'Times' Writer Ditches Arts Job for Cambodia

Erika Kinetz left her Arts and Style beat The New York Times and packed her bags for Phnom Penh in 2006. Now she's covering the biggest story at the Cambodia Daily: the trial of accused Khmer Rouge officials.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

This morning, there was a development in the coming pre-trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader. A motion requested by the said leader to dismiss a Cambodian judge, well, it was denied. The judge will preside over the pre-trial of Pol Pot's right-hand man, who may be responsible for the deaths of a quarter of Cambodia's population from 1975 to 1979.

Now, our next guest was a toddler when the killing fields made international headlines. But now she spends her time in Phnom Penh as a journalist. Erika Kinetz quit her job on the style beat of The New York Times to cover the biggest story at the Cambodia Daily. She is heading back to Cambodia.

Is it tomorrow, Erika?

Ms. ERIKA KINETZ (Reporter, Cambodia Daily): Tomorrow morning.

STEWART: Wow.

RICO GAGLIANO, host:

Man.

STEWART: Thank you so much for coming by our studios this morning.

Ms. KINETZ: My pleasure.

STEWART: We really appreciate it. So we spoke to you on the phone back in November, about when the arrests of these leaders happened. So what's happened since then? Have the wheels of justice been turning?

Ms. KINETZ: Well, they turn pretty slowly in Cambodia. So the five people have been arrested. They're still sitting in jail. We've had one pre-trial hearing, and we've another one scheduled for February 4th. That's Nuon Chea, the second-in-command you were talking about.

STEWART: Mm-hmm. So that's on February 4th. Now I know the United States has involvement of some kind of - or has expressed an involvement in these tribunals. What is it exactly?

Ms. KINETZ: That's kind of complicated. The United States was very involved in negotiating these courts. They took almost a decade to set up, and the United States was a part of that process. But so far, per a congressional order, we haven't given any money directly to the court. So no U.S. funding has come down yet. It'll be really interesting to see whether in next year's budget appropriations there's a request for funding for the tribunal.

STEWART: Now, how important is funding to get the tribunal up and going?

Ms. KINETZ: Very, very, very, very, very important. The court needs a lot of money.

STEWART: Sure.

Ms. KINETZ: There are no official figures, but unofficially, people are saying about $100 million.

STEWART: So why is it an issue if it's very, very, very important to get these tribunals going?

Ms. KINETZ: Well, that's politics. I mean, the international community has looked askance at some of the stuff that's been going down. They're very worried that this court is not independent. They worried that it might be overrun by Cambodian political influence. They want free trials. They want fair trials.

GAGLIANO: Is any trial better than no trial?

Ms. KINETZ: The U.S. ambassador in Phnom Penh would say no. In fact, he says quite the opposite, with some frequency. A show trial is worse than no trial is his idea.

STEWART: So the people who are reading the paper that you write for now, are they disillusioned with the process? Are they just - is it just what they expect to happen in their country?

Ms. KINETZ: Well, I think most people at this point can't believe the darn things actually happening.

STEWART: Yeah.

Ms. KINETZ: It's been 30 years since these crimes. Ten years they've been trying to get a court up and running.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KINETZ: So the arrests brought a lot of momentum to the process, and people have a fragile faith. We'll see what happens next.

STEWART: But one of the things I found really interesting in an article that I think you wrote for The Washington Times, because we should also mention you're a stringer for other papers - The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek.

But you wrote about textbooks not really covering this period of time. And I'm curious what younger generations are taught about this period of time, and are they curious about it at all? Especially with these trials, obviously, being in the newspaper, and they're reading about, oh, that happened?

Ms. KINETZ: Yeah, that was for The Washington Post.

STEWART: Yeah.

Ms. KINETZ: It's not taught in school. It's a real problem. And, you have this terrible generation gap in Cambodia, where you have parents who have suffered grievously under Pol Pot, and they'll say to their kid, you know, finish that rice. I used to have to live off on red ants in the jungle. And the kid says, yeah, mom. The a lack of ability to comprehend that kind of suffering because there's just no context for it.

STEWART: Is there any movement to create a context to push this issue forward, to make sure the kids are able to learn about it?

Ms. KINETZ: Sure. Well, the documentation center in Cambodia, local NGO and archive wrote a textbook, but they couldn't get that into the curriculum. It's still too politically sensitive.

GAGLIANO: And these trials, I'm assuming, hopefully would have some relevance in that?

Ms. KINETZ: Absolutely. Already, they've stoked some public conversation about this long silent episode in history, and hopefully they'll continue to do so as they move forward.

STEWART: In a perfect scenario, when would these trials start?

Ms. KINETZ: Well, in a perfect scenario, they'd already be done.

GAGLIANO: Right.

Ms. KINETZ: But in a…

STEWART: In a realistic scenario, I guess I should say.

Ms. KINETZ: People had been hoping the first trial itself would start in June. But it's looking like that won't likely happen till next fall, or maybe September.

STEWART: Now, you moved to Cambodia about 15 months ago.

Ms. KINETZ: I did.

STEWART: Is that about right?

Ms. KINETZ: Yeah.

STEWART: And this wasn't just about picking a spot on the globe for you and flying to cover it. You have a connection.

Ms. KINETZ: I do.

STEWART: And can you explain? Talk to us about your grandma.

Ms. KINETZ: Sure. Oh, I'd love to talk about my grandma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KINETZ: I love my grandma.

GAGLIANO: Don't we all?

Ms. KINETZ: Well, I think part of it started with this red book brocade dress that I inherited from my mother. My grandparents moved to Phnom Penh in 1963. My grandfather, he was an engineer working on an irrigation project. They were there for a couple of months, and then, Sihanouk, who was then leading the country, trying to negotiate this delicate balance between the Soviet bloc in the West, decided all the Americans needed to get out. So he evacuated everyone, including my grandma and grandpa. They went to Hong Kong. She bought this fabulous red brocade fabric, made it into a dress, gave it to my mother, who gave to me. So this, plus her letters, lodged in my youthful romantic imagination. And I thought, if nana can do it, I can, too.

STEWART: She left you some beautiful letters.

Ms. KINETZ: She did.

STEWART: Would you please read one for us?

Ms. KINETZ: Sure. This is one - so the context of this, really quick. There's been weeks of hate-mongering on the radio, anti-Americanism, Kennedy has just gotten shot. She's bereft, crying, saying rosaries for him. She goes to the market to buy some crabs, which she's terrified of.

And then, she finds a cyclo driver. He says - she says, the cyclo driver offered to carry my basket to his cycle. And on the way, I had to stop and buy flowers. I forgot to bargain, so I paid a terrible price, but no matter. Then, the girl threw in several more bouquets to make up for overcharging me, no doubt, and then, tied a bracelet of gardenias on my wrist, with the cyclo driver standing by and beaming at both of us.

I left the market happily, thinking once more how sad it was that we must leave before we had a chance to really become acquainted. On the way home, the driver took down some roads I'd never been on before. I tried to find a familiar road, and finally shrugged my shoulders and told him I was lost. He laughed, kept on going, and sure enough, we finally came out on a road I knew and arrived home safely. This was a good morning.

STEWART: Are these the kind of days that you know?

Ms. KINETZ: Sort of. I'm not quite as afraid of crabs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KINETZ: But, indeed, there is hope amidst the greatest dismay.

MARTIN: Are you prepared to go back, mentally?

Ms. KINETZ: Not sure about that.

STEWART: Yeah.

Ms. KINETZ: I'm ready to get back to the pool, though, and work on my tan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The bright side.

Ms. KINETZ: Indeed.

STEWART: I like that you look for that.

Erika Kinetz, staff reporter of the Cambodia Daily. Safe travels tomorrow.

Ms. KINETZ: Thank you much.

STEWART: And good luck with your reporting. Can we check back with you about the trials?

Ms. KINETZ: Absolutely. Please do. Great to be here.

STEWART: Thanks, Erika.

(Soundbite of music)

GAGLIANO: Erika Kinetz, staff reporter for the Cambodia Daily.

STEWART: Next up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT: three guys from Athens, Georgia -no, not three-fourths of REM. It's the Whigs. They're here to play from their new record.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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