From a Distance, Some Key Questions

My life is dramatically different from what it was when I arrived in Phnom Penh in July of 1993 as a relatively inexperienced 25-year-old with a mission to start producing a daily newspaper.

I live far away from Cambodia now, and I am intellectually and emotionally distant from the country as well.

While I retain a position on the masthead of this newspaper, I have nothing to do with its management or operation.

But despite all the time that has passed and all the changes I’ve gone through, my experiences in Cambodia and at the Daily have without question stayed with me.

My work at the newspaper, and the relationships I developed there, altered the way I look at life, and helped refine my view of myself and world around me. In short, The Cambodia Daily played an im­portant role in making me the person I am today.

But The Cambodia Daily wasn’t founded to change me, or the many others (expatriates and Cam­bodians) who have undoubtedly found their lives transformed to one extent or another by their ten­ure at the paper. It was, instead, founded to help change Cambodia.

The founding principles of The Cambodia Daily were quite simple: Provide a reliable, consistent and unflinching daily news voice in Cambodia, and in the process, help to train a new generation of independent, fair and honest Cambodi­an journalists. I feel certain that these goals were achieved.

The Daily has never failed to publish on a scheduled day, and, to my knowledge, has never compromised its journalistic integrity. As for training of journalists: Cambodi­an reporters and editors from the Daily have risen to become some of the best and most influential journalists in the country.

But, there was a larger purpose behind these objectives.

Shortly after the Daily started publishing, the monarchy was re-established, a new constitution was ratified, and a new government was sworn in. It was a very exciting, hopeful, and optimistic time. We at the Daily hoped that by helping to establish a free press we would contribute to the rebuilding of a peaceful, just and democratic Cam­bodian society.

I’m not in a position to assess whether the newspaper has ac­complished that mission. As mentioned, I no longer follow day-to-day developments in Cambodia as I did from 1993 to 1996.

It’s been a dozen years since I was editor of The Cambodia Daily, and more than five years since I visited the country. So rather than comment on the situation in Cam­bodia today, I’d like to ask those of you who know much more about the country than I—Cambodian citizens, students, business and government leaders, foreign correspondents, diplomats, and aid workers—to consider several questions posed below.

During the first few years that the Daily was in operation, several journalists were assassinated. I remember well covering the killing of Thun Bunly, a young newspaper editor shot down while riding his motorbike near Wat Phnom. The paper he edited was known for being extremely critical of certain government leaders. I remember attending his funeral, and thinking that perhaps some day, aided by a press that held those who ordered and carried out such killings ac­countable for their thuggish act­ions, journalists wouldn’t have to worry about being threatened or harmed for what they wrote or published. Has that day come to Cambodia?

I remember seeing the first large wave of foreign investment in post-Untac Cambodia. Around the same time that these so-called “cowboy investors” arrived, there was a conspicuous increase in the number of banks along Norodom Boulevard and new Land Cruisers on the streets of Phnom Penh, many of them with well-heeled public servants inside.

At The Cambodia Daily, we worked hard trying to track down where all the money was coming from. Usually we had little success, but we remained optimistic that over time we would be able to ex­pose illicit business dealings to the light of public scrutiny, thereby helping to root out corruption.

Do “cowboy” investors still operate with impunity in Cambodia? And who benefits most from the business they bring?

In 1995, Prince Norodom Siri­vudh was expelled from the country and barred from running for office. I flew to Paris to interview him, and published a long series on his political positions. It was my hope that by providing a platform for all Cambodian politicians to ex­press their views, it would be more difficult for similar exiling of political opponents in the future.

Do politicians who might pose a threat to those in power still have to worry about being barred from their own country…or worse?

On a number of occasions, I visited military hospitals during one of the inevitable dry-season offensives against the Khmer Rouge.

Teenaged boys who had been sent to walk through minefields wearing little more than a krama and flip flops sat on the floors be­cause their weren’t enough beds, their bandages soaked with blood. The war with the Khmer Rouge is over now. But are simple villagers and poor Cambodians treated with more respect by their government?

These are just a few of the questions that will help assess how far Cambodia has come in the past 15 years, and how far it still has to go.

(Barton Biggs, The Cambodia Daily’s first editor, lives with his wife and three daughters on a farm in the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. He is covering the US presidential campaign as a writer and editor for CNN. He also designs and builds houses.)

 

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