siem reap town – US journalist Nate Thayer returned to Cambodia and jarred attendees at an editor’s forum by slamming the state of redeveloping Cambodia.
He criticized the government, the guidance of Prime Minister Hun Sen and maintained a barbaric political culture remains, assuring whoever is in charge would trample on citizens’ rights.
“The sad reality is that the [international community’s] attempt at political stability and democracy has failed,” Thayer told more than 75 people here at a dinner discussion Tuesday night organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Asian-German Editor’s Forum.
“…My view is that the fundamental issues have been avoided, and these issues are what has brought Cambodia to its knees in the past, and until they are addressed, the cycle of instability and corrupt regimes will not go away.”
Thayer is best-known for 10 years of Khmer Rouge coverage that led to a 1997 interview of Pol Pot.
This trip was his first to Cambodia in more than 18 months, but he said he kept up with Cambodian affairs via the Internet.
His book, tentatively titled “Sympathy for the Devil: Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge,” is expected to be published by Viking/Penguin before the end of the year. A documentary film, with the same working title, is complete and scheduled to be aired later this month in Europe, Thayer said. A diary Pol Pot kept after being detained under house arrest by his comrades in 1997 was made available to him.
Thayer told the group, which included government officials and regional and international journalists, that journalists were being hindered from freely reporting on key issues and investigative reporting was virtually impossible.
“Intimidation and repression are responsible for the revolving door of collapsed societies which remains Cambodia today,” he said in the wide-ranging 90-minute talk and question-and-answer session.
“Make no mistake,” he asserted, “Cambodia is a dictatorship under the control of Hun Sen.”
But he added, “We journalists focus on Hun Sen now because he is the leader in power. But when he is gone, there will be someone else and the country will face the same problems.”
He cited examples of impunity, including the failure of the government to arrest anyone for the 1997 grenade attack that killed at least 17 people and injured more than 100, for the more than 100 extrajudicial killings of Funcinpec security officials following 1997’s factional fighting, and for the lack of action following the December acid attack against a 16-year-old girl police say was led by the wife of a Council of Ministers’ official.
“People with money are able to buy off people with power, and people with guns are able to buy off people with power,” the journalist charged.
While Thayer scolded the government for allowing five former Khmer Rouge standing committee members to live freely in Cambodia, most of his talk focused on Cambodia’s ruling elite, not the guerrilla movement.
“Cambodian officials’ links to criminal syndicates…are key to understanding why institutions are as weak as they are now in Cambodia,” said Thayer.
Thayer blasted the business practices of tycoon Teng Bunma, who directs the Thai Boon Roong Group. Teng Bunma has been barred from entering the US because of suspected links to drug trafficking. Teng Bunma has denied the allegations.
One government official present said he agreed with most of what Thayer said. “Someone has to say the truth,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
However, others present disagreed.
“Nate knows well about my country, but he doesn’t understand the differences now compared to before,” said National Television of Kampuchea (TVK) Deputy General Director Kem Gunawadh. “What he said was true before 1998, but not now.”
Said Lao Mong Hay, the executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy and a regular government critic, “He might have gone too far.”
Khieu Kanharith, chief government spokesman, dismissed Thayer when told of his remarks.
“People can say what they want, but the truth will emerge eventually,” Khieu Kanharith said at a birthday party in Phnom Penh Wednesday night.
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