A series of flawed elections, a new king on the throne, political gangsterism, former Khmer Rouge leaders at last brought to some kind of accounting, skyscrapers shooting up in Phnom Penh, a cult of personality around a “strongman,” rice-fields and sugar palms churned up for development, two million tourists a year, the bloody horrors of 1997—a lot can happen in 15 years.
History has not stood still in Cambodia, even if the same stultifying group of unchanging figures remains immovably in power.
The Cambodia Daily, as the nation’s newspaper of record, has preserved this uneven march of history—the sterling work of a new generation, the venality, the perspicacity, the thuggery, the dedication of some, the chicanery of others—and will continue to do so, wherever that journey next takes this nation of 14 million.
“The moving finger writes…nor all thy tears can wash out a line of it,” as Omar Khayyam, the 12th century Persian poet wrote.
History is immutable. It’s a march that, to date, has not brought to fruition the hopes and aspirations unloosened by the UN-supervised elections of 1993. But nor has it, casting one’s glance around the other nations of Asia, from Stalinist Laos to corrupt Malaysia to litigiously minded Singapore, been such a disaster—hope has not died, and a new young generation seems optimistic for the future.
I first saw Cambodia from an overloaded South Vietnamese helicopter as I covered US President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970, and helped cover a war in which numbers of my journalist colleagues were killed—including my own Cambodian interpreter.
How chilling it was, the other day, to see in the audience at the Beijing Olympics, the saturnine features of Dr Henry Kissinger—he who, among many others, brought such destruction to Cambodia—staring out from a seat in the Bird’s Nest stadium.
“Power is the great aphrodisiac,” Kissinger once boasted. How appropriate he should be in China, which supplied the support and intellectual background of Pol Pot and his cohorts. At least, Mao—whose writings on agrarian Utopias helped inspire the Khmer Rouge—was not part of the celebrations.
There’s no point of lamenting the impunity of those who brought the Conradian horrors of the Heart of Darkness to Cambodia, and those who have—scarcely legitimately—held power since, when we look at the impunity on the world stage.
But let’s not be too portentous about it all. It’s in the last few weeks that we have seen the constant worth of The Cambodia Daily.
I first read about the confrontation between Thai and Cambodian soldiers near Preah Vihear temple in the Cambodia Daily; the newspaper had already an editor and a reporter in situ up on that craggy escarpment. For a journalist, it was a dream story—a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with serious undertones but with loads of color at an exotic venue.
I looked at my Preah Vihear file, and there was another Cambodia Daily of a few months back entitled “Trip to Preah Vihear Temple worth every twist and turn” which basically explained how to get there from Phnom Penh, a journey of some 12 hours.
I had been to Preah Vihear and toured the temple in the 1980s, from the Thai side, talking my way through a Thai blocking force and the Heng Samrin troops then guarding it. Now I set off again to do it from the Cambodian side, and stayed in a $4 a night guesthouse I won’t soon forget. Then, on the weekend of 2nd August, The Cambodia Daily had an eyewitness account of how the confrontation had developed and how it now stood—a boon to any diplomat, academic or businessman who had to assess a possible crisis in the making.
Fifteen years after the paper was founded, as the first English-language daily in Cambodia, by the indefatigable Bernard Krisher, The Cambodia Daily was still ahead of the game, as far as I could see.
Krisher is an old colleague from our days at Newsweek, who fled with his family as a boy from the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1930s Europe, and we are grateful he is still the Daily’s active publisher, and tireless builder of Cambodian schools.
When I worked as China correspondent of the Times of London between 1996 and 1999 in Beijing, but with some of Southeast Asia as part of my beat, I was also able to keep abreast of events in Cambodia, at least, through The Cambodia Daily.
Of course, there was another English language publication in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh Post, in whose birth in 1992 I played a small part, but this—fine though it was in many ways—had no international dimension, and published only fortnightly.
Looking at the overall picture, one recalls that the French man of letters and philosopher, Voltaire, known for his defense of civil liberties, once said that history could be well written only in a free country.
Journalism, being as we all know, the first draft of history, likewise faces a similar handicap in an unfree political environment.
But, like a candle burning in the dark, for the past decade and a half the Cambodia Daily has brought residents of Phnom Penh and far beyond the capital not only a lively account of Cambodia politics and other goings-on, but has provided locals and expatriates alike with a daily round-up of pertinent world affairs.
Some said it was “overly serious,” and the Bayon Pearnik, an often-witty free tourist guide, liked to parody it as the “Cambodia Dreary.”
It was—and remains—high-minded, but its mixture of international politics and ecology, its campaigns such as that toward malaria eradication, and its access to major wire services and newspapers gives its readers a six days a week compilation in handy-sized, sub-tabloid form.
For envoys, NGO workers, investors, and foreign correspondents, the Daily has been one important key to understanding the vexed situation in a country run by an inflexible and stolid regime and has not itself been afraid to stand up to authority.
In the 1970s, reporters had to keep abreast of the news with a daily digest in French put out by the Khmer press agency—that, and the lethal task of “going down the road” to the war.
The Cambodia Daily has also provided an excellent training for many journalists who have gone on to make an impact in world capitals, as well as giving young Cambodians a thorough grounding in the tough reporting trade. It never missed an issue, not even in the harsh days of the 1997 violence, when it was even difficult for the staff to find a square meal.
The general “Alice in Wonderland” absurdity of Cambodian politics is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, even as the country’s growth accelerates—and even as the oxen continue, hopefully, to plod implacably on at their daily task, and Cambodia’s age-old traditions remain.
It’s this general nuttiness, and its once ebullient and still sagacious old King Father Sihanouk that makes Cambodia such an attractive place for writers and journalists.
Over-serious though it may sometimes seem to some, we are lucky to have the Cambodia Daily to give us the tools for understanding the way forward for Cambodians and expatriates alike during the next 15 years.
(James Pringle has covered China and Southeast Asia for Reuters, Newsweek, Times of London and the International Herald Tribune.)
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