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World: Struggling Back to Life

3 minute read

Hanoi moves in with omnipresent troops, barbershops and free markets

Few Westerners have been allowed to visit Cambodia since the Vietnamese occupation. Last month, however, French Photojournalist Jean-Claude Labbe was permitted to make an unprecedented four-week tour of the country. Traveling by motorcycle and by car, without escort except for a 20-mile stretch near the Thai border, Labbe first rode from Sai-Saigon to Phnom-Penh, where he shot pictures of the devastated Cambodian capital beginning to stir to life again amid the rubble of war. He then drove along Cambodia’s main arteries, Highways 5 and 6, visiting twelve provinces in a journey that totaled 1,000 miles.

Everywhere, the Vietnamese and the pro-Hanoi Cambodian regime manifested a confident hold on the Cambodian land and people. According to some estimates, the 100,000 crack troops that invaded Cambodia have since been reinforced by more than another 100,000 men. In addition, the Vietnamese have trained a vast Cambodia militia. Vietnamese soldiers and Cambodian militiamen are on the move by such strangely disparate modes of transport as elephants, Soviet tanks and American-made personnel carriers, helicopters and planes captured by Hanoi after the U.S. withdrawal in 1975.

After nearly a year of fighting the remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces, Hanoi’s troops appear to have driven the guerrillas out of their last remaining towns and into sanctuaries, the jungles and mountains. Says Labbe: “As far as I could make out, there isn’t a single population center in all of Cambodia, big or small, that is under Pol Pot control or that has a Khmer Rouge flag flying overhead.”

The Vietnamese have reversed Pol Pot’s most radical policies, allowing some Cambodians to return to the villages and cities from which they were banished as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s forced resettlement of farmlands. Hanoi has also allowed a number of activities that were strictly forbidden under Pol Pot, “such as falling in love, taking a little time off from work, and dancing,” says Labbe. “There are even some private barbershops and ladies’ hairdressing salons in Phnom-Penh.” Electricity was operating in every major city Labbe visited. “It seemed strange to be spending my nights in air-conditioned rooms in guesthouses,” he said. “Refrigerators seemed to be working everywhere. Sometimes I even found a bottle of iced Vietnamese or Thai beer. But there was running water only in Phnom-Penh.” Labbe observed a flourishing capitalist-style free market in food and in goods smuggled from Thailand. Cambodians who buried gold and jewelry during the Pol Pot regime have now disinterred their valuables in order to pay for the rice, clothing and household goods sold in the markets.

Because Labbe did not visit the war-torn regions of Cambodia, he saw no actual starvation during his tour, though he says that people are eating “very bad-ly.” The Cambodians working for the new regime are being paid in rice and corn. Still, Cambodian refugees in Thailand report that there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the outskirts of every Cambodian city because the Vietnamese have forbidden them to return home for fear of encouraging un rest. These families are threatened with starvation, as are the 600,000 refugees along the Thai border, and the 250,000 Cambodians who worked for former regimes and now fear to register with the authorities. As a result they have no pa pers, no jobs, no ration cards and no food. Cambodia’s torment never seems to end.

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