The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79.
Ben Kiernan's latest book on Cambodia, The Pol Pot Regime, provides a deeply detailed, meticulously reported history that will discourage future revisionists from claiming the Khmer Rouge were well-intended reformers who may have been possessed by paranoia from time to time and killed a few people but certainly not the staggering numbers attributed to them. Kiernan's account makes those staggering numbers undeniable.
These 477 pages are not easy to penetrate. Readers with only a general knowledge of Cambodia's story may find them dense and off-putting. Kiernan often loses himself in minutiae of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, while spending time rebutting the views and theories of rival Cambodia scholars. This is a book that suffers from some of the common failings of academic publishing and yet is important, valuable and worth reading.
As a correspondent for The New York Times, I covered the 1970-75 war between the Washington-backed Cambodian government of Lon Nol and the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge. My Cambodian colleague Dith Pran and I, along with 2 million Phnom Penh residents, watched the Khmer Rouge march victoriously into the capital on April 17, 1975. For a few hours, it seemed the takeover would be peaceful, that reconciliation between the two warring sides was possible. The people welcomed the black-garbed Khmer Rouge with flowers and shouts of "C'est la paix." Then the crackdown came. Everyone was ordered to the countryside. Those who resisted were shot. Khmer Rouge troops even cleaned out the hospitals; desperately wounded patients were forced into the streets, their serum bottles still attached. The lucky ones had relatives to carry them or push them on their beds. Soon the main boulevards leading out of the city were blanketed curb to curb with traumatized Cambodians heading into the unknown. So densely packed were the throngs that sandals and shoes came off in the jostling. When after three or four days the city finally emptied and fell silent, the abandoned footwear lay on the streets as a surrealistic reminder that people had actually been there.
From this point, Kiernan tell, us, piece by horrible piece, what happened to these people and to the rural population at the hands of Angkar Loeu--the "High Organization." To keep the population calm, the Khmer Rouge said the swift evacuation was necessary because the enemy was going to bomb the cities and towns if people stayed bunched up in them. All of this was sham. Pol Pot's true reason for evacuating not just Phnom Penh but every population center in the country was to weed out and komtec ("smash," meaning 1511) any possible opposition--such as senior officers from the defeated Lon Nol army, former members of the Phnom Penh government, the educated and "soft" classes, monks and others in the pivotal Buddhist religious community, and so on. Dissidents might be able to hide in the cities and province towns, but would be exposed and vulnerable in the countryside. And they would be exposed permanently, f or the evacuation was permanent. "A whole nation was kidnapped," writes Kiernan, "and then besieged from within."
The name of the new nation was Democratic Kamouchea. It can best be described as a giant prison, a forced-labor camp the size of Wisconsin. The institution of the family, the core of Cambodian life, was shattered; children were taken from their parents and indoctrinated against them. Schools were shut down, money was abolished, factories left to rust, pagodas razed and the monks either killed or set to hard labor in the fields. Anything foreign was regarded as tainted and therefore cause for punishment, even execution-including knowledge of a foreign language. Newspapers and television stations ceased to exist and radio sets were taken away. Except for China and a handful of other Communist nations like Albania and North Korea, no embassies were allowed. And no foreign journalists were let in. In short, the country was sealed. The world could not look in. The killing could begin.
Kiernan, an Australian-born scholar now at Yale, documents the killing with impressive specificity, using interviews with survivors to escort the reader to every part of the country. As in his other writing, he has been aided by his Khmer wife, Chanthou Boua. All nine members of her family were killed under Pol Pot. In each region, he chronicles how the "Center"--Pol Pot and his circle of loyalists--dealt with any hint of resistance and imposed its fierce control. One method was mass purges; no one was to be trusted. (A Khmer Rouge slogan went: "Spare them, no profit--Destroy them, no loss.") Another was the deportation of whole sections of the population, frequently thousands at a time, to districts far away. Sometimes deportees would be given specially colored pieces of clothing, blue-and-white-checked Kramar, a traditional rough-cotton neckerchief and sweatband used for everything from carrying produce to serving as a cover garment for bathing in the river. The deportees soon realized that the Kramar was not a gift but a neon sign, identifying them as disloyal Khmers to be singled out for harsh treatment or elimination. The blue scarves were Pol Pot's Stars of David.
Many deportees were people shipped out of the Eastern Zone, where the local Khmer Rouge leadership had come under suspicion for what the Center regarded as "soft" views and a reluctance at times to carry out the Center's harshest edicts. The Eastern Zone's proximity to Vietnam also made its people suspect, for despite support for the Khmer Rouge in the early years, Hanoi had come to be viewed by the Center as a stone-cold enemy, and Pol Pot had instigated a border war to try to seize Vietnamese territory that had been part of the Khmer empire centuries ago. Exiles to northwestern provinces wearing the blue scarves were called "Khmer bodies with Vietnamese minds."
One Kiernan interviewee, Ngoy Taing Heng, says that during a mass deportation from the Eastern Zone in 1978, the Khmer Rouge deliberately blew up three boats carrying easterners. "The Mekong flowed red," he said. Ngoy's group arrived in the Northwest by train. He recalled the scene: "Of seven thousand people of the train, three thousand were killed there, in Pursat.... They said they had to kill the Eastern base people." A woman living in the Pursat area, Sah Roh, recalls: "In mid-1978, three thousand Prey Veng people came to our cooperative.... Two months later they were all executed.... None of them was spared, not even small children.... I didn't see the killings, which took place in the forest, where grave pits had been dug. The road in that direction was closed, we weren't allowed to go there." She goes on: "I know they were killed because I lived next door to the cadres, house.... [One night] when they came back from killing I was still awake. They got together and were talking. They were saying, ,I slashed the stomach of this one, so many months [pregnant]., They were very cruel. I lay there with no hope that I would survive."
Monira, a former Lon Nol soldier, says that all 700 Eastern Zone arrivals in his village were killed on one day: "They were all shot dead by the Khmer Rouge.... Then they put the bodies on carts and took them
to throw into big sand-pits. Some young women who were not yet dead were buried alive. This was all done . . . at night so that the people couldn't see."
But some massacres took place in plain sight. Sameth, 45, tells of a group of a thousand eastern deportees who were forced to live in the hills where there was no water. They came down to her village to ask permission to move elsewhere. "There was an argument," she said, "and the troops opened fire on them. I saw this with my own eyes. They sprayed bullets in wide arcs, and hundreds of people just fell dead on top of one another. It took all night to drag the corpses away. Some people were not dead yet and the Khmer Rouge finished them off with knives."
Of course, the massacres were hardly confined to people of the Eastern Zone. Every corner of Cambodia had its killing fields. And indeed, as resistance born of desperation finally began to stir in the countryside, Pol Pot was soon seeing spies and traitors everywhere. He started purging sections of his own army, and then even members of his ruling group. A growing number of Khmer Rouge soldiers headed into the bush to become guerrillas against the Center. Some units defected to Vietnam. It was 1978, and Pol Pot's bloody dominion was unraveling.
Though the testimony and documentation Kiernan amasses is quite powerful, his book overall is oddly unemotional, sometimes even flat. None of the witnesses ever weep in Kiernan's description of the interview. No one pounds a table in anguished memory of a loved one's death. The victims tell very graphic stories, but the speakers do not come alive. I too have interviewed many of the survivors of the Pol Pot time, and it is the rare Cambodian who can tell of it without breaking down.
To this day, seventeen years after the Vietnamese invaded and drove the Khmer Rouge into the jungle, thousands of Cambodians are still the psychiatric walking wounded. It is not an uncommon sight to see someone riding a bicycle down a busy Phnom Penh street suddenly lose control, veer off and smack into a parked car. Without warning a dark memory from those inhuman years has slipped unwanted into the cyclist's mind and stunned his senses. There is no cure. Time only softens some effects.
Maybe Kiernan wanted to include virtually every piece of pertinent evidence he gathered, and thought that stopping to sketch in textured personas would distract us. Or perhaps these are a journalist's nit picks. This is after all a work of scholarship that will be one of the most widely used reference books on the Cambodian tragedy. While legions of Western scholars have devoted themselves to the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, very few have made it their mission to look into the depths of the genocides that occur in little countries, far away in the Third World. Ben Kiernan has done this for Cambodia.
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|Author:||Schanberg, Sydney H.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 8, 1996|
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