Tag Archives: Cambodia

One of the genocidal rulers of the 20th century

David P. Chandler, who was the research director at the Centre of Southeast Asia Studies at Monash University in Australia (now emeritus there, he is also an adjunct professor at Gergetown University), is a historian of post-World War II Cambodian history rather than a biographer. The notes of Brother Number One show not only his familiarity of seemingly everything written in English about Cambodia during the second half of the twentieth century but with the archives of the torture state of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists/Angkar) and a large number of interviews with those who survived knowing Saloth Sar, who took the revolutionary name “Pol Pot.”


Chandler’s goal in Brother Number One (revised edition, 1999, first edition 1992) looking into the life of Saloth Sar (1925-1998), aka Pol Pot, is to try to understand how a not-especially-bright Khmer urbanite (who had lived in Phnom Penh and Paris) became the paramount leader of a regime that literally emptied the cities of Cambodia, pretty much destroyed its economy, mythologized peasant virtue, and killed off one out of every seven Cambodians in four years in power (and drove another one of seven into refugee camps and beyond). Chandler did not reach his goal, which seems to be an impossible one. Pol Pot covered his tracks too well, left practically no writings other than a memoir in which most everything is demonstrably false, and the disjuncture between the bland and pleasant man those who knew him recall and the delusional government he headed does not seem bridgeable.

It is not just that Chandler is interested in the policies of the Khmer Rouge more than in the private life of Saloth Sar/Pol Pot but that no one knows very much about the man’s life other than as a revolutionary. Hence the modifier “political” before “biography in the subtitle.

Chandler provides plausible views of Khmer Rouge roots in Khmer pride and Buddhist exhortation (like most males in the Thervada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia before or other than communist-ruled ones, Sar was a monk for a time) and in the Stalinist/Maoist tradition that the Khmer Rouge carried to a level of destructiveness of life and traditional lifestyles beyond even the forced collectivization and incessant search for enemies within the reigns of terror of Stalin and Mao. I want to provide my own view of this context that is only partly based on what Chandler wrote but is consistent with what he wrote. Anyone interested solely in a review of the biography as biography might skip the following section—though, as I have already said, so little is known about the interiority and very guarded private life of Saloth Sar that there is not much conventional biography that can be done.

The path from Marx to the disasters for their peoples of 20th-century communist states

The most fundamental part of the eschatology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere is that human misery in its modern form stems from private ownership of the means of production. Engels in particular saw history as proceeding from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism to communism and expected the workers (the proletariat) in industrialized capitalist societies to unite across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to seize control of the means of production and to develop the utopia of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (“his” in the generic sense).

What happened instead was that in no industrialized state did the workers seize the means of production. There was also a total failure of working-class solidarity across national lines demonstrated during the First World War… and nationalism has been very, very prominent in all the states in which communist revolutions succeeded in seizing state power (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Neither nationalisms nor the state have withered away in those countries or in the imperial conquests by postrevolutionary communist regimes. (Lenin’s linkage of imperialism to capitalism was also falsified by 20th-century history.)

Like Russia and China at the times of their communist coups, Cambodia had very little industry—and, therefore, few industrial capitalists—and in classical Marxist “science” were not ready for communism, having not reached the stage of capitalism. This is why there is some sense in the claim that, like Christianity, Marxism is an idea that has never been tried. (Unlike Christianity, the Marxist utopia was supposed to be of this world.) But history has provided abundant disconfirmations of the view that eliminating private ownership of the means of production leads to equality (or the withering away of the state). Communist regimes have somewhat masked inequality by calling everyone “comrade” or “brother,” but to borrow from George Orwell, some have been more equal than others, and/or there have been elder brothers telling younger ones what to do. State-run economies have been colossally inefficient and all communist societies developed managerial elites and political elites: a dichotomy between party members nonmembers (with party members having privileges nonmembers lacked) and hierarchies within the parties. (Managerial elites getting rich as well as powerful without owning the means of production have also typified capitalist societies, but this is nearly as contrary to Marxist “science” as the stratification within communist societies.)

Back to Pol Pot

Saloth Sar joined the communist party in France ca. 1951, before the death (in 1953) of Josef Stalin, who dictated policies to the International. (The French communist party was the most rigidly Stalinist European communist party.) Saloth Sar found reading Marx too difficult. The less subtle (less dialectical) writings of Stalin were easier to grasp, and along with 19th-century French poets, it was Stalin whom he read. (Back in Cambodia having not completed any degree, he taught French literature. His former students reported that Saloth Sar could recite many French poems from memory, but, in power, Pol Pot took particular aim at those who were biliterate.)

What the man who would later call himself “Pol Pot” emulated) many of Stalin’s traits—the relative austerity in which he lived, the continual search for traitors to blame for failures (“sabotage”) and root out, promulgation of grand plans (Stalin’s 5-year ones), an imperviousness to the cost in human life of his endeavors, and the isolation from reality that is common to rulers who are able to eliminate anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. Chandler points out that Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was very isolated from news about what was going on in the world after fleeing to the protection of the North Vietnamese army and some Hill Tribesmen in northeastern Cambodia during the 1960s. In power in the mostly empty Phnom Penh, Pol Pot pored over confessions extracted under torture at Tuol Sleng, but had neither any training or any inclination to evaluate economic data.

Like another major influence, Mao Zedong, when Pol Pot did venture out, what he saw were charades that supported his fantasies about increasing productivity. Pol Pot directly imported the delusion that collectivized rice cultivation could triple rice production. As in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” many starved while no one dared to tell the ideologue-in-chief that his belief in agricultural magic was not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Even more than Stalin, Mao was indifferent to deaths related to advancing his agenda of collectivizing agriculture. (Mao also expressed an unconcern about tens of millions of Chinese being killed by nuclear bombs.) Pol Pot/the Khmer Rouge were unconcerned about those driven from the cities dying, valuing peasant virtues and believing city-dwellers were corrupt.

The Khmer Rouge years have been called “autogenocide.” As far as the revolution eating the revolutionaries (in the tradition of the French and Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions) this is certainly accurate, and many Cambodians were killed or starved to death during the Khmer Rouge years. The “base people” (those who did not live in cities when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975) received more food than the “new people”—that is, those driven from the cities, new to the countryside. A majority of suspect city people were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. As in other Southeast Asia economies, much of the business (and such industry as there was) had been in the hands of Chinese. Thus, the “social cleansing” of emptying the city and discriminating for the rural natives (in this case, Khmers) cannot really be separated from “ethnic cleansing.” To a considerable extent, the Khmer Rouge was a nativist regime, glorifying the people (Khmers) who had built the monuments of Angkor civilization a millennium earlier.

Chandler makes very, very clear that the North Vietnamese defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970, and that Pol Pot resented his years of dependency on the Vietnamese a great deal. Many of the Cambodian communists (including himself) had spent time in North Vietnam and been protected by the North Vietnamese army in eastern Cambodia.

The communists purported to be fighting to restore Sihanouk (who was revered by many Cambodians) and reinstalled him—under de facto house arrest—in his palace. The Chinese communists (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was still raging) were the patrons of the Pol Pot regime, supplying arms. The PRC support for the Khmer Rouge is one of Mao’s many crimes against humanity. As animosity between the PRC and USSR communist states increased, and Nixon and Kissinger curried favor with the PRC to discomfit the USSR, the PRC/USSR hostility was acted out in Southeast Asia with the Khmer Rouge backed by China (and implicitly by the US), Vietnam by the Russians.

In December of 1978 the Vietnamese (again) swept across Cambodia. This time the Thais (also complicit with the PRC and an enemy of the Vietnamese) provided protection for the Khmer Rouge, and still under the command of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge sallied across the border to raid western Cambodia. Having spent the 1960s on both sides of the eastern border of Cambodia, Pol Pot spent the 1980s and 90s on both sides of the western border, continuing civil war against a regime in Phnom Penh put in power and supported by aliens (this time the Vietnamese rather than the Americans).

Pol Pot continued to fixate on traitors and was finally deposed as head of the Khmer Rouge in November of 1997 having ordered the execution of his longtime close associate Son Sen (ten additional members of Son’s family were also murdered). Less than a year later he died (ostensibly of heart failure) unrepentant about his policies (or modus operandi of creating and eliminating traitors). He claimed “I did everything for my country,” begging the question of what his country was, but certainly showing yet again that nationalism eclipsed universalism for communist leaders (and making me wonder again if Emerson was right about patriotism being the last resort of scoundrels”—it so often seems to be the first one!)


Pol Pot remains opaque. His ability to maintain delusions about the soundness of his economic and social policies is striking. Chandler illuminates some influences, in particular China’s Cultural Revolution (though Mao only sent Red Guards who had gotten out of his control to the countryside and did not go so far as emptying China’s cities) and the ambivalence toward the patronage (and patronizing) by the Vietnamese. Chandler has sorted out where Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was most of the time, but not what he was thinking.

The book is excellent history, providing much to think about, necessarily thin as biography. Chandler seems to use all available information and seems to cut through the disinformation Pol Pot provided on the rare occasions he made autobiographical statements.

Having started reading the book in Cambodia and after reading Loung Ung’s memoir from just barely above the ground of being forced out of Phnom Penh and enduring the depredations of the Pol Pot years, I was particularly interested in sorting out blame. There is a lot to go around and multiple candidates. Certainly, the ones most responsible are the Khmer Rouge. It is clear from Chandler’s account that they would never have come to power without the North Vietnamese, and the foreign policies of Sihanouk, Nixon, and Mao. And I wouldn’t want to leave out such apologists as Noam Chomsky, either. (As far as I know, Chomsky has not recanted what he wrote about the Khmer Rouge—patriotism is not the only refuge of scoundrels…) The Vietnamese to some extent remedied their earlier errors by removing the Khmer Rouge from power, while the US, Thailand, and the PRC in various ways are responsible for the continued depredations by the Khmer Rouge after 1978.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Sisters in the Cambodian holocaust, one of whom left, one of whom stayed

For anyone like me who had a happy childhood and a conventionally middle-American angst-ridden adolescence, it is difficult to think of anyone who was in Phnom Penh in 1975 when Angkar (known in the west as the Khmer Rouge—the Maoist Cambodian) emptied it as having been lucky. Having read Loung Ung‘s first book, First They Killed My Father I knew what she meant before beginning Lucky Child. She was a happy and privileged 5-year-old in 1975. She survived the horrors of being a suspiciously (to the Angkar cadres) light-skinned urbanite through remarkable tenacity and cunning, as the previous book details in chilling detail. There were close calls of starvation, bullets, and her family background, so some luck was involved in reaching the age of ten.


Then, there was the luck of being chosen by her eldest brother Meng to be the one to accompany him as he tried to get to the United States (through Vietnam and Thailand—yes, I know they are in opposite directions from Cambodia; read the first book to find out about this very dangerous zigzag, complete with pirates). He chose her in part because she was the youngest and most likely to adjust more easily to a(nother) new culture. She was also tougher than her surviving sister Chou.

Chou probably would have been even more lost in Vermont than Loung was, but life in America was still far from easy for Loung. Among other things, she chafed at the demands of her Elder Brother’s wife that she be demure. Having been a soldier at the age of 9 so that she could eat, demure is not how Loung survived in Cambodia. Moreover, her skin was again different from that of the majority in Essex Junction, Vermont, so that she was still suspiciously “other.” She was terrified of ghosts, carefully following Cambodian/Chinese folk remedies for warding them off. And, like many other survivors of bombings and gun-battles, frightened by Fourth-of-July fireworks.

And bearing a crushing load of survivor guilt—not just in relation to her parents and the sister who starved during the Khmer Rouge economic devolution and widespread slaughter (particularly of nonpeasants, and among them, particularly of those who looked like they have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry), not just in relation to the million or two who died in the four years of Khmer Rouge despotism, but of her siblings who were left behind, Chou in particular.

The book alternates Loung Ung’s first-person memoirs with chapters in the third person about Chou’s experience half a world away in the village in which aunts and uncles lived. (They were “base people” to the Khmer Rouge, presumed to have supported the revolution before April 17, 1975, in contrast to those driven out of Cambodia’s cities.)

I had to wait a long ways into the book to find out what happened to Third Brother Kim, who had become the “man of the house” desperately trying to protect his mother, Loung, and Chou, and to get food for them at age nine, and who had to swallow vast quantities of bitterness and humiliation. Loung was luckier than he was in many ways, but after some more harrowing “adventures,” he, too, got to the US.

The two siblings who survived and remained in Cambodia produced five and six children, so there are many nephews and nieces in Cambodia, and the Cambodian American Ungs have been able first to help and then to visit the Cambodian ones.

As the contrast in titles already strongly suggests, Lucky Child has happier stories to tell than First They Killed My Father did. Readers of the first book can find relief in the second one and be happy for the characters. The narrative is less gripping because there are relatively mundane problems instead of nearly unimaginable horrors in the second book.

Both books have some fracturing of perspective. The first has imagined scenes—plausible conjectures about how Loung thought her family members’ ends went. The second one has the alternation between Loung and Chou. The author is more certain in telling her own story than in telling her sister’s. Loung is—and seemingly was from an early age—more introspective than Chou, and more purposeful. Chou was more passive (and a model of demureness) and is not all that interesting a character. Moreover, Loung is hard on herself and very, very gentle in writing about her sister. This is totally understandable in human terms, and I admire Loung for treating her sister well. But “kid-glove” treatment doesn’t make for as riveting reading as the self-critical narration of Loung’s own experience.

Probably it says something about the sadism and voyeurism of readers that we often find kind characters boring (and often find villains interesting and even sympathetic). I don’t think it’s just me! And I think she is too hard on herself, so am not a total sadist…

Loung Ung’s pair of memoirs, like those of Pascal Khoo Thew (From the Land of Green Ghosts) and T. C. Hou(‘s autobiographical novels A Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles) provide terrifying portraits of confused youngsters escaping brutal Southeast Asian genocidal/ethnocidal regimes in Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. They (and the accounts of leaving and returning to Vietnam in Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, Noel Alumit’s of leaving the Philippines after Marcos goons kill his father in Letters to Montgomery Clift, and leaving Afghanistan in Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York) make my adolescent unhappinesses seem very petty in comparison. These often poignant books may induce survivor guilt, along with telling about the lost seeming paradises of childhoods cruelly snatched away—an experience that is altogether too widespread!


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Harrowing memoir of Khmer Rouge genocide

The best-known portrayal of Angkar (usually called “Khmer Rouge” in the west) horrors focus on an American (“The Killing Fields). Angkar exterminated educated Cambodians and sought to eradicate anyone who spoke languages other than Khmer or who looked to be of non-Khmer descent (especially lighter-skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though Angkar was supported by the PRC). There were literate survivors of the Nazi holocaust (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi), the Soviet gulags (Solzhenitsyn), the cultural revolution (Shen Fan), and the ongoing Burmese junta (Pacal Kew Thwe) but very few cosmopolitan Cambodians survived the starvation and executions of Angkar ethnic and social cleansing.

The “classless” Angkar dystopia was very stratified, as Loung Ung’s memoir makes clear: the Angkar cadres had the most food, the peasants who had never left their fields had enough to survive, those driven from the cities and presumed corrupted by urban life were starved or murdered outright.


Ung’s 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, begins with remembering a life of prosperity and privilege as her father’s favorite in Phnom Penh. Angkar troops occupied and emptied the capital on April 17, 1975. The five-year-old Loung naively believed that the “evacuation” would only last three days. Angkar lied, and the horrors burgeon. Savvy a survivor as her father is, he is eventually taken away. She’d like to believe the Angkarite who says he’ll return in the morning. Her father knows better and tells her twelve-year-old brother Kim that he must protect the family.

Kim goes to heroic lengths (to which no one of any age should have to go) against implacable enemies. Loung celebrates Kim and their father and mother, blaming herself for lack of understanding and sympathy for the latter. Loung and Kim have to be mature and crafty long before chronological adulthood. Above all, they must not let anyone know they are urban and of mixed (Chinese-Khmer) descent, though their light skin give them away as not being peasants.

As the Angkar mythos shifts into a cult of Pol Pot, Loung focuses the fury, which she cannot show, on fantasies of providing him the painful death he evaded. Desire for vengeance keeps her going (rather than eating her up) as she trains to be a soldier. She eventually watches two women hammer and stab an Angkar murderer, but does not enjoy it… And has more travails on the South China Sea en route to a Thai refuge camp.

From title and subtitle, I knew I was getting memories of sickening mistreatment. An older sister is eager to forget the horrors, but Loung provides witness—very young when witnessing, and very gifted a writer (in English) about the horrors she saw when her happy childhood turned into a protracted nightmare. The 29-year-old author (and anti-landmine activist) recalls a few rays of sunlight that reached her in Angkar hell, and the lost paradise of the childhood that ended just after she turned five.

What the adult author imagines happened to (altogether too many!) family members, based on Angkar practices is set off in italics. The five-year-old’s hero worship of her father leaves open to more distanced readers to wonder what her father did as a police official, though being killed by Angkar “justice” clearly did not require evidence of any misdeeds.

That Cambodia had to be saved from its nativist butchers who outdid the carnage and economic suicide of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by the far-from-democratic forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam is somewhere beyond ironic. That Ho Chi Minh City in 1979 seemed a paradise of freedom and prosperity says a great deal about the Cambodia in which Loung had spent the previous four years.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Peter O’Toole as “Lord Jim”


Richard Brooks (1912-1992) was a novelist (The Brick Foxhole, tamed onscreen as “Crossfire”) turned movie writer-directot with literary aspirations. He directed an uninteresting adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald “The Last Time I Saw Paris” and a deadly adaptation of (the I’ll grant unfilmable!) The Brothers Karamazov. IMO he did better with lesser literary properties: Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, A Mule for the Marquesa (as “The Professionals”), Looking for Mr. Goodbar and two Tennessee Williams play adaptations: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” both starring Paul Newman paired with formidable presences (Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Page, Burl Ives and Ed Begley).

I’m not sure what is wrong with Brooks’ 1965 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim, which was shot partly in and around the ancient Khmer (capital of Angkor Thom with an impressive cast headed by Peter O’Toole (fresh from Oscar-nominated performances in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Becket”), along with James Mason, Eli Wallach, Jack Hawkins, Paul Lukas, and Curt Jurgens. Though the title character is very laconic through most of the movie, a lot of Conrad’s florid garrulousness comes out of the mouths of other characters (and from Jim’s just before the end).


For me at least, there is too much talk at the beginning and the end of the long movie, with Jack Hawkins mostly redundant (to the images) voiceovering at the beginning and O’Toole’s Jim with his surrogate father trader Stein (Lukas) arguing that he must be punished in the last part (before a spectacular Balinese funeral with Angkor Wat in the background). 1965 audiences probably reacted “Haven’t we just seen this?” —that is O’Toole playing a man alienated from his homeland, preoccupied with not seeming a coward, seeing himself as a messianic leader for “third world” freedom fighters: Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, some generic Southeast Asian group against a warlord-like white bandit not too different from the one in Heart of Darkness. Both T. E. Lawrence and Tuan Jim are more than a little delusional about their transcendent wisdom and how beloved they are by nonwhite forces who don’t seem able to organize their own battles. Both are disappointed by their failure to deliver on their promises without white European leadership and after suffering disappointment, commit kinds of suicide.

As a young merchant marine officer who jumped ship, abandoning 800 pilgrims being transported to Arabia, Jim is dishonored and seeks anonymity (Lawrence’s dishonor in his memoir and in David Lean’s movie was being sodomized by a Turkish officer (played by José Ferrer in the movie) and Lawrence’s quest for anonymity came later in his lifecourse than Jim’s. Jim is tortured by the general, but is not anally raped. O’Toole has something of the same mad glint in his eyes in both roles and the same overestimation of his ability to make what he wants become reality.

Eli Wallach chews up a lot of scenery as the chief villain, known as “the general” preying on the upriver natives abetted by Stein’s corrupted and cowardly agent Cornelius (Jurgens). Back at the mouth of the river, Akim Tamiroff chews up more scenery as the owner of various boats in Malacca, Schmober. Eventually, a smoother villain “Gentleman” Brown (a bearded James Mason in a bowler hat) goes upriver to detach treasure from Jim’s self-invented protectorate. There is an undeveloped romance with a native girl (an affectless “performance” by Israeli actress Dalaih Lavi) and more developed male bonding with a boy (Eric Young?) and the hunky son of the headman. I guess it makes sense that the headman and his son are of the same ethnicity, though it being Japanese is noticeable odd (Saitô Tatsuo as the headman, Itami Jûzô [who later wrote and directed “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”] as his son).


Having panicked once, Jim is determined to prove himself and does so with manic intensity (not the grim determination of the maligned Gary Cooper character in “They Came to Condura”). I recall Conrad’s novel being primarily about that, though the movie is something of an epic in the style of an American western of clearing out bad guys who are dominating peaceful good small-town people that happens to have Cambodian backdrops, which were shot by Freddie Young, who had shot “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” for David Lean in other climes.

If the movie was overshadowed in 1965 by “Lawrence of Arabia” (even though O’Toole had played a real ruler, Henry II, in between), now it is overshadowed by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now!” a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with an upriver despot in, I think, Laos (filmed in the Philippines). And for me, the storm at sea pales against recent memory of those in “The Life of Pi.”

It’s impossible to consider this or any other movie in a vacuum. Alas for it, the associations it evokes are to better movies (including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” for Wallach’s role). Somewhat unusually, rather than sagging in the middle, the middle of this movie that runs nearly three hours is better than the first or the last parts (IMHO).

The good-looking DVD has no bonus features except some theatrical trailers: not one for “Lord Jim” but ones for Brooks’s later “In Cold Blood,” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (the last also focusing on a delusional British officer far from home in Southeast Asia).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray