After staring at me for several minutes, the co-director of the Cham Can Do rubber factory finally agreed to an interview. He adamantly refused, however, to tell me his name.
"I am a member of the Communist Party and a former soldier," he disclosed. That was the full extent of the personal information I was able to pry out of him during a five-minute conversation.
The new leaders of Cambodia have in the three years since taking control created one of the most secretive societies in the Communist world. Modesty and anonymity are encouraged by the leadership in their pursuit of total equality.
Most Cambodians today claim they only have one name -- a given name that discloses no family ties. They have been organized into cooperatives, where they share the same food, dress, housing, work hours and leisure.
Members of the cooperatives rise at dawn to the sound of a gong, take breakfast together, then go off to the factory or field until a midday break at 11. Work resumes at 2 p.m. and continues until 5.
That schedule seems to be enforced for everyone, whether dock hand or rice cultivator.
Holidays are infrequent. The sevenday week has been replaced by a 10-day work cycle, which resumes after one day of rest. In the fields, the work tempo was varied. During working hours, I spotted one group of men smoking cigarettes under a tree and women bathing in a pond.
I saw neither the joyous society reported by some Communist visitors of happy peasants singing while they worked, nor the grim picture widely painted in the West of work gangs toiling under the supervision of armed guards.
There was no clue as to what sanction is used to ensure uniform behavior. Whenever I asked what measures were taken to keep people in line, the reply was: "Everyone wants to work. We have no problems."
One possibility that must be considered, of course, is that most Cambodians toe the line today because they have first-hand knowledge of the stories told by refugees of how thousands of persons were killed during the months following the Communist takeover.
Even government ministeries follow the basic work-schedule and regimen imposed on the villagers.
Thiounn Prasith, the Foreign Ministry official conducting our closely supervised tour, said he ate in a communal dining hall in Phnom Pehn with other members of his ministry.
Radio music, blared out over a loudspeaker set up in a cooperative, seemed to be the main entertainment offered in the countryside. We were told of cultural dance troupes but saw none. The government radio station in Phnom Penh broadcasts traditional and popular music, as well as news. We heard no other station.
On the rare evenings when our travels kept us on the road past sunset, we always saw knots of villagers around fires, apparently sharing conversation or listening to a radio.
Great housing projects were under construction in all provinces I traveled through, and officials pointed them out with pride. Before the Communist takeover, peasants often lived in bug-infested palm-leaf huts.
Yet, I saw many comfortable roadside homes that seemed to have been abandoned, and I asked an official if some of this new construction might not be redundant?
"We do not want distinctions between the city and the countryside," he answered. "People want to live together in the cooperatives."
The picture of life in Cambodia is not as universally gray and uniform, however, as the new leaders would like a visitor to believe.
Women all wear government-made black sarongs and blouses, but they still tie back their hair with barettes and ribbon or put flowers in the brims of their straw hats.
They also are not without their old flirtatious ways.
Even though I never saw a young man and woman walking together, I did see the kind of sport between sexes that I had thought had been banished.
One afternoon, I noticed a guard peering over the front wall of our guest house in Phnom Penh with a magenta franjapani flower in his hand. To one side, a woman attendant was sweeping the dirt on the front lawn, pushing the dry leaves to one side and trying to ignore the guard.
He began calling to her. Keeping her eyes on the ground, she moved closer to the wall but refused to say a word.
A second guard joined the first at the wall, and soon, both men were laughing. Finally, the guard dropped the blossom on the ground. The woman then dropped the broom and marched to the back of the house, smiling.
If this was play acting for my benefit, all three deserve Academy Awards.
As in most communist countries, the central government of Cambodia both determines and meets, in a fashion, the basic needs of the people. The people selected to run most of the cooperatives, parcel out the supplies, and operate the factories are former soldiers.
Education and previous experience are not a consideration, we were told, in choosing cooperative committee members. Politics was the determinant, they said, and in Cambodia the men and women who risked their lives in battle in the early 1970s appear to be regarded as the most trustworthy.
The five-member committee at one Phnom Pennh factory consisted of four women and a man -- all veterans of the siege of that city during the war. They had had no training in factory work before they took over, they said. Yet, the looms were turning out bolts of black, green and blue fabric that would later be turned into the clothing worn by all.
Every Cambodian now receives two suits of clothing a year, they said.
Voluntarily, officials brought up the issue of health. They claimed to have eradicated malaria, or at least wiped out 80 percent of the disease in the country. "During the war," one high official told us, "malaria killed more of our soldiers than American bombs."
Killing flies and larvae is one way the government has attacked malaria. We were also shown three medicine factories on our tour. Two of those factories produced natural medicines from bark, plants, herbs and even geikos, a small lizard.
The other was a factory I knew from earlier days, the Dumex factory for modern medicines, which I had visited when it was still in the hands of its former Danish owners. The only obvious difference in operation was the age of most of the assembly-line workers.
Child labor seems to be the norm in Cambodia today rather than the exception. Although we occasionally saw children in school buildings, more often we saw primary-age children at work -- either in factories or in the fields.
Officials would only concede that some children worked more than they studied, but they adamantly claimed that illiteracy had been wiped out. Everyone can at least read and write, they said repeatedly.
At one cooperative, I asked an adult man if he would write his name in my notebook. In a very shaky hand, which I attributed to nervousness, he wrote out his name "Som" and the name of his cooperative.
"I am very sorry," he said softly. "This is very new to me. I am not as good at writing as my children."
Whenever I could break away for a minute at a factory, I would approach very young children to ask their age. Without fail, the answer was always, "I am 13-years old." I did not believe many of them.
When I questioned officials about this, they answered that the most able-bodied workers, the adults, were needed in the fields. The younger people, therefore, had to work in the factories.
"Did you not have child labor at the beginning of your industrial revolution?" one official asked in typically rhetorical fashion. "At least we feed and clothe all of our people."
No one pretended that these children had much time for play, and I saw none engaged in regular sports activity. It appears as if the childhood of one generation is being sacrificed for the goal of self-sufficiency.
Although children spent many more hours working than studying, they seem to live with their families, at least until they are teen-agers. Once they are sent to factories or put on mobile work brigade teams, they live in dormitories and are allowed to make infrequent visits home to their families, officials told us
We were told that they are encouraged to marry before they are 21, to solve the problem of under-population which Cambodia has had for the last several hundred years. There is no birth control program and I saw quite a few mothers breast-feeding young babies.
These population measures, the open use of child labor and the arduous working life of the people all fit into the Cambodian leadership's ambition to create a self-sufficient nation impervious to international monetary crises, the whims of rich nations or what they call the decay of the Western world.
As such, Cambodia provides the harshest and most radical example of a small developing nation that claims to fear for its own survival in a world dominated by big-power politics.