As we enter the small city of Anlong Veng in the Dângrêk Mountains, located in the northwest of Cambodia, it begins to rain. The rain is powerful, but it is, after all a tropical rain, and it ends as unexpectedly as it begins.
We drive over the bridge, over some sort of dam, and suddenly, there is a beautiful but eerie lake in front of us.
“Just few years ago, this was the last stronghold of Khmer Rouge”, explained my friend, Song Heang. “Then, it was impossible to drive here just like that. There were no houses around. And the lake was like a swamp, impossible to cross.”
We drove all the way here, to visit the compound of the last military leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok, the military chief, known as “Brother Number Five” or “the Butcher”. This is where he lived and this is where he commanded his troops from.
Ta Mok, the right hand of Pol Pot. Ta Mok, who split the movement, put Pol Pot under house arrest and most likely poisoned him. Ta Mok who commanded the army of several thousand Khmer Rouge loyalists, between 1979, when the Vietnamese forces ousted his movement from power, until 1999, when he was captured by government forces. Ta Mok died in custody in 2006, without ever being properly tried, or sentenced.
Ta Mok’s personal security man, his bodyguard who lived with him for years, San Reoung, is expecting us.
He is missing his left leg, and that is common among Cambodian civilians and combatants of his age. Ta Mok also lost one leg in the fighting.
There is actually only one thing that I want to know: how Communist was the Khmer Rouge, and was it the ideology, the Marxist ideology, that drew farmers to the ranks of the movement?
San Reoung thinks for a while, then replies, weighing each word:
“It was really not about the ideology… We did not know much about it. I was, for instance, very angry with the Americans. I became a soldier at the age of 17. And my friends were very angry, too. They joined Khmer Rouge to fight Americans, and especially the corruption of their puppet dictator Lon Nol, in Phnom Penh.”
Were people in the countryside aware of what was going on in the capital, before KR took power?
“Of course they were. The US gave so much support, so much money, to the corrupt Lon Nol regime. Everybody knew where it all went to: to countless lavish parties, to fancy prostitutes… The US bombed our countryside to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of people died. People went mad, they were indignant. And so many of them joined Khmer Rouge as a result.”
“Not because of Marxist ideology?” I asked again.
San Reoung replies, immediately:
“Of course not. The great majority had no idea about Marxism, they had never heard about it”.
I visit the compound of Ta Mok. I enter an old wagon, a communications center, used by Pol Pot a few decades ago. It is now empty and rusty. The entire compound has become some sort of an informal museum. I refuse to go to the former living-quarters of Ta Mok. I don’t see the point of doing it.
Instead, I stare at the lake for quite some time.
Having worked for many years in this part of the world, I got to understand that all the answers to the important questions about Cambodia and its past, lie in its countryside. The West, for decades, managed to corrupt Phnom Penh, by paying almost everyone that matters there, to repeat and to perfect a twisted and clichéd narrative.
The NGO’s, journalists – they are all shouting about the “Communist” genocide in Cambodia. It has become a well-remunerated job, the source of an incessant flow of funding, a complex lie backed by the Western propaganda machine, academia and the mainstream press.
The Khmer Rouge was a brutal force, of course, but definitely not a ‘Communist’ genocidal monster. And it did not appear out of the blue.
I ask Song Heang whether what we heard in Anlong Veng was correct. We are slowly gaining speed, on the way to the disputed and bloodstained temple, Preah Vihear, on the Cambodian-Thai border.
Song Heang works for a small Australian charity organization, which is building little rural libraries for children. He hates the Khmer Rouge. But he readily agrees that there was very little that was ‘Communist’ about them:
He is good natured and even-headed:
“As a child, I lived along the Mekong River, in the village of Prek Tamak, some 65 kilometers from Phnom Penh. When the Americans were bombing, everything stopped and people got petrified… There, they used those very fast planes; jetfighters, and local people called them ‘Amich’ – fast ones… Many people then joined Khmer Rouge. They did not know what Communism was. They only knew how horrible the pro-Western government in Phnom Penh was.”
“Why do people in Phnom Penh keep repeating that Pol Pot conducted ‘Communist Genocide’? Why, like in the rest of Southeast Asia, is China being demonized? And why is demonized Vietnam?” I ask.
“We are a very poor country”, replies Song Heang. “And if our people in Phnom Penh get money, they just like the money, and say exactly what they are paid to say. And the US and the European Union are pushing lots of money for certain statements.”
In Phnom Penh, there are new malls now, and countless new and second-hand luxury vehicles, for the very rich and very corrupt.
The city has embarked fully on the savage capitalist road, not unlike Jakarta, another Asian urban nightmare. Except that Phnom Penh has at least some impressive French colonial villas, a beautiful riverfront and several good galleries and museums.
But its urban area of around 2.2 million people has no public transportation system (except a few buses), and its public health system and education are in an appalling state.
Its long-serving, dictatorial and brutal Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is both a former Battalion Commander of the Khmer Rouge, and, “free market and multi-party liberal democracy” champion. Although periodically criticized by the West for human rights violations, the West is generally happy with the market fundamentalism applied here, as well as with the virtual absence of coherent social policies.
For years, I have observed a great number of ‘advisors’, particularly from the European Union, ‘shaping the course’ of the Cambodian economy, and of its society in general.
Which, of course, includes its history. Advisers say certain things in public, and others behind the closed doors.
Eight years ago I wrote:
“In one of the terrace cafés frequented by foreign experts, the atmosphere is relatively relaxed. Men from the U.N. and E.U. drink beer, hand in hand with their local “second wives,” unwinding after a tough working day in this chaotic capital. They perform diverse tasks in this country, which used to be marked by some of the worst violence known to humankind. Some are in charge of de-mining the countryside; others attempt to convince locals to turn over their weapons, which are still in abundance, one of the reasons for the high crime rate.”
But many are here to advise the government and countless NGO’s, how to run the economy, and the state. It is clear that such advice mostly leads to ‘projects’ strictly based on pro-market theories. As a result, a very small percentage of the economic growth ends up in the pockets of the poor, which is the great majority of Cambodian people.
Marijuana smoke lazily moves through the humid and stale air. After several years in Cambodia, these experts are tough and cynical — every day is a battle. To achieve anything in this country, one has to bribe and compromise. Polite speech has been fully forgotten; conversations are brutally direct and frank.
Common clichés reserved for the public in the U.S. and Europe are targets of ridicule and open scorn at these informal gatherings.
“Khmer Rouge killing more than a million Cambodians? Impossible!” frowns one of the middle-aged Europeans who has been living and working in this country for more than ten years. “They had no capacity to kill so many people. Sure, between one and two million people died between 1969 and 1978, but that number includes 500,000 or more of those massacred by the U.S. carpet bombing before Khmer Rouge took over.”
“Most of the people died because of starvation and illnesses,” he continues. “Furthermore, terrible massacres did not happen because of the communist ideology of Khmer Rouge. It was not on that level. U.S. carpet-bombing and Lon Nol’s brutal dictatorship supported by the West pitched local people against each other. Killings were performed out of vengeance, not on ideological bases. Peasants went insane from enduring B-52 carpet bombings. Many were tortured, massacred and “disappeared” during Lon Nol’s reign. Country folks hated city-dwellers, blaming them for all the misfortunes and horrors they had to endure. And most Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadres came from the countryside.”
Just half a mile from the café and the detached conversations of hardened expats, the Tuol Sleng Museum (Museum of Genocide), based in a former secondary school, speaks to the unbridled brutality and sadism of Khmer Rouge cadres. In 2009, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Tuol Sleng Museum the “Memory of the World”.
After April 17, 1975 the classrooms of Tuol Svay Prey High School, became the Khmer Rouge’s main torture and interrogation center, known as Security Prison 21 — or just S-21. This is where men and women were shackled and severely beaten, where women had their nipples torn-off by pliers, where electric wires were applied to genitals. After the confession (and one had no option but to confess in order to stop the unbearable torture), most of the men, women and children who went through this institution of horror ended up in the extermination camp Choeung Ek, facing almost certain execution. It is said that 20,000 died after being interrogated at S-21.
In an insane attempt to give structure to the savagery, Khmer Rouge documented each case, photographing all the men and women detained right after their arrest, and before torture, then taking pictures of some after the savage interrogation.
Some of the most terrifying images are those created by Vann Nath, a painter and former prisoner of S-21, one of the very few who managed to survive because of his talent and ability to draw complimentary portraits of Pol Pot, and of the officials who were in charge of the interrogation center. After the Vietnamese invasion, Vann Nath transferred the most terrifying memories onto canvas; a mosaic depicting the barbarity and insane brutality of the interrogators — a mother whose baby is being assassinated in front of her eyes, a man whose nails are being extracted by pliers, a woman having her nipple cut off.
But even Van Nath, in a conversation we had some fifteen years ago, insisted that the Khmer Rouge killed around 200,000 people during its reign, a number which he also uses in his book “A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21″ (White Lotus Press).
And among most of the Khmer survivors that I spoke to, there is a consensus that the majority of people died not because of Communist ideology and not because of direct orders from Phnom Penh to exterminate millions, but because of officers and local cadres in the provinces who ran amok, taking their personal vengeance on deported city-dwellers and “elites” whom they blamed for both the savage American bombing from the past, and for supporting the corrupt and savage pro-Western dictatorship of Lon Nol.
There can be no doubt that the great majority of those who died during that era (between one and two million people) were victims of the US bombing, of famines related to these bombings and of becoming internally displaced people (around 2 million became refugees in their own country, lacking medical care, food, and enduring despicable living conditions).
The fact that a substantial number of people vanished as a result of the U.S. carpet-bombing is very rarely mentioned in the mainstream Western media. But among academia it was understood that the U.S. Air Force had been secretly bombing Cambodia using B-52s, since May 1969. It was called “Operation Menu” (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, Dessert, and Supper). Although now, new evidence, from declassified documents (in 2000 by the Clinton administration), shows that the Air Force had already began bombing the rural regions of Cambodia along its South Vietnam border in 1965, under the Johnson administration. The “Menus” were just brutal escalations of the mass murder of defenseless civilians.
Facing defeat in Vietnam in 1973, the ruthless carpet-bombing was performed in order to support Lon Nol’s regime. Historian David P. Chandler writes:
“When the campaign was stopped by the U.S. Congress at the end of the year, the B-52s had dropped over half of a million tons of bombs on a country with which the United States was not at war — more than twice the tonnage dropped on Japan during WWII.”
The war in Cambodia was known as “the sideshow” by journalists covering the war in Vietnam and by American policy-makers in London. Yet the intensity of U.S. bombing in Cambodia was greater than it ever was in Vietnam; about 500,000 soldiers and civilians were killed over the 4-year period, in the territory of this small country. As mentioned before, it also caused about 2 million refugees to flee from the countryside to the capital.
The barbarity of the bombardment, the displacement of millions of people, and resentment towards the corrupt pro-Western regime in Phnom Penh, paved the way for the Khmer Rouge’s victory and the campaign of ferocious vengeance.
It was not the “Communist Genocide”, but the Empire murdering millions in Indochina, with absolute impunity and complete spite for the ‘unpeople’, followed by blind and brutal revenge of those desperate people who lost everything.
I enter the market place, a lane of eateries 50 kilometers from Phnom Penh, on the Bassac River. I came with my driver and interpreter, who is a former de-mining expert for CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre).
We approach two old women, both in their late 70’s.
In Phnom Penh, almost nobody wants to speak about the US atrocities. But all over the country, in the countryside, people are still outraged, and at the same time grateful to anyone who is ready to listen to them.
I see the tears in the eyes of one of the women. Her name is Tang Vilim, a seller. She begins her speech, het lament, speaking fast, as if afraid that we will interrupt her and go away:
“I lost relatives during the bombing of 1972. I still feel anger; I feel outraged! I am still waiting for the answers, so many years later. I want to know why? Why did Americans drop those bombs on us? Their bombs killed so many people! I still remember it: I was a young woman then, now I am 76. What had we done, what was our sin? Until now… Until now – wherever I go, I feel upset! I keep asking these same questions in my mind.”
And the same lament from the second lady:
“People still don’t understand… They want to know why? They want the US government to take responsibility! There are craters all over the countryside. Some are filled but others are still open. This entire country is dotted with craters.”
We drive further, all the way to the border with Vietnam: to the beautiful crossing on Bassac River, at Chrey Thum.
Right next to the border post, there are several craters, but guards do not like to discuss the topic. We walk on the borderline, and my guide once again remembers his days working for de-mining agencies:
“Cambodia is still dotted with bombs, ‘bombies’ and mines. Some are from Khmer Rouge days, but most are from those carpet bombings by the USAF. You find them all over, from here to the areas in the West of the country – around Siem Reap and north…”
Understandably, this topic is explosive and still evokes passionate outbursts and tears.
After returning to Phnom Penh, I am welcomed by one of the managers at The Plantation Hotel. It is already dark, but he has heard about my work in the countryside, and decided to wait for me.
“I think what you are doing is very important”, he begins. “We should investigate why our country was bombed so brutally. In my hometown, we had so many bombs, so many craters. Please go there, if you have time: Chea Lea Village, Chealea Commune, Bateay District, Kampong Cham Province…”
On the other side of the world, in Toronto, Canada, a leading international lawyer, Christopher Black, wrote for this report, echoing what the victims in Cambodia said:
“The UN-backed war crimes trials of Khmer Rouge leaders are show trials designed to once again demonize communists, and to scapegoat them for the millions of Cambodians who were killed by the American bombing of Cambodia. What the world needs are trials of the American leaders and officers for war crimes for the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (We had the Bertrand Russell war Crimes Tribunal in the 70s but it could not enforce its judgments).”
At the end of July 2014, the United Nations-backed tribunal held an initial hearing against two former high-ranking leaders of Khmer Rouge: Head of State, Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, right-hand man to Pol Pot.
Of course, nobody would be so naive as to expect that the US leadership could one day stand trial for murdering millions of people all over Indochina.
A prominent Australian historian, an author of several books on Asia, Professor Emeritus at Nagasaki University, Geoffrey Gunn, put Khmer Rouge into historical context, for this essay:
Bookending an era as it were, on July 12, 2014, in a ceremony attended by Sihanouk’s widow Queen Monique, current King Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen, cabinet members, and foreign diplomats, the King-father’s ashes were interred in a stupa in the Royal Palace.
“Having led his country to independence in 1954, Sihanouk’s neutral foreign policy was never acceptable to Washington. Following the US-backed coup in Phnom Penh in March 1970, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger/ President Richard Nixon unleashed the most intense and deadly bombing campaign in human history upon the Cambodian countryside and people. Viewed from the air some years later, this normally verdant land presented itself as a ruined moonscape.
Sihanouk, accordingly, endorsed the rural-backed guerrillas (the Khmer Rouge) – notionally Marxist – but fanatical in their rage duly turning Cambodia into a “killing field.”
The wheel of history has turned but what are the lessons here if it is not that full justice has to be served, not only in the Extraordinary Chambers (the UN-backed “genocide court” in Phnom Penh), but also by roping in the perpetrators on all sides.”
Albert J. Johnman’s “The Case of Cambodia”, Contemporary Genocides: Causes, Cases, Consequences defined the movement by following words: “
“The Khmer Rouge’s ideology combined elements of Marxism with an extreme version of Khmer nationalism and xenophobia. It combined an idealization of the Angkor Empire (802–1431), with an existential fear for the existence of the Cambodian state, which had historically been liquidated under Vietnamese and Siamese intervention…”
That “Marxist element” rested mainly at the very top, particularly with Pol Pot, who got radicalized in Parisian cafes, although it is not clear how well he himself was versed in Marxist theory. Generally, his academic performance in France was so pitiful, that he never came close to graduation, and was forced to return to Cambodia without a diploma. Although, as noted by Geoffrey Gunn, some members of the Paris circle managed to produce political economy dissertations, namely Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim, Hu Yuon, Phouk Chhou (Pol Pot’s secretary), KR was really far from versed in any ideology.
Based on my conversation with one of the prominent professors at Beijing University (who did not want to be named), China was never embracive of the Khmer Rouge ‘Maoist’ brand:
“It was somehow embarrassing… both theory and the practice, like their determination to send rice to us, while their own people were starving…”
The British investigative journalist and former head of ‘Reuters’ in Iraq, Andrew Marshall, made Phnom Penh his home. He has a clear opinion about the Khmer Rouge and how they were misrepresented by Western and Asian propaganda:
“Khmer Rouge was never a socialist or a communist movement. It was built on genuine anger of the poor against elites in Phnom Penh, who were always treating the poor like dirt. And it was built on anger against the United States that bombed Cambodia as no other country was ever bombed before. It was a movement created by popular fury. Abused became abusers, longing to destroy ‘elites’. Families that were razed, killed, wanted their revenge… And after it was over, ‘the example’ of Khmer Rouge was used by the elites all over Southeast Asia to demonize people’s power, especially in Thailand, but not only there.”
Eventually, Western propaganda went into total over-gear, using the Khmer Rouge as one of the cornerstones of its global anti-Communist crusade.
The frustrated, rural, ragged and a thoroughly uneducated force of victims of the Western carpet-bombing, torture and displacement, the Khmer Rouge, were ‘elevated’ into a mythical and perfect Communist killing machine.
The paradox remains that the closest ally of the final years of KR was not China or any other Communist country. It was the United States, which was fighting the Cold War with the Soviet block, as well as its terror war against Vietnam and Laos. After distancing themselves from Leninism, and at least theoretically embracing Maoism, the Khmer Rouge received full diplomatic and other support from Washington.
After Vietnam liberated Cambodia, following the Christmas Offensive of 1978, saving perhaps millions of lives, the government of the United States took a decisive stand, ‘demanding the return of legitimate government’ in Phnom Penh. That legitimate government was, in Washington’s eyes, no one else other than Khmer Rouge.
The erroneous punitive invasion by China of Vietnam came next, followed by anti-Vietnamese propaganda sponsored and in fact manufactured by the West.
The crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia by the United States managed to be fully whitewashed. While they live in vivid memory all over the countryside, Phnom Penh conveniently forgot all about them.
As Andrew Marshall and I were having lunch in Phnom Penh, with a local star journalist, Ms. Bopha Phorn, Andrew asks her directly: “What nation do people of Phnom Penh hate the most?”
With no hesitation she replies: “Vietnamese.”
I do this almost every two years. I come to Cambodia and I search for answers. I hire a car, an interpreter, and I go very deep into the countryside.
Almost no one else does. Most of the ‘academic work’, as well as that of ‘investigative journalism’ is done in the bars and offices of Phnom Penh, as most of the similar work on Indonesia is created in Jakarta and Bali.
Outside the capital, people are open and ready to talk. In fact, they are desperately in need of talking. And unlike in Phnom Penh where people only ask questions but hardly give answers, the countryside of Cambodia knows how to reply.
In July 2014, as we drove towards Anlong Veng, I did an experiment: I asked my friend to just stop at any village along the road, some 100 kilometers from the capital. I only later found out that the name of the place where we broke our journey this time was called Prei Saak.
We entered the humble hamlet and I asked the first woman that we met on a narrow path leading to the fields, whether there are still some unexploded mines or bombs in this area.
“Of course”, she replied. Her name was Ms. Leoun. “2 days ago, they exploded 8 mines. A mine-clearing agency… Since then we found more. Here, the children can take you there.”
Did any of her relatives get injured?
“My husband had an accident. And my brother-in-law was injured. He was clearing the forest for a tapioca plantation, and something exploded under his feet, and he lost one leg. My husband got both his face and body destroyed by an explosion, few years ago.”
I asked her whether these were the US ‘bombies’, sitting in the fields since the carpet-bombing of Cambodia, or the landmines left by Khmer Rouge?
She was not sure. She thought these were US devices, but she couldn’t be certain.
But what is certain is that almost every town and every village of this country has been suffering for decades, after the US unleashed its monstrous military and de-stabilization campaign.
Back in 2006, I hired a sturdy car, and a recommended driver and translator all in one person, and we headed south on Route 3, then going further south on 31 as far as it took us, then turning left, towards Vietnam. This is not the main border crossing, not even a crossing which foreigners are allowed to use. There is no asphalt road here, just a dirt path with deep potholes, surrounded by rice fields, miserable villages and water buffaloes. Ours was the only passing car in this area; locals were walking or riding ancient bicycles. Just like in 2014 when I visited a few other rural border crossings with Vietnam, it was raining and the bottom of the car was scraping against the sand. My driver was swearing, having no idea what we were really doing in this god-forsaken place.
Then we came to the end; a lazy river, a dormant town, the last border checkpoint, with a sleeping guard — Prek Kres. Just a few yards further, the houses of the first village in Vietnam began.
This is where, in the past, the first skirmishes between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam began, and one of the points where the Vietnamese army invaded, as mentioned earlier, most definitely saving further millions of Cambodian people from certain death. But the West decided to see this action as an invasion and occupation, to turn all the facts on their head. In the Cold War climate and from the point of view of its geopolitical interests, it was more acceptable for the U.S. to sacrifice further millions of Cambodian lives than to allow Vietnamese (and Soviet) influence in the region.
I had no problem finding Mr. Sek Cuuin, the mayor of Prek Kres. We sat down at the outdoor table of his house and he seemed to be happy to share his memories.
“This huge puddle which you see in the middle of the road is what remains of the U.S. carpet bombing”, he explained. “We filled the hole, but when it rains, there is still a puddle there, I don’t know why. This area was heavily bombed during the war, by B-52s. If you enter the fields, you will see small lakes all over. It’s what happens during the heavy rains. These lakes are bomb craters.”
We walked around the village. Barefoot children were staring at us. People were gathering, wondering what had brought us here. Makeshift vehicles were parked next to a primitive jetty where a traditional merchant boat was being unloaded.
“There were always conflicts here,” explained the mayor. “There were border skirmishes during Lon Nol’s regime and after, when Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. We had 700 families living in this town; 400 were forcefully relocated. When Khmer Rouge entered, I just jumped into the river and swam for my life. Most of the remaining 300 families tried to escape to Vietnam, and Prek Kres became a ghost town — an outpost for the Khmer Rouge’s army which began attacking Vietnamese villages across the border.”
I asked him about the Vietnamese Christmas offensive in 1978.
“The Vietnamese army crossed this border in 1979. No matter what they say now, almost everybody was happy, welcoming their troops. Those who survived and stayed in this town simply lined along the road, waved at Vietnamese soldiers and cried. The entire area — entire country — was ravaged; destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and earlier by U.S. bombing and by the movement of refugees. The Vietnamese saved this nation from complete annihilation. And when they took Phnom Penh, it was obvious that the mass killing and torture would stop. But you know what happened later; the gratitude evaporated and nationalism gained ground. And the foreign countries insisted that this was not liberation, but an occupation. If you repeat what rulers want to hear, you get paid. But you can ask anybody, except members of the Khmer Rouge, how they felt in 1978 and 1979 — we felt liberated, we were saved and we suddenly realized that we might survive.”
I asked the mayor how he would compare Vietnam and Cambodia now. After all, on paper, Cambodia is a success story, a multi-party democracy. He grins sarcastically.
“Yes, now we have many political parties. But you can’t eat political parties; they don’t fill your stomach. Everything here is corrupt. The Vietnamese government has managed to give a much better life to its people. Especially to poor people, and in this part of the world almost everybody is poor. All I can tell you is that when we are hungry and when we are sick, we don’t go to Phnom Penh; we cross the border and go to Vietnam. They know we are Khmers but they don’t care; they help us. They believe — over there — that if you are hungry or sick, you have to be helped, no matter what your nationality is. People there have a big heart.”
It is now 2014, and I ask a question to my friend, Song Heang, as we are driving through the night, through the countryside of western Cambodia.
“Tell me, did Vietnamese soldiers kill Cambodian people in 1978 and 1979?”
“Yes”, he replied.
“Did they kill many?”
He is silent for quite some time. He is reflecting: “It was a war… But honestly: not many. There was some fighting… As a rule, Vietnamese did not target civilians.”
“Then why?” I ask. But both of us know that this is just a rhetorical question.
At some point, as it is getting closer to midnight, we stop in some dark village in order to buy water and some local fruits.
Something breaks in Song Heang, and he begins to speak in an urgent, agitated tone of voice:
“You don’t understand, you don’t know how terrible this country really is… How terrible it has become. The rich are so rich. The poor are so poor and they are totally uneducated now, so much that they don’t even know anything about corruption and the hedonism of the ‘elites’ in Phnom Penh. It is the same now again, as it was over 4 decades ago. Do you know how schools look here? Sometimes there is just only one teacher for a class of 100 pupils. And medical care: it is simple here – if you are poor – you die. And some of our ‘traditional families’: they amputate the legs and arms of their children, of their babies, and then they take them, across the border, with those terrible infected wounds, to Bangkok, to beg.”
We drove in silence for quite some time.
“What kind of Cambodia do you want?” I ask him.
“A Cambodia where children get a free and great education, where people get free medical care, where culture is important and supported by the state, where people are equal…”
“That is socialism”, I say. “A Socialist or a Communist Cambodia…”
He hesitates. “Is it?”
“Yes. This is what they are trying to build all over Latin America, in China…”
“But that is not what the Khmer Rouge was trying to achieve, right?”
“Of course not”, I reply.
It is pitch-dark outside.
“I see… It is not what we are being told by Westerners… So… It looks that… it is all fucked up,” he concludes.
I agree with him.
At the next village we stop, buy some Angkor beer, and get more philosophical at the side of the road, the old Soviet style.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.