By James Pringle
David Puttnam, a once brilliant filmmaker and current member of Britain’s upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, stunned journalists, diplomats, and others recently by praising the current Khmer Government and its leader Hun Sen. Puttnam, best known for producing the amazing movie of Khmer Rouge terror, The Killing Fields, commended one of the world’s most egregious kleptocratic states for “its commitment to ending corruption.”
He then described the media “as just another arm of the opposition.” In an equally shocking public statement, Puttnam called on journalists to “develop a more constructive role as the government works to develop Cambodia.”
James Puttnam, pictured above.
Putnam's statement is as follows: “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 said of the state run by former Khmer Rouge luminaries which is infamous for indulging in corruption, violent suppression of democracy, and land seizures from farmers for the Phnom Penh elite of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“I find the commitment and determination here to confine it (corruption) and root it out is very real,” he said. “Now, in five year’s time I might be found to be a complete fool, but I don’t think I will be; I really don’t think I will be.”
Puttnam was speaking at the British Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia on Thursday after attending a showing of The Killing Fields by Cambodian students, diplomats from the British embassy, and a few reporters.
He lectured journalists that “the challenge for the media is that you have to decide what your role is: is it to inflame or inform.”
Prime minister Hun Sen cancelled a scheduled meeting for Puttnam, but it is the British filmmaker who is contrite.
“I received a very, very, very profound apology from Mr. Hun Sen, and I don’t feel remotely offended or put out,” said this unlikely and new-found apologist for the Hun Sen regime, mainly composed of former Khmer Rouge still in power after nearly 30 years of rule.
What “Lord” Puttnam doesn’t understand is that Hun Sen, who defected from the Khmer Rouge to join the Vietnamese side in 1977, abhors any publicity of the Khmer Rouge at all, fearing that it would lead Cambodians once again to demand to know why they are still being ruled by some of the old murderous crowd.
It was only reluctantly that Hun Sen agreed to a war crimes tribunal to look at Khmer Rouge atrocities that continue to drag on.
Continuing his lecture to the media, Puttnam, who said he was born during the Blitz on London in World War II, added, “It really does come down to how responsible the media is prepared to be, or does the media just become another arm of the opposition?”
Resident correspondents here know that Cambodia is regularly in the ranks of the worst committers of human rights violations among member nations of the United Nations. Under Hun Sen’s harsh rule. Attack and assassinations have occurred and up to 300 people have died during his almost 30 years in power. Furthermore, Hun Sen conducted a coup against the legitimate Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s government in 1997, undermining all the work the United Nations did to establish democracy there.
In the most recent election last year, the opposition Rescue Party managed to gain 55 seats, not far short of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 68 seats. It holds power with a slender remit.
Just last month, Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who played a key role in the political settlement that ended Cambodia’s civil war, called for sanctions against the CPP government. Evans argued that the government had been “getting away with murder.” He mentioned one example, where five garment workers killed last month for protesting against slave wages in textile factories.
Evans, who maintained a close friendship with Hun Sen’s government since the peace process of the 1980s and early 1990s, said he has lost hope that the ruling CPP party is uninterested in protecting human rights or liberal democracy in the country. The government uses a “pattern of strategic violence used with international impunity,” he said.
While preserving a democratic façade, Hun Sen had ruled, for all practical purposes, as an autocrat. He shows scant regard for the right of free expression and association, and resorting to violence and repression whenever he has deemed it necessary to preserve his and his party’s position, according to Evans.
Evans described the accusation that more than 20 of Hun Sen’s closest associates have each amassed more than $1 billion through misappropriation of state assets as “plausible.”
This correspondent was taken thoroughly aback by Puttnam’s remarks to the British trade group yesterday. Puttnam, who has made other brilliant films besides The Killing Fields, is a person so much admired by me and many others in the past. But his recent remarks reveal that he is a little more than out of touch.
While in making the original movie he relied on the advice of journalists, such as the late Neil Davis, Puttnam now criticizes young, struggling journalists. So many photographers and reporters died to report the truth of “Democratic Kampuchea,” but these days he has no time for their successors.
Puttnam implies he knows better than those on the spot, and those who went through the war and its aftermath, and know the reality of it all.
I have a message for “Lord” Puttnam, a man whom I had much admired:
Go back among the dinosaurs in the House of Lords and maintain silence on matters like the present political situation in Cambodia and the journalists there, of which you have – from your own remarks – so little knowledge.
James Pringle worked as a correspondent in the Vietnam and Cambodia wars, and in Maoist China, for Reuters, Newsweek, and the Times of London.