French and British tourists discuss bargainsilk scarf purchases on the Mekong River boat ride from Chau Duc to Pnom Penh. The mighty Mekong makes the Mississippi look like a trickle. The river runs from the Tibet south through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. It empties into the ocean at the southern tip of Vietnam.
Streams, estuaries and smaller rivers flow in and out of it. Alongside these water routes, endless trails and little roads wander off into the countryside. In 1969, the great intellectual National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, secretly ordered the bombing of Cambodia to stop arms supplies from North to South Vietnam. This genius thought that B 52 bombers could “interdict” the infinite streams and estuaries.
Hubris? Ignorance of history and geography?
I saw no signs of bombing, nor effects of dioxin, the poison contained in Agent Orange, dropped in massive quantities on Vietnam to defoliate it and reduce enemy hiding places. These toxins produced horrific diseases, deformities and birth defects and still do. But tourists on a boat, however, saw only the bucolic river life and compared the “friendly quality of the Vietnamese,” as one Sheffield resident phrased it “with the more surly Koreans.”
Cambodian farms replace Vietnamese along the river and the level of agricultural energy noticeably drops. In place of the diversified Vietnamese farms, we began to see one-crop farming. Vietnam’s agricultural and industrial economies are booming; Cambodia depends on tourism and agriculture. The Vietnamese boat guide explained that the better-off Cambodian farmers tend to do the minimum amount of upkeep on their land, while living in town or city homes. Children seeking relief from the heat dove into the river. Occasional small fishing boats, with men leaning over the side tending nets, rocked gently in the speed boat’s wake.
As the boat nears Pnom Penh, smoke stacks from lumber mills emit steady streams of pollution. Hotels and restaurants for tourists adorn the avenue running above Pnom Penh’s river bank. Following a Lonely Planet suggestion, we lunched at the Foreign Correspondents club.
The waiter made a tent with his hands and bowed gracefully in greeting. The busboys and even the bartender smiled. We sampled Fish Amok, a curried white fish wrapped in banana leaf over rice, and pumpkin soup three stars.
On the street, the level of commerce is clearly lighter than in the Vietnamese big cities. Pnom Penh lacks the energy of Ho Chi Min City and Hanoi. Locals move more slowly than in Vietnam it’s a little hotter and appear peaceful and courteous. Less horns blow. How could such gentle people have engaged in wanton slaughter during the holocaust?
Before Pol Pot died in 1998, he told a journalist that he had “a clear conscience.” Yet, between 1975 and 1979 he oversaw the executions, starvation or death by overwork of more than 1.5 million people who shared a common history, including one of the eight wonders of the world.
Some of the walls at the Angkor Wat temple, built between the 9th and 14th Centuries, still contain pock marks made by bullets, residues of Vietnamese and Cambodian “communists” fighting each other amidst the splendor of palaces built by grandiose kings.
Located outside the city of Siem Reap, 315 miles north of Pnom Penh, Angkor Wat now connects with the world. A daily flight links Seoul with Siem Reap. An Iceland Air plane and a Bangkok Air jet filled with Europeans landed just after our flight from Pnom Penh.
The surrounding archeological area contains 100 temples, now administered by a joint UN and Cambodian government commission. But they have not figured out how to recover the missing Buddha heads and other “archeology” pieces that thieves purloined.
Siem Reap’s main street, however, has aspects of Las Vegas. Bright neon flashes from 102 hotels more under construction and one casino. The tourism rush has transformed this once sleepy village. Banks and travel agencies that provide guides, cars and cash for the thousands of Asians, Europeans, Americans and Australians share the real estate with expensive restaurants and clubs.
The super friendly, if not overly servile, hotel staff does not appear to be groveling for tips. Did any of their parents rat-out their grandparents to Pol Pot’s goons for slaughter?
In 1949, Pol Pot received a government scholarship to study in Paris where he quickly became a communist. By 1953, just after France granted independence to Cambodia, he established the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party. From 1960 to 1963, he led the Party from a jungle lair where he had fled to escape Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s police. Can we blame his French education France ruled Cambodia until 1953 for his murderous propensities?
By 1968, the Khmer Rouge emerged as an armed struggle movement, seemingly typical of the period: Cambodian guerrillas fighting government troops in the name of poor peasants. Maoism!
Between March 1969 and May 1970, Kissinger ordered some 3,600 B 52 bombing raids on Cambodia. Kissinger later lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying he had selected only “unpopulated” areas of Cambodia for bombing.
Somehow, between 600,000 to 800,000 civilians died in these “unpopulated areas. This carnage occurred before Pol Pot won power. Refugees from the bombing abounded; others left because of poisonous herbicides dropped by U.S. military aircraft. Neither Vietnamese nor Cambodians have recovered from this toxic side of the “the American War.”
Kissinger’s undeclared war against Cambodia also included overthrowing the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. A pro U.S. military coup produced an ineffective regime and subsequently led to the seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge. How little Kissinger “the realist” knew of reality! Or maybe he didn’t care!
After a more obedient government let the U.S. do what it wished in Cambodia, the Prince allied himself with the Khmer Rouge to resist the coup.
At the time, Washington offered a domino theory if Vietnam fell to the communists, then neighboring states would topple like dominoes. But such “theories” ignored bitter rivalries and hatred in the region. In 1960, the indissoluble Soviet-Chinese communist marriage, a U.S. axiom, ended in a rude divorce in 1960. Pol Pot lined up with Beijing; Vietnam depended on Moscow for arms and supplies.
In 1975, Congress cut the military operations budget in Southeast Asia. The United States cut and ran and North Vietnam quickly won the war. The Khmer Rouge grabbed power from the demoralized army, killed their own people and staged incursions into Vietnam.
Pol Pot launched an “agrarian communist revolution” backed by China and, as Vietnam’s enemy, Washington also supported the Khmer Rouge government’s “killing fields.”
In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Pol Pot’s troops fled into the jungle. By 1993, the Khmer Rouge had grown sufficiently weak so that the Vietnamese could withdraw. Conflicting Cambodian parties signed a peace agreement. In the ensuing UN-supervised election, boycotted by the Khmer Rouge, the royal party triumphed, but somehow members of the KR managed to squeeze significant posts out of the new government.
By 1997, Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s brother-in-law, threw in the towel, along with some 10,000 other members of the guerrilla army. Pol Pot ordered subordinates to murder one of his defecting generals and his family. In June 1997, Pol Pot’s own troops took him prisoner. He died a year later.
The attorney for a French hotel chain shook his head. “This country is still traumatized,” he whispered. “Up to 2 million Cambodians died and then the new government granted amnesty to all warring sides.” He laughed cynically. “It will take time.”
Our Cambodian guide, Sam, short for a much longer name, repeatedly stressed Pol Pot’s unspeakable horrors. “But it’s over,” he smiled, as he pointed to a seemingly endless mural etched into the Angkor Wat walls in sandstone depicting life in the 12th Century. Suryavarman II (1113-1150) initiated the temple construction, dedicated to Vishnu. In 1177, invading Chams sacked the Khmer temple, but King Jayavarman VII restored it and built Angkor Thom a few miles north. Art adorns the walls; the architecture makes me feel small. At sunset the temple reflects in the moat in front of it. Tourists gaze in awe.
“Cambodians will recover from the Pol Pot days,” Sam assured me. “History,” he smiles, “is hard to predict.” The construction of one of the world’s wonders fascinates spectators because it exemplifies the human imagination. The holocausts perpetrated by Pol Pot or Adolph Hitler reflect the other side of the human potential.
UN and some Cambodian leaders have made unsuccessful attempts to fashion a court to try Khmer Rouge leaders. A current UN-Cambodian government tribunal looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, Pol Pot cronies live in Pnom Penh; indeed, some serve in high government positions.
In Vietnam, U.S. war crimes have taken a back seat to U.S. business. But they have not been forgotten. A late March Hanoi conference explored Agent Orange’s impact on Vietnamese health, and opened up possibilities for investigating U.S. officials’ “imagination” at a war crimes tribunal.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.