Killing Fields producer Lord Puttnam in Cambodia row

By Charles Scanlon
BBC News

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Cambodia has been criticised for its repression of garment workers demonstrating for higher wages

The British film maker, David Puttnam, helped inspire a generation of foreign correspondents with his highly acclaimed film The Killing Fields, which featured the experiences of journalists during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia. He has now made a return to the country with controversial comments about the current Cambodian government.

Lord Puttnam ran into hot water on a visit to attend a 30th anniversary screening of his much acclaimed film about the Cambodian genocide.

Image caption,
Lord Puttnam has taken on a role as British trade envoy for the countries of Indo-China.

A "little knowledge is a dangerous thing," ran a headline in the English-language Cambodia Daily after Lord Puttnam was reported to have praised efforts by the current Cambodian government to combat corruption.

Veteran foreign correspondents, who covered the war in Cambodia, accused the film producer of naivety for failing to see the true nature of the government of Hun Sen, which is accused by human rights groups of widespread corruption and repression.

Transparency International's latest corruption perceptions index ranked Cambodia behind only North Korea in East Asia. The Asian Development Bank also found that corruption was the main area of concern for improving the business environment and governance in Cambodia.

Lord Puttnam was visiting the country in his capacity as a trade representative for the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

"I don't think I've ever been anywhere where I have received such an absolute answer from government on the issues of stopping and stamping out corruption," he was quoted by the newspaper as telling an audience in the capital, Phnom Penn.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Hun Sen, now Asia's longest serving ruler, is accused of corruption and repression of government critics

"I sincerely believe there to be an emerging generation of younger ministers who are committed to, among other things, stamping out corruption," he told the BBC.

He also cautioned the current generation of foreign journalists on their approach, saying they must decide whether their role was "to inflame or to inform".

Veteran correspondent, James Pringle, who covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia for the Reuters news agency, wrote in the Cambodia Daily that journalists, some diplomats and local film makers appeared stunned by Lord Puttnam's comments.

He said The Killing Fields was one of the best films he'd ever seen, but that Lord Puttnam was completely out of touch with modern Cambodia.

Nate Thayer, who famously interviewed the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, in 1997, said the Killing Fields was a great film but that Lord Puttnam's comments were an embarrassment.

"Hun Sen was plucked from his previous job as a Khmer Rouge military commander by the invading Vietnamese army, appointed the youngest prime minister on earth, and now holds the distinction of being the longest serving dictator on the planet."

The Killing Fields told the story of the New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg, and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, who was forced to stay in the country after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penn and drove its residents into the countryside.

Dith Pran was eventually reunited with Schanberg in a refugee camp across the Thai border after a miraculous escape through the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

The film inspired a new generation of journalists and won much acclaim from the correspondents who had experienced the war and its aftermath first hand.

Image caption,
As many as two million people are thought to have lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge genocide

Lord Puttnam told the BBC that the criticisms he had received were polemical and had misrepresented his comments.

"I'm not a fool, but I was very impressed with the younger politicians that I met. The old cadre of politicians is moving on and the new generation is very impressive," he said.

He went to Cambodia as part of a tour of Indo-China to promote British investment and better relations.

Human Rights Watch in January accused the Hun Sen government of harsh repression culminating in the recent deaths of five striking garment workers, who were shot by police while demonstrating for higher pay in the capital.

"Hun Sen's government violates human rights on a daily basis by violently preventing the opposition, trade unions, activists and others from gathering to demand political change," said the organisation in a report in January. "Countries at the Human Rights Council should condemn this brutal crackdown and insist the Cambodian government engage in serious reforms."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Garment workers have been leading protests against the Cambodian government

The former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, who played an important role in the diplomacy that brought the war in Cambodia to an end, says that he's giving up hope of meaningful reform under the current government.

"The recent killings repeat a pattern of political violence that recurred all too often at crucial moments in Cambodia's history," he said on his website. He called for current leaders to be "named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned".

Lord Puttnam said the lesson he had learned from his years of work with Unicef was that engagement was the best approach.

"Gareth Evans is no longer foreign minister," he said "I doubt he would advocate disengagement if he was."

He said that he was focused on what might be the future of the nation and its people and rejected the politics of despair.

"Time will tell if I've simply been gullible - should that be the case I'll undoubtedly appear somewhat naïve and foolish," he said.