Year Zero Revisited

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 18, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia

"I do not care if I am sent to hell - I will submit the pertinent documents to the devil himself."  -- Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia

Referring to the eve of the most destructive war ever to be visited on mankind, W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" could have been written yesterday.  It tells of an "uncertain and afraid" poet sickened by "dictators", the "elderly rubbish they talk", the "windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout."  But it locates the causes of misery and terror not wholly in the words and deeds of a few evil men, but in our selfish desire "to be loved alone."  The poem concludes hopefully, though, with a sort of prayer.  "May I.../ Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair / Show an affirming flame."

Apparently the poem enjoyed a brief renaissance after September 11th, perhaps to remind us of the perils of appeasement or to be on guard against the "militant trash" being spewed by leaders innocent of actual war; the poem refers to "blind skyscrapers."  But the poem could apply to any conflict, and its plangent questions "Who can reach the deaf, / Who can speak for the dumb?" would make a fitting epigraph for a work on the ruination of Cambodia.

Elizabeth Becker's book on Cambodia is not the most depressing of the lot:  that honor surely goes to William Shawcross' Sideshow.  But it is arguably the best and most comprehensive.  Originally published in 1986, it has recently been revised and updated, ending more or less with the long awaited, but nonetheless natural death of Pol Pot in 1998.  This marked the unofficial death of the Khmer Rouge, the name given by the Francophile Prince Sihanouk to Cambodia's Furies, most of whom today walk free; and one of whom, Hun Sen, is Cambodia's current leader.

The usual and appropriate opening for a narrative of the revolution is April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and began its still awe-inspiring, complete evacuation of the city.  People were told that the Americans would bomb it, which was plausible enough to people who had come to the capital only to escape the criminally sloppy and pointless American bombing of the countryside.  Becker writes that the epitome of this ineptness was the 1973 attack on a friendly base that killed 137 and wounded 268.  As far as I can tell, though, Becker nowhere echoes the claim of Shawcross and Cambodia scholar Ben Kiernan that the bombing was the major factor behind the precipitous rise of the Khmer Rouge.  But she does ridicule the common view that the atrocities to come were "proof" that American intervention in Southeast Asia had been justified, even "noble".

There was little reason to believe that Phnom Penh would be bombed in 1975, as the American bombings had concluded two years earlier.  That is, except for the farcical 1975 Mayaguez incident, in which 38 American servicemen died (and Cambodia was bombed) to save 39 American sailors.  Instead, the evacuation represented the first big step in Cambodia's journey back into the Dark Ages and to a state that Becker aptly calls "know-nothingism." 

The "liberation" of Phnom Penh was remarkable most of all for the lack of enthusiasm with which it was greeted.  To be banned in the next few years were money, private property, Buddhism, foreign travel, and, generally speaking, leisure.  "Culture was work," writes Becker.  "Nothing else."  She quotes Isaac Deutscher's assessment of the Russian revolution as analogous to the Cambodian:  it sought equality by "making poverty universal."

One of the most disturbing and yet fascinating aspects of the period was the near-total media blackout enshrined by the regime.  The Vietnam War had ended in part because it was the first televised war:  those concerned saw in full color and detail what modern warfare can entail.    But practically the only information about events in Cambodia came from refugees on the Thai border, whose stories of forced marches, privation, and execution were difficult to credit and nearly impossible to confirm.  Becker herself would be one of the first journalists allowed into Cambodia after the fall of Phnom Penh, and the Cambodia to which she returned was eerily disconnected from the Cambodia she had known as a correspondent during the 1970-1975 civil war.  She would not be the only one to notice that the capital was as immaculate as it was empty.  Pol Pot had a thing about purity, and, oddly enough, "calm."

The creepiness does not end there.  For quite some time after 1975, Pol Pot did not openly admit that the Khmer Rouge was a Communist group.  And arguably it was not, given its perversion of Communist doctrine, and despite the American conviction that all soi-disant Communists locked arms as brothers and sang the Internationale.   Pol Pot (nee Saloth Sar) was also slow to declare himself the Khmer Rouge leader, or "Brother Number One."  Instead, Cambodia was under the thumb of Angka, the often personified or deified "Organization" that had "as many eyes as a pineapple."  (Incidentally, this is also a Thai idiom, often employed by women hoping to discourage infidelity in their men.)

Like some Americans in Vietnam, Cambodian soldiers were sometimes so stoned out of their gourds that they became pliable and indifferent to human suffering.  Justifiably, Becker compares the regime to the empires of Angkor:  elusive tyrants undertaking massive public projects using near-slave labor.  (Sorry, tourists:  Angkor Wat, like the Egyptian pyramids, is a monument to exploitation.)  Pol Pot was a deva-raj wearing a Marxist mask; people described him as "quiet", as they do so many serial killers; he is said to have wept tears of remorse just before passing away.  The national anthem of Democratic Kampuchea referred to "Sublime Blood" and "unrelenting hatred."

The chapter in which Becker recounts her return to Phnom Penh is probably the book's most effective and enthralling, especially as Malcolm Caldwell, one of her two foreign companions, is assassinated just before her departure.  The scene serves as a reminder of our debt to journalists; and also of the precariousness of human life:  only hours before the shooting, Becker and Caldwell are disputing the pros and cons of Cambodia's makeover.  Caldwell, like some blinkered American Communists, were foolishly supportive; he gets a bullet presumably from Vietnamese agents hoping to discredit the regime prior to Vietnam's 1979 invasion.

Vietnam:  possibly no other country was so maltreated and maligned in the 20th century.  But I suppose that is what you get for defeating not one, but two major world powers in battle.  American policy toward Vietnam after the war, writes Becker, "became active punishment."  And when Vietnam took it upon itself to depose the odious Pol Pot regime, it received only further condemnation, even though Cambodia had been provoking Vietnam for years by incursions into its territory, and even though Vietnam could rightly compare its action to the American occupation of odious Nazi Germany.  The French, to their credit, refused to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate rulers of Cambodia.  Not that Vietnam lacked ulterior motives for its "liberation", but perhaps the chief motive was the usual one: self-preservation.  Vietnam feared that Cambodia, a Chinese client, would act as a staging ground for a Chinese invasion.  (The Chinese, not to be outdone, instead invaded Vietnam from the north.)

The Soviet Union was not the only loser of the Cold War.  The biggest losers were the states of Central America and Southeast Asia that fought the superpowers' distant proxy wars.  Cambodia may well have been the biggest loser of them all.  Like Laos, it was even below Vietnam in the international pecking order, and its repeated pleas for neutrality (which the United States customarily interpreted as opposition) were ignored.  One could sympathize with the Khmer Rouge when it provided an alternative to the megalomania and corruption of the US-backed Lon Nol regime, or with Prince Sihanouk as he desperately manipulated his enemies to save his home and throne.  (Becker reports that the US had tried to overthrow Sihanouk - oops, I mean implement "regime change" - as early as 1959.)  But ultimately they both proved to be despicable, especially when they joined forces despite their antipodal goals.

Instead, it is the average Cambodians that are most to be pitied.  Through extravagant spending on education, Sihanouk created a class of intellectuals ill suited to his Cambodia and absolutely dispensable to the Cambodia of Pol Pot, whose regime was known apocryphally to execute anybody wearing eyeglasses as a suspected intellectual.  Sihanouk referred to the Cambodians as his "children"; Pol Pot would have suspected his very grandmother of being an agent of the CIA.  His wife, Becker tells us, apparently went mad.

The most heart-wrenching vignette painted by Becker is of a woman writing letters to her husband from a collective where she, an urbanite contaminated by contact with foreign charity workers, is constantly watched and taunted.  She refers to herself as Sita, the model of patient and submissive womanhood found in the Indian epic Ramayana.  She ends up in Tuol Sleng, the premier death chamber of the Khmer Rouge, to await her death.  Becker poignantly suggests that the Cambodians accepted their fate in part because they believed that the world was coming to an end.

Visiting Cambodia today, one gets a sense that the country is still teetering on the edge of chaos.  Diffident, not to say jumpy Cambodians mention the Khmer Rouge in hushed tones.  The population is young - uncannily so.  Foreign accounts dwell on the country's growing reputation as a refuge for whoremongers, pedophiles, and terrorists - hard-core types who find neighboring Thailand too tame.  Cambodian elections are marred by political violence and the debate continues as to whether former Khmer Rouge cadres should be tried for war crimes - and, more importantly, by whom.  The UN stands at once for impartiality and the same foreign meddling that was to blame for Cambodia's disintegration; but the government is riddled with the very cadres it would indict.  When Hun Sen came to power, he had "no apparent qualifications" and "barely knew the names of most foreign nations".   Meanwhile the Thais, having depleted their own forests, stand accused of opportunistically plundering those of Cambodia.

But in part because the population is so young, there is also a vibrancy about the place, a sense that it can make a fresh start, can rekindle Auden's "affirming flame."  One should however resist the temptation to make of Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge an exceptional case of pure evil visited upon an otherwise pacific Cambodian populace.  Becker early relates that the soldiers of the Lon Nol regime "were known to behead the Khmer Rouge soldiers they captured, to slice open their bodies and eat their still warm livers or disfigure them in revenge."  Becker also presents a Cambodian folk tale, "The Devious Woman," as evidence of a Khmer affinity for extreme violence taking place within a moral void.  Cambodia is one of the few countries to have committed "auto-genocide" in addition to the genocide it committed against, among others, the Muslim Chams.

At the same time, one should not forget what was said by the overwrought American journalist portrayed in the film The Killing Fields.  In essence, he said that if you drop half a million tons of bombs on a country of about 6 or 7 million people, you should hardly be surprised if those people go a little bit crazy.  As Auden wrote, "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."

- The End -

Review of Elizabeth Becker's When The War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, Public Affairs, 1998.

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