweek and the Times of London.
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