I still remember the first words I heard in Cambodia.
“Man!” said my taxi driver, in a fluent display of Americanese. “It's hot!” He jumped in the car and cranked up some Western slow jams. The bass line thumped through the humidity, an incongruous soundtrack for the images unreeling outside the window: grannies wearing traditional checked scarves, skinny oxen, the swirl and crunch of Phnom Penh's battered motorcycles, the occasional ancient car.
It was an odd start for someone hoping to learn about Cambodian culture. I first traveled to Cambodia on a fellowship in 2003; I had heard intriguing news of Cambodian efforts to spark a cultural revival, one that Khmer artists say will enable them to help their struggling country rebuild, both economically and emotionally. As I listened to my driver's booming beats, I was reminded of the enormity of the challenges facing the artists: They're struggling against not only their ravaged past but against the American and Thai culture that has flooded Cambodia with a vengeance. I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find a slew of karaoke videos, gyrating women mouthing … Christina Aguilera in Khmer?
Cambodia and its artists are still recovering from recent history. In 1975, Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot set out to remake Cambodia into a classless, agrarian utopia; less than four years later, Cambodia was strewn with land mines and the unnamed bones of the approximately 1.7 million who died during his rule. Artists fared particularly badly, as Pol Pot's regime claimed the lives of 90 percent of the country's traditional dancers and musicians. For the Khmer Rouge, the ancient arts not only reflected bourgeois values, they stank of the time before their revolution -- an unforgivable offense for a regime determined to purge the past and restart Cambodia's history at year zero.
Artists aren't the only people who have tried to put the country back together again. The United Nations sank billions of dollars into the country, but the beneficiary of one of history's largest nation-building projects is still one of the poorest countries in the world, with staggering levels of corruption and illiteracy, meager education and health services, and a turbulent political scene that too often breaks into violence. As I stepped out onto Phnom Penh's streets, pitted with potholes that Cambodians have tried to patch with concrete and broken brick, I can't help but think that the artists are fighting a heroic, and uncertain, battle.
I flicked open The Cambodia Daily in disbelief.
“Wait a minute,” I said to my friend K, a receptionist at my Phnom Penh hotel. “Am I reading this right? This is the same damn story from last year.”
He sighed and nodded.
A week after I arrived in Cambodia in 2003, one of Cambodia's most beloved singers was shot in broad daylight on a busy street. Twenty-four-year-old Touch Srey Nich had just walked out of a flower shop on October 21 when four men roared up on motorcycles. One of them fired at point-blank range, hitting the singer and Royal University of Fine Arts teacher in the neck and face. Her mother ran out of the family car to shield her, but was shot in the back and died shortly afterward.
More than a year later, I learned that the paralyzed singer is seeking asylum abroad. Her assailants have never been found, in keeping with the country's poor track record for solving crimes, particularly those that may have been politically motivated. Not surprising, perhaps, for a country that still has not reckoned with the Khmer Rouge leaders who presided over a government that killed scores of its own citizens.
“The police in my country are not good for catching criminals,” says K, who was watching me frown through the newspaper article. “But they are very good at getting bribes and sleeping and not finding murderers of important people.” He grinned.
Touch Srey Nich's shooting came on the heels of the murder of radio journalist Chuor Chetharith; both victims were prominent supporters of Cambodia's royalist party. Those attacks were followed by the even more shocking January 2004 murder of labor organizer Chea Vichea, a hugely influential leader who had helped negotiate a U.S.-Cambodia trade agreement linking fair-labor standards to garment quotas. He was also one of the founders of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
The attacks were part of a rash of unexplained violence that broke out after Cambodia's contested parliamentary elections in 2003. The country was left without a functioning government for nearly a year after the royalist FUNCINPEC Party and the Sam Rainsy Party had formed an alliance against Prime Minister Hun Sen's dominant Cambodian People's Party and pulled out of negotiations. Although the parties eventually resolved their differences, the period after the elections was marked by a worrisome increase in high-profile murders and assaults on alliance supporters. The country ground to a standstill, funds were backed up, and legislation was stalled -- including the ratification and funding for the country's prospective Khmer Rouge trials, which human-rights activists have argued would go a long way toward dismantling Cambodia's modern-day culture of impunity.
For many Cambodians, the shootings are a heartbreaking reminder of Cambodia's decades-long troubles. One former UNESCO employee told me, “We've waited a long time for peace. The current government, these recent crimes -- do they want to turn back to our past? Or do they want to move on toward peace?”
From where my friend K stands, that movement toward peace is far too slow. “Always the same,” he says. “Who shot the singer? We don't know. No trials for the Khmer Rouge. Same prime minister for more than 20 years.
“When you come back next year,” he adds, pointing at the newspaper in my lap, “don't worry, Noy. My country will stay the same for you.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She first traveled to Cambodia on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship.