Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, shakes hands with Ambassador Kenneth Quinn as US Senator John Kerry looks on during a meeting in April 1999. (Reuters)
It had been almost two decades since the Khmer Rouge were ousted and forced to the fringes of the country, but their reaction to the FBI’s probe into a deadly grenade attack on an opposition rally in March 1997 had officials quaking at the U.S. Embassy in the heart of Phnom Penh.
In a confidential cable to Washington on July 16, 1997, the embassy summarized a broadcast on Khmer Rouge radio months earlier that had coincided with other events to create a strong sense that the FBI agent leading the probe was at risk, prompting Ambassador Kenneth Quinn to send him on a “long weekend in Bangkok” on May 29.
Ouch Theara performs with Doch Chkae. (Steve Porte)
For a group of friends who spent endless days and nights scavenging in Phnom Penh’s notorious Stung Meanchey dumpsite as children, U.S. rap-metal pioneers Rage Against The Machine would seem an unlikely source of inspiration.
The world of Ouch Theara, his brother and his friends extended no further than the daily ritual of picking through the discarded detritus of other people’s lives.
In mid-October last year, 18-year-old Bun Hat rode about 60 km from an isolated village on the Sesan river to Ratanakkiri’s provincial capital, Banlung, to meet a man who planned to lock him up and hide the key.
At that point, Mr. Hat was two years into a drug habit, enticed by friends who bought crystal methamphetamine and “ya ma”—meth cut with caffeine—from itinerant Khmer peddlers who regularly motored through the village hawking household goods and fried bread.
When he entered prison, Kung Raiya was just “a young bull”—a 26-year-old political science student, hot-headed and put in jail for posting on Facebook that he would someday start a “color revolution.”
But inside the walls of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, he found a teacher. In fact, he says he found a whole group of mentors: rights workers and politicians imprisoned over the past couple of years amid an apparent crackdown on dissenting voices in Cambodia.
A homeless boy, high on glue, puts a plastic bag over his head on the streets of Phnom Penh last month. (Emil Kastrup/The Cambodia Daily)
She wanders Phnom Penh’s Street 136 for hours, trudging past girly bars, gingerly approaching tourists laughing over frosted glasses of draft beer, holding out a thin hand to passersby.
On a good night, she pockets 10,000 riel, or about $2.50. On a bad night of begging, she walks away with a few hundred crumpled riel, having spent the hours rejected or ignored.
In March 1980, American journalist John Burgess was thrilled to learn that the Cambodian government had approved his request to visit a country cut off from the rest of the world, but beginning a long recovery.
Writing for The Washington Post and Time magazine, he had arrived in Bangkok in 1979 to cover the refugee exodus into Thailand, and also wanted to see what was happening inside Cambodia.
For Say Sam Al, Cambodia’s environment minister, it all started on the night of July 28, 2013. National elections had been held that day, and he was, at the time, a public affairs official at the Council of Ministers. For his party, in those evening hours, things were not looking good.
“I was driving back from Kompong Cham to meet Chea Sophara, to meet Samdech Heng Samrin,” he said, speaking of senior ruling party politicians—who, like him, were on the list to become lawmakers in the province—gathering in Phnom Penh to await the ballot results.
During his first three decades in power, sports couldn’t have been further down the pecking order on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s list of priorities. Funding was woefully low, facilities were crumbling and major national events rarely attracted more than a scattering of support.
International sporting successes, which were rare, would mostly go unnoticed.
In a dark, dank corridor in Phnom Penh’s PJ prison, Soeun Denny and Um Sam Ang—two Cambodian-Americans who have shared a 4-by-6 meter cell with six other inmates for the past four years—sat side by side, sipping cans of Coke Zero and wearing identical orange uniforms.
That Cambodia’s prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and beset by corruption is no secret, but the frustration of life behind bars is hard to grasp until one is an inmate. Fluorescent lights stay on through the night, turning off from only 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Guards demand money for favors, snatch cigarettes and break them in half, and send prisoners to a “punish room” if they misbehave.