Taking A Job In Cambodia …

In the early 90s, I was the country manager for a Malaysian PLC in Indo-China (Cambodia, Vietnam & Laos). My job was to identify new business and investment opportunities for the Group in these newly opened raw markets, coming out from the ruins of civil war and foreign interfences after many decades.  My main base was in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where I was the head of a foreign bank.

Cambodia underwent a reign of terror under the Khmer Rouge regime from April 1975 to December 1987. The genocide rule of Pol Pot, the head of the Khmer Rouge, and his army murdered more than an estimated 2 million of her people and displacing more than another 2 million people. Families were broken up, properties destroyed, farm lands laid wasted, transportation and communications came to a halt. Even the Central Bank of Cambodia was burnt down as Khmer Rouge deemed that money was the root of all evil of imperialism and capitalism. War refugees were scrambling madly out of the country and in most times trampled on the skeletons of others in order to get out.

The Khmer Rouge era was one of the most lethal regime of the 20th century and one of the most atrocious.  An extreme form of agrarian communism was imposed on the Cambodian society where the whole population had to work in collective farms and forced labour projects. In less than a month of capturing Phnom Penh, all city dwellers were deported to the country side. Overnight, Phnom Penh and other smaller cities became ghost towns totally devoid of people.  Intellectuals, teachers, those who wore spectacles, writers, journalists and those who could speak a foreign language were systematically tortured and murdered.  Property owners, business men and women and those who were deemed to be involved in free market activities were not spared.  Children and women were also the main target of these communist Khmer Rouge, or the Red Khmer.

The British film in 1984, The Killing Fields, is perhaps one of the best films that told the story of the Khmer Rouge regime. At the 57th Academy Awards it received seven Oscar nominations, won three, most notably Best Supporting Actor for Dr Haing S. Ngor.

After 4 years of genocide rule by the Khmer Rouge, a number of senior military soldiers broke rank and deflected to Vietnam.  This included the present Prime Minister Hun Sen who was a Khmer Rouge divisional commander at one time.  One must understand that throughout history, Vietnam and Cambodia were like quarrelling Siamese twins, joined at the hip with different ideologies. They were perennially at each other’s throat over border disputes and the movement of its people and goods.  But the intervention of Vietnam seemed a better alternative to the continual genocide of Khmer Rouge.

In December 1978 the exile Cambodian military together with the Vietnamese Army finally drove the Khmer Rouge to the western part of Cambodia in Battambang, Pailin and their last strong hold at Anlong Veng District.

The country was renamed to State of Cambodia.

In 1991, under the Paris Peace accord the United Nations formed the UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia) to oversee a democratic election in Cambodia. More than US$2 billion would be poured into Cambodia to manage a peaceful transition. A total of 46 countries from the UN members was involved. 20,000 or more foreign military and civil personnel would be based in Cambodia.

It was during this time I was in Cambodia to establish a foreign bank for the Malaysian PLC. The country was flushed with money. A large number of foreign investors flocked into Cambodia, hoping to land a foot print in what would appear to be the Last Frontier in South East Asia for new business opportunities.

This was a nation which had been impoverished by years of civil war and foreign interferences. During the Vietnam War, the western part of Cambodia had been bombed severely by the American USAF. They were trying to root out the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the local VietCongs who were using Cambodia as their base to launch their guerrilla warfare against American forces based in Southern Vietnam, in particular Ho Chi Minh City. It was estimated that more bombs and military ordnances were dropped in Cambodia than Hitler’s Blitz on London during WWII.

This was also a nation of desperate displaced soldiers and ordinary citizens struggling to survive another day.  Even in the capital city, Phnom Penh, there was almost a total lack of basic amenities, medical supplies for the sick and wounded were very limited, stable diet of rice and other essentials had to be imported from neighbouring countries, government hospitals were few and far and over-crowded and no private hospitals had been operating as yet. There were few international humanitarian efforts or NGOs in place to help the sick, the poor and the needy.    

Buildings and houses laid in ruins. There were hundreds of thousands of displaced soldiers. A large number of these were wounded with war injuries, blinded, legs or hands blown off and sick with all sorts of health and mental problems. Aids, HIV carriers and STDs were prevalent among the Khmer soldiers and civilians. There were thousands of orphans walking and scavenging the streets for the few crumbs of food that UNTAC soldiers or foreigners would dish out. Almost every Khmer family had a tragic tale to tell on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

And here I was.

From a relative safe haven in Malaysia, I had to take up a job in Cambodia. It was also living dangerously, as it would cost less than a cartoon of cigarettes to take out somebody’s life. Guns and ammunitions were cheaper than toys, and there were easily available. For every ten Khmers, one could be sure that there would be at least two Khmer Rouge remnants out to sabotage the city. At night, setting off bombs indiscriminately in market places or firing their ubiquitous AK-47 submachine guns were quite common place.

But then the money was good.

And I had the full support from My Excellency, who would mind the three kids back home. I had kept from her to the bare minimum of what was happening in Cambodia when I made a recce to Phnom Penh before I took on the job.

So be it.

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