Out of Cambodia: Peace is only a dream where the law of the jungle rules

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The Independent Online
PHNOM PENH - Chen Saroeun's life reached rock bottom two years ago, when three gunmen came on a dark, rainy night and robbed him of all he owned in the world - dollars 400 ( pounds 260). After 13 years living as a refugee in a camp on the Thai border, he had just been repatriated to Cambodia by the United Nations to start a new life. He and his family were sleeping under a plastic sheet, outside the northern town of Siem Reap.

'They came around midnight. My wife and (four) children were sleeping, close together like fingers, on the ground. I told the men I would give them everything, but not to hurt my children.' He gave them the necklace and ring made of gold that he was wearing. The two pieces had cost him all the money he had saved. 'After that I had nothing.'

For several months he fed his family with hand-outs from a distant relative. Saroeun was then lucky enough to get a job with the UN in their mission to prepare the country for elections in May 1993. He had learned English while in the refugee camp, and was employed by the UN as an interpreter for a year, for dollars 240 a month.

'This was wonderful for me. And with my first salary, you know what I did? I immediately bought an M-16 rifle, for dollars 100. My friend told me it is better if I have a gun. Otherwise, a soldier can come and rob me or take my daughter and enjoy her. So if anyone tries to rob me again, I will shoot him in the back,' he said, with a flash of anger in his eyes.

It was the anger of a Cambodian who has felt put upon for years, the anger that suddenly wells up out of generations of oppression and exploitation, the anger that has never seen justice done, unless with a gun. When his gold was taken, the gunmen - off-duty soldiers - warned him they would shoot one of his children if he complained to the authorities.

Saroeun, 34, has never had it easy. His mother was Cambodian but his father was French, an archaeologist working on the restoration of the ancient temples of Angkor, just outside Siem Reap. He never met his father and grew up as a bit of an outsider. He worked in the fields during the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 and then fled to the refugee camp ahead of the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. He is a gentle, softly spoken man who would like nothing more than to live in peace, providing for his family. But, as far back as he can remember, his country has been at war.

The UN left after the elections. While technocrats in New York talk about the success of the Cambodian mission, the Cambodians themselves have not seen much improvement. The war continues, corruption is institutionalised and violence is everywhere. In Siem Reap the military commander has just been transferred - not arrested for treason - for selling ammunition which found its way into the hands of the enemy. Saroeun is not surprised at this.

Saroeun bought a car from his earnings from the UN and he earns his living by driving tourists around the Angkor temples. But the fighting and the kidnapping of foreign tourists has scared most of the holidaymakers away. Business is bad.

On Saturday night, at an open- air disco across the road from Saroeun's house, a fight over a woman ended with a grenade being thrown at the dance floor. At about the same time, several miles outside the town, a family whose daughter was engaged to a foreigner was visited by three men with guns. They demanded dollars 500, assuming the foreigner was giving money to his future in-laws.

Saroeun just shook his head. Such is life for an ordinary Cambodian who lives outside the relative peace and affluence of the capital, Phnom Penh.

'Yes, of course I am afraid. But I think if I am injured or killed, it is God's wish. When you are born, the day you will die is fixed also. There is nothing you can do about that.' That is the Buddhist way of thinking. But the Lord Buddha did not have to go out and buy an M-16 to protect his family.