Although I have been thinking about Cambodia since the 1970s, when it was yet another grim headline over a horizon of endless fighting, I only made it here this week—thanks to a cheap ticket on Royal Jordanian Airlines to investigate my fears that the Trump administration is among those who believe that the Indochina wars represented a just crusade of American nobility.
Why else would we have been served recently with the dark image of Henry Kissinger tottering through the lobby of Trump Tower, if he wasn’t there to seek redemption as the ghost of Christmas bombings past?
Somewhere in the small print of America First has to be the belief that the defeatism of the Vietnam wars, writ large (so as to include Laos and Cambodia), represents yet another liberal betrayal of the warrior spirit that salvaged democracy at Bunker Hill and Gettysburg.
Just as Hitler spoke of the Jews having stabbed Germany “in the back” during World War I, I can well imagine that a convenient truth of the Trump coterie is that the press, the Democrats, Gloria Steinem, and the (failing) New York Times, if not drug-addled film stars and Playboy magazine, all conspired to reduce the United States into what Richard Nixon called a “pitiful, helpless giant,” thus unable to impose the iron will of its president on the Viet Cong or the Pathet Lao guerrillas in their black pajamas.
Needless to say, in Trump’s America new enemies of the state—be they ISIS, Dennis Rodman’s buddies in North Korea, or all those laptop-owning Yemenis—will find themselves drawing the short sticks for drone visitations or B-52 payloads, and not just to make the world safe for condo development.
The bombs will also fall as an argument with history, to prove that the Vietnam War was part of the white man’s burden, alas one sabotaged by the Democratic left, who might well have carried Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella to Munich.
In heading to Cambodia—during a time when the Trump administration is drumming to general quarters over North Korea (T. Rex: “…it is clear that a different approach is required…”)—I wanted to remind myself that not all American adventures at arms end with a parade atop San Juan Hill and that sometimes the unintended consequence of the rockets’ red glare can be the specter of the Khmer Rouge liberating Phnom Penh, when in 1975 death marches wore the costumes of a workers’ paradise.
* * *
My flights on Royal Jordanian involved a change of planes in Amman, which, at least in the airport, feels more like a desert resort than a frontline state. So spotless was the carpeting near the departure gate that I could easily have prayed to Mecca while in transit, were I among its frequent flyers.
Instead, waiting for my connection to Bangkok, I drank mint tea on a lush sofa and surfed the Internet on my (then still legal) laptop.
The flight to Thailand was a little more than seven hours. Once through customs and immigration, I caught a sky train into the city, as the last time I was there (about fifteen years ago) I read a 464-page book (William Shawcross’s The Quality of Mercy, about the Cambodian holocaust) while stuck in traffic during several days of meetings.
Since then, Bangkok has added not just a new airport and skytrain, but a metro and—hard to believe—some crosswalks. To be sure, the city remains a pulsing parking lot, especially in its business quarters.
I surprised even myself by enjoying a walk from my hotel down to the Chao Phraya River and stumbling across a small shop promoting night bike rides, as if I was in Boulder, Colorado.
For $25 the proprietor, who asked that I call him T (no, it wasn’t Rex Tillerson, but it does suggest post-State Department job options), gave me a mountain bike, helmet, and water bottle.
Not long after the sun set over the river (think of a romantic Gowanus Canal, in terms of the water quality), we set off in the darkness—riding on the sidewalks, jumping curbs, and cutting through red lights—making me think that maybe I had signed on with a courier service.
* * *
I first saw Bangkok in summer 1983, when I had several magazine commissions—including one from the now defunct Pan American World Airways—and went around the world, making stops between Seoul and Karachi. Then it was a grand tour; today it would get you highlighted on a no-fly list.
From that trip I remember well Bangkok’s relentless summer heat and traffic gridlock. I did, however, make a day trip out to Kanchanaburi, which is where Allied prisoners built that bridge over the River Kwai. It had loomed large in many films of the my childhood, as did the idea that Asian land wars are variations on death marches (at least for the losers).
Wartime Thailand—it had more Axis sympathies than most Phuket tourists today recall—was, however, far from my night bike ride across Bangkok. We cut through Chinatown, had dinner near the flower market, curb-hopped through the courtyard of a Buddhist temple (clearly a tolerant religion), and headed back to shop on a path carved into the riverbank, which even at that late hour was lined with the restless fishermen.
In all we were gone for about four hours, and the best moments came on narrow, darkened alleys where it was easy to recall colonial Siam, not the skyscrapers of modern Bangkok.
Circling the royal palace—the country is still in mourning over its lost king and many still wear black—I was reminded of how on my earlier trips to Thailand I had spent a lot of time reading W. Somerset Maugham. (If you have never read him, start with the collected stories, in particular, An Official Position.)
Maugham speaks to me of Asian decadence (personal and professional)—how the seediness of the night life matches the accommodations of the business day. (He writes: “Man has always sacrificed truth to his vanity, comfort and advantage. He lives. . .by make-believe.”)
* * *
My train to the Cambodian border departed Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong railway station at 5:55 a.m. Even at dawn’s early light, the terminal was a maelstrom.
While buying a ticket, some bottled water, and coffee, I was jostled and pushed, as if this were the last train to Shanghai, not some sleepy, third-class border train to Aranyaprathet—in many ways the end of the line.
I got a seat by an open window and shared the rigid benches with a mother and her two daughters, who spent most of the six hours staring at their phones and dozing. They didn’t even wake up when at an intermediate stop a group of policemen boarded the train and took away a group of Cambodians who were traveling with huge canvas sacks—as if they were smuggling circus tents.
* * *
Before leaving home, I had loaded my Kindle with several Cambodian histories, including Sydney H. Schanberg’s The Death and Life of Dith Pran (the movie The Killing Fields is based on it) and Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: The Voices of Cambodia’s Revolution and Its People (which with Solzhenitsyn-like grimness tells the story of the Khmer Rouge’s gulags).
On the train I only read in fits and starts, as from my open window I had a ringside seat on Southeast Asia, and because I spent much of the ride recalling a trip I had made along these tracks in autumn 1988, when Cambodia still appeared to the outside world as a prison camp with a flag.
During summer 1988, I had been introduced to a board member of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), then working with Cambodian refugees. We had lunch at a restaurant in New York, and he talked to me at length about Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist who had been close to Martin Luther King, Jr., and was the IRC chairman until he died in 1987.
Later—when I knew that I would be going to Thailand that fall—I arranged with my new friend to visit some of the refugee camps that straddled the Thai-Cambodian border. All I had to do was get myself to Aranyaprathet, he said, and someone would meet me at the station and show me around the camps.
When I rode that 1988 train out of Bangkok, it was the first time I had been in the countryside of Southeast Asia. I remember well the vividness of the rice paddies—most were knee-deep with irrigation water—and thinking how difficult such terrain would have been in the fighting of American wars in Indochina.
Armored vehicles would have bogged down immediately, and ambushes from the endless tree lines would have made it combat-in-the-round. Did any of the best and brightest ever ride any third-class trains?
In Aranyaprathet, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) met me as promised, and we spent a long day in the company of Cambodian refugees.
By then—almost ten years after the Khmer Rouge had fled Phnom Penh—the camps were orderly and largely free of infectious diseases; but they were still refugee camps, borrowed places living on borrowed time, with children frolicking in the dust.
The Thai border with Cambodia was then closed because the leadership of the Khmer Rouge, while no longer in power, had retreated to western Cambodia, where they had formed a government-in-exile. They were still skirmishing with Cambodian government forces.
I heard from several refugees about how Pol Pot had escaped justice and how he was living in a village not far from the border. Even more eerie was that a number of western nations, including the United States, Britain, and France, were continuing to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, some ten years after it had fled. (Think of getting behind the Nazis because they were tough on the Soviets in the 1950s.)
Although the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were well known by then (The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston as the New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg came out in 1984), the West, including the Reagan administration, had continued to recognize the legitimacy of the Pol Pot clique—preferring a genocidal band over the North Vietnamese frontmen running the Cambodian government.
Who now remembers, when it was “morning again” in Reagan’s America, that the Khmer Rouge was getting breakfast in bed?
* * *
On my journey to the frontier in 1988, the border was a dragon’s tail of barbed wire snaking through the jungle. The far side—with Pol Pot tucked away in his retirement community—might well have been Conrad’s heart of darkness (in which he wrote: “Dark human shapes could be made out in the distance, flitting indistinctly against the gloomy border of the forest…” ) Nevertheless, I was sorry I could go no farther up the river.
Now at the Thai and Cambodian frontier there are pagoda-like structures and a steady stream of commercial traffic, not to mention hundreds of school children passing through the arches.
Before leaving home, I had applied for and received a Cambodian e-visa, which I had downloaded to my computer, printed out, and clipped to my passport. It worked like a charm (imagine such welcoming efficiency in Trump’s lockdown state). In no time I was across the border, dodging the touts with the same determination that I was giving to avoiding the large puddles of mud and dust.
A border taxi would have taken me for $35 to Ankor Wat, two hours to the east. I opted instead for a mini-van, which in the town of Poipet filled up with passengers much the way lifeboats are loaded.
The road through the town of Sisophon was nondescript. We stopped for water and snacks at a concession (ducks were on sale) that only a commission-seeking driver could love.
In Siam Reap (the town near Ankor Wat), I worked on my haggling skills when the $2 ride to my guest house started trading at $12 on the Tuk-Tuk Board of Trade.
* * *
Under the Khmer Rouge, Siam Reap was yet another city from which to drain the population, and the surrounding temples of Ankor civilization (most were built between the eighth and thirteenth centuries) were allowed to fall further into ruin. Revolutionary zeal had no time for package tourism or mango smoothies.
Since the 1990s, however, Siam Reap has turned into another Luxor or Delphi, a service town lined with five-star hotels and endless hostels, all of which exist to convert lost Ankor greatness into newfound cash flow.
Despite the heat and humidity—Siam Reap has the atmosphere of a rain forest—I decided to go around the ruins on a bicycle, both to spare myself guidespeak (“…the use of naga balustrades, lining the approach to the temple…”) and to escape the hordes of bus tourists who, in an ancient city some say is the size of Rhode Island, can manage to clog a boardwalk lined with bas-reliefs.
The guest house sent me off on a loaner bicycle that appeared lifted from the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz. The chain skipped, and the tires were flat. I returned it and searched out a bike that could finish the 40 kilometer “grand circuit.” Eighteen dollars later, and with my passport posted as collateral, I had a 24-hour lease on a new mountain bike.
It amazes me that so many tourists are willing to shell out thousands of dollars to pay respects to a civilization about which most know nothing. And few tourists, despite paying $37 a day in earnest money, leave knowing much more about these relics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Vishnu, Shiva, or Jayavarman VII.
At one point I was standing with some recent graduates of Trump’s own Wharton Business School (they had the shoulder bags) who by 8:30 a.m. already had bad cases of museum feet. One of them asked what was in a nearby temple, to which his friend replied: “Oh, you know, the same shit.”
In brief (and for non-Whartonians), Ankor finds its inspiration in Indian greatness. By contrast, China was the greater influence in Vietnam, which it colonized for almost a millennium. Hence their 2000-year-old hot and cold wars.
All most tourists want to do in Siam Reap is walk along Pub Street (an evening, open-air frat party) or maybe fire off a few rounds of an AK-47 (you pay by the bullet—it’s a business, not a rebellion).
Still, before feeling entitled to the $0.50 draft beers on Pub Street, most visitors struggle out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to see Ankor Wat at sunrise. I was among them. In the 5:30 a.m. gloom I stood before the temple’s mountainous spires, but, as it was a long ride to get there, my idea of Nirvana was to find some cold bottled water.
* * *
In riding the stations of the Ankorian cross, I consumed four liters of water and dutifully climbed up and down countless stone staircases. The bike store had warned me about riding off-road (land mines remain a legacy of the war years), so I stuck to the established trails, which reminded me of Louisiana’s bayou country—with a jungle canopy in many places, palm trees, swamp land, and cicadas as loud as diesel generators.
When the sun was too much, I would sit in the shade with my guidebook, trying to decode language more fit for doctoral candidates in Asian architecture than a Long Island boy out on his bike for the day. (To wit: Apart from two panels, the subject matter is from Hindu sources, mainly the Ramayana and Mahabbarata epics. The exceptions are the Historic procession of Suryavarman II…)
I never did master the lineup of Khmer kingdoms or figure out what reduced Ankor to rubble. (Cambodians like to blame the Vietnamese and the French, although they came much later; better culprits are the Burmese, the Thais, and water shortages.). But in making it to Ankor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm (trees have it in a stranglehold), I did manage to close an open circle of my lifetime.
* * *
I first heard details about Ankor Wat in the late 1970s from my friend, the journalist and author, T.D. (Timothy) Allman. During the Indochina wars, like Conrad’s Marlow in our Brooklyn backyard, he would speak of Ankor as a lost city of paradise, a landlocked Atlantis submerged in the depths of a remote jungle.
During the darkness of the Pol Pot years, he would wonder aloud about how the revolution might be devouring not just its present, but also its past.
After Hanoi invaded Cambodia in winter 1979 and drove off the Khmer Rouge, Timothy was determined to get back to Ankor, as soon as someone in power would give him a visa.
I don’t now remember the details, except that in 1981 he was one of the first Western journalists to revisit Ankor Wat. It took him several days to travel from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap, and he accomplished the journey on the back of a truck.
Cambodian roads were then little more than dusty trails. In the 1970s the traffic was confined to death marches—the exodus of city dwellers into the Cambodian netherworld from which only a few returned. (If three million Cambodians were killed in the holocaust, some two million died from the exhaustion of their exile.)
Back in New York, Timothy published an account of his travels in Asia Magazine, under the title: “Cambodia: Nightmare Journey to a Doubtful Dawn.” In it he writes:
I had expected Kep [a coastal town], like the rest of Cambodia, much changed from the last time I had seen it, but not even all the reports and personal accounts of what the Khmer Rouge had done to their country provided adequate preparation for Kep. The horrible thing about Kep was, quite simply, that it no longer existed at all.
In its darkest days, Ankor was lucky to have a friend and admirer as courageous as T.D. Allman, who was among those who kept its spirit alive.
* * *
My own trip between Siam Reap and Phnom Penh took a comfortable five hours. I paid $11 for an air-conditioned minivan and spent the time looking out the window and reading Elizabeth Becker’s grim history. (She writes: “In retrospect, a particular curse seemed to haunt the Khmer. The sources of their violence were seemingly never purged, only covered over and allowed to fester under a growing dependence on magic and superstition.”)
We traversed a broad plain of rice paddies, now parched in the dry season. I loved looking at traditional Cambodian houses, built of wood and mounted on stilts. They might have been North Carolina beach cottages, save for the water buffaloes lurking near many front doors.
The suburbs of Phnom Penh were a scrum of scooters and flatbed trucks delivering bags of rice or construction materials. Closer to the city, I even saw a few modern subdivisions, the portrait of the revolution as a suburban mall.
After crossing a bridge over the Mekong River, the minibus left me on the sidewalk near the French embassy, which in the film of the Killing Fields is where Schanberg and other journalists take refuge from the Khmer Rouge, who took the capital on April 17, 1975.
His local Times colleague, Dith Pran, could not, however, remain on the embassy grounds and Pran is consigned to his fate in the Cambodian underworld, in which it took him four years to escape to Thailand. (Schanberg writes: “In the months and years to come, that scene—Pran passing through the gate—becomes a recurring nightmare for me…. I am a survivor who often cannot cope with surviving.”)
In the Hollywood film, the French embassy looks like a 1960s colonial stage set, if not the backdrop for Banana Republic. Now the compound, like that of the American embassy down the street, might well be one of Hitler’s bunkers, complete with a stockade topped with spears.
* * *
My hotel was located in the tourist ghetto behind the national museum and the royal palace, where Prince Norodom Sihanouk lived under an elegant form of house arrest after returning to Phnom Penh in 1975, when he was no longer of any use to Pol Pot and his mirthless men.
Like many Asia monarchs, Prince Sihanouk was a master of accommodation with whomever was in power. From the 1950s to the 1970s, he bent with whichever winds would keep him in power or on his throne (at one point he abdicated to serve as prime minister and head of government).
His masters included the Chinese government, General Lon Nol, who with American acquiescence staged a coup in 1970, and, finally, the Khmer Rouge, for whom he was a traveling salesman of the false dawn.
While the thought police were frog marching much of the Cambodian population into oblivion, Prince Sihanouk was making a goodwill tour of so-called non-aligned states (Albania, Yugoslavia, Yemen, Senegal, etc.), telling the world that the Khmer Rouge had been greeted as liberators and that gleeful Cambodians were dancing in the streets. Meanwhile, the revolution was killing some of his own children.
* * *
As at Auschwitz and in Nanking, much of the tourism in Phnom Penh is associated with genocide.
I spent my first afternoon in the city at what is called the Killing Fields, an execution ground some 15 kilometers from the city center. There, in less than four years of Khmer Rouge rule, some 20,000 Cambodians were killed and dumped into burial pits, where forty years later, during the monsoon rains, fragments of bone and teeth rise to the surface in that unquiet earth.
Choeung Ek, the formal name of the grounds, was a Chinese cemetery outside Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge chose it as a killing center in their gulag of rage. Some 200 centers, similar to Choeung Ek, were operated around the country, and in all they executed about a million persons.
Now the sprawl of modern Phnom Penh, including both slums and fashionable single-family villas, has encroached upon the somber fields, which the Cambodian government has set aside in remembrance of the atrocities.
Visitors are given audio guides, and everyone walks around in somber reverence, pausing at numbered markers to hear how the victims were trucked down from Tuol Sleng (an interrogation center in Phnom Penh) and hacked to death with old farm tools (the revolution could not afford bullets).
Usually prisoners were killed directly off the trucks although sometimes they were held overnight in makeshift shelters and the next day bludgeoned to death. Martial music and taped agitprop were broadcast from speakers tied to a large tree, to mask the screams.
The Khmer Rouge made little distinction in whom they targeted for extinction. In no particular order, they killed Chinese, Buddhists, monks, women, children, teachers, people who wore glasses (suspected to be intellectuals), soldiers who had served in Vietnam, royalists, engineers, Catholics, businessmen, diplomats, technicians, nurses, doctors, Thais, Muslims, old people, Lon Nol hierarchs, the disabled, the blind, military officers of the ancient regime, suspect Khmer Rouge, former prison guards (who might reveal the truth), bureaucrats, and foreigners swept up in the madness.
Normally, the regime killed entire families, so that no one would be left to seek revenge. Later, the revolution began devouring its own, and into the pits went Khmer Rouge soldiers, senior officials, and executioners themselves. As Huxley writes in Brave New World: “Pain was a fascinating horror.”
In a state founded on paranoia, everyone was a suspect, and to be a suspect was to be guilty. The camp only stopped killing when North Vietnam invaded Cambodia in January 1979 (but it was not a humanitarian invasion, just one of routine power politics).
* * *
Like the rest of those making the somber rounds of the memorial—there are benches for sitting under trees, and reflective music plays on the audio guide—I came away from Choeung Ek with the clear understanding that a monstrous crime had taken place, but still unsure how and why the Khmer Rouge had come to power.
In the 1970s, as the Vietnam War—at least for the Americans—was winding down, the general assumption was that the Khmer Rouge were the communist doppelgängers of the North Vietnamese, and that they had come to power much the way that the Viet Cong had thrown over the yoke of the French colonialists and the running dogs of American imperialism.
It was a narrative that sold well at university teach-ins during the early 1970s, when everyone from Mao to Pol Pot was rechristened as an agrarian reformer or a non-aligned nationalist, perhaps in the iconoclastic mold of Marshal Tito.
In fact, the Khmer Rouge shared more with Stalin and his 1930s purges or the Nazis and their demands for racial purity than it did with anti-colonialism or academic reform politics.
In time Pol Pot become the frontman of the Khmer Rouge. He was Brother Number One, but the actual driving force of the revolution was Anka, which translates to “the Organization” or “the Center,” if not Orwell’s “Big Brother.” It came to define the groupthink and nihilism of the revolution’s black hole.
To fall afoul of Anka, whoever and whatever it was, was to receive a death sentence. (Orwell wrote in 1984: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”) Just to be charged meant execution.
* * *
Who or what unleashed these demons? Obviously, no one answer will suffice, but in the search for explanations don’t overlook the grand designs of Kissinger and Richard Nixon, who came to power in 1969 and immediately, in the cause of “peace with honor,” widened the Vietnam War to the sanctuaries along the Cambodian border.
Vietnamese and American special forces sought to deny the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through the borderlands of Laos and Cambodia.
When those attacks failed to stem the NVA attacks on South Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger unleashed their heavy bombers on eastern Cambodia and invaded the so-called sanctuaries, which in 1970 engulfed the previously neutral country in the wider Indochina wars.
In Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia William Shawcross writes in language that could well be written about the Trump administration:
. . . Cambodia was a test, a trial through which Nixon was putting the American people, let alone the Cambodians, so that if a real crisis did come one day, the world would beware. “This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” Nixon insisted. (Officials were ordered to call it an “incursion” instead.) At one level this was just another lie, but at another it was true. Cambodia was a testing ground for United States resolve.
At the same time, either by American acquiescence or design (I bet the latter), the government of Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. In his place came General Lon Nol, a poster-child for “Vietnamization,” the Nixonian idea that Asians could defeat the red menace with American weapons and aid.
Suddenly, the Khmer Rouge—previously a rag-tag guerrilla army living and fighting on the Cambodian fringe—became the nationalist opposition to Lon Nol and his accommodations with American collaborators.
From Beijing, Prince Sihanouk rallied non-aligned support for Pol Pot’s desperadoes who fought with the devotion of kamikaze. Few at home or abroad, however, suspected they were getting behind a variation on the Spanish Inquisition, in which Josef Stalin was among its patron saints. (Pol Pot and many of his inner cadre were Paris graduates of the French Communist Party.)
Nixon and Kissinger—like Trump when he tub thumps against North Korea—assumed they were making the world safe for democracy, if not their reelection.
Instead, they turned Cambodia into a political vacuum in which the center—pulled apart by the dictatorial violence of Lon Nol, Pol Pot and American B-52 bombers—could not hold.
After Nixon sold South Vietnam and Cambodia down the river in January 1973 by withdrawing U.S. forces (he left the NVA where they were), it was just a matter of time before the Khmer Rouge would emerge from their jungle caves—their hatred for enemies real and imagined very much intact.
With his grand designs about Russia, China and balances of power, Kissinger was the advance man for the Khmer Rouge, although I wonder whether he included it on the resumé he carried over to Trump Tower.
* * *
To reach the Killing Fields, at least those at Choeung Ek, prisoners were trucked there from Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, the notorious S-21 interrogation center that is now also a memorial museum.
As at Choeung Ek, visitors to Tuol Sleng are given an audio guide, which tells the story of the center and some of its victims, who were rounded up as enemies of the state and held until their confessions matched Anka’s expectations. Then the prisoners were sent off to Choeung Ek to be killed.
Tuol Sleng was a primary and secondary school that the revolution turned into a torture center. In place of desks, they installed wire-framed beds on which, sometimes for months, prisoners were manacled and beaten.
Among the nine foreigners to pass through Tuol Sleng, one was a carefree New Zealander, Kerry Hamill, whose sailboat was boarded off the southern coast. With a last effort to preserve his humanity, he “confessed” to his torturers that his contact in the espionage world was a Colonel Sanders—white beard and suit—all of which they noted down seriously.
Some 20,000 people (the Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, kept meticulous records and photographs of their victims) passed through Tuol Sleng’s school of horror. Only a handful from the inside (mostly interrogators) lived to tell its tales.
One survivor, so to speak, was the camp’s director, the notorious Comrade Duch, who after 1979 hid out in western Cambodia with Pol Pot but who was captured and put on trial in Phnom Penh for war crimes. He was convicted in 2012.
Duch and his cohorts were not dispatched to the Hague, in part to give witnesses the possibility to testify, and perhaps so that the Cambodian government could maintain some control over the process.
I met several of the journalists who have been covering the tribunal, which is continuing, with lesser figures, at a courthouse near the Phnom Penh Airport.
As Robert Carmichael writes in his excellent When Clouds Fell From the Sky, an account of one family’s quest for justice, the proceedings may not amount to a full truth and reconciliation commission—as happened in his native South Africa—but it has gotten a curriculum of the genocide into local schools, and it has forced the Cambodian society to acknowledge what happened to a fourth of its population after the Khmer Rouge set the clock back to Year Zero.
* * *
Carmichael’s book tells the story of a young Cambodian diplomat, Ouk Ket, who was educated in Paris and serving at the embassy in Senegal, when in 1977 he summoned to return to Phnom Penh, then hermetically sealed from the outside world.
There were a few reports of starvation and killings in Cambodia, but shills for the Khmer Rouge discounted them as counterrevolutionary deception. Ket prepared for his return by shopping in Paris for shoes and a raincoat, neither of which would help him in the nether world.
Ket arrived on the only flight then operating to Phnom Penh (from Beijing), but at the airport a sullen boy soldier greeted him by tossing his passport in the trash. Ket vanished into the gulag-like experiences of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.
Almost forty years later his daughter Neary and other family members seek justice for his killing, confronting Comrade Duch at the tribunal (the formal name is the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) with international law, not with some of the manacles on display in the Tuol Sleng classrooms.
Listening to correspondents Robert Carmichael and Luke Hunt describe the proceedings reminded me of a cocktail party I attended in Brooklyn in the early 1980s.
The hosts were my good friends Craig and Heidi Whitney, and it’s the only time I ever saw Norman Mailer in person. I didn’t talk to him, but was amused to watch him strut about the party, as if getting ready for a title bout.
For much of the party, I found myself talking to an Asian man and his wife, who had a young family and had just moved to Brooklyn. I liked them both a lot—we talked about schools, shopping, and the confusions of the New York subway. This was before Brooklyn was Brooklyn (more bocce than latte).
At the end of the party, not having caught the man’s name, I asked my new acquaintance if he had a business card. He did and he handed it to me. It read: “Dith Pran – The New York Times.”
Sadly, I never saw him again (he died in 2008), although I did read in Schanberg’s memoir of his colleague that it was my friend Craig, when he was bureau chief in Saigon and going often to Phnom Penh, who recruited Pran to the Times.
And it was near Siam Reap where Pran survived (although just barely) the Khmer Rouge, of whom he said: “Their minds have nothing inside except discipline…. That’s why they killed their own people, even babies, like we might kill a mosquito.”
* * *
If your last glimpse of Cambodia came during a screening of Sam Waterston’s The Killing Fields (Dr. Haing S. Ngor, himself a survivor, plays Pran, and does it very well) rest assured that no longer is Phnom Penh or the surrounding countryside a drab socialist frontier in Asia.
A one-bedroom apartment in downtown Phnom Penh can now sell for $200,000, and the city is clogged with late-model SUVs, all of which (with the 100% import tax on new cars) sell for more than $100,000.
Because the city is spread out along the banks of the Mekong River, as elegant as many stretches of the Mississippi, it has been spared the usual Asian glut of high-rise office towers.
The many five-star hotels around the city have accents of French colonial architecture, even if most of the old buildings were first sacrificed to the revolution and later comrade capitalism.
One of the few buildings surviving from earlier times is the railroad station, which was recently given a facelift even though the country has only a handful of passenger trains (one goes down to the resort beaches around Sihanoukville, near where President Gerald Ford liberated the SS Mayaquez).
That FUBAR mission killed 41 Americans, even though Cambodia had agreed to release the merchant ship. They were the last Americans to die in the Vietnam War. Again Kissinger was calling the shots, this time for President Ford.
Less clear than Phnom Penh’s gracefulness, however, is how Cambodia will reconcile the atrocities of its past with a government and economic system that seems so comfortable with Asian kleptocracy.
Even on a short visit to the city the stories swirl about ministers purchasing their government positions, as if they were partnerships in merchant banks, or money paid for mobile phone contracts or Honda dealerships—both of which are in demand given that Cambodia now has a mostly young population, many of whom spent their days texting and scootering around Phnom Penh.
At least in Phnom Penh, there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground between the world of the Khmer Rouge and that of Goldman Sachs.
* * *
One of the nicest aspects of Phnom Penh—leaving aside the fans swirling over the bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club (okay, it’s now a chain hotel, but it still belongs in one of the novels by my friend Jim Hougan)—is that the city lives over the Trump horizon.
Sometimes the president flickers on lobby television screens or shows up in a text message, but even then he speaks of a distant world—of Nixon, Kissinger, the domino theory, the Parrot’s Beak (borderlands invaded in 1970, touching off, among other protests, the Kent State massacre), and all those hearts and minds won by napalm.
During the Second Indochina War, some two million civilians were killed, many of whom found themselves in the paths of American bombers, which ranged freely over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, trying to turn strategic hamlets into Dresden.
As sad as it is to make obsequies at Tuol Sleng and in the Killing Fields, I sense the United States has gotten off easily in the genocidal blame games.
Where Trump’s shadow does loom large in Phnom Penh is over the recent confrontations with North Korea, which yet again could turn Asia into a Cold War theater of war.
If there is anything that binds Trump’s cult of personality (Jared, Bannon, and the Steve Miller Band), it is the conviction that countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia deserved all those bombs that chewed up their rice paddies and civilian population, who died as if extras in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Is North Korea the next coming attraction?
Having traveled along the Chinese – North Korean border, I can report that the Chinese hate nearly everything about Kim Jong-un’s brave old world.
Nevertheless, in any confrontation between the Trump administration and Pongyang, China will do anything to keep the Koreas from uniting under American patronage. How does that effect Cambodia?
In the great power alignments of Asia, Cambodia has its closest ties with China. By contrast, its relations with Vietnam are layers of complexity. Historically, Cambodia encompassed the Mekong Delta, once part of the greater Khmer empire. At the same time, it fears Vietnam’s imperial designs, although the post Khmer Rouge government has been made up of Khmer soldiers captured in Vietnam during the wars of the 1970s.
For its part, Vietnam so fears Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the conflicts with the Philippines that it has found itself closer to the United States and Japan, previously unthinkable allies.
In any conflict over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, even though it’s a rogue state, Asia will again pair off as if at a deadly square dance. Cambodia and China would take the side of North Korea; Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan would defend the United States. Queue the music from The Bridge on the River Kwai, the soundtrack of all Asian wars.
At least now we have a president who can relate personally to the battlefields of Indochina.
In what is surely among the most callow remarks ever made by an American politician, Trump said that “his Vietnam War” (in reality he orchestrated five deferments) consisted of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the night clubs of New York during the 1990s when he was single.
Trump said: “It’s amazing, I can’t even believe it. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world [STDs], it is a dangerous world out there. It’s like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.” He went on to say: “You know, if you’re young, and in this era, and if you have any guilt about not having gone to Vietnam, we have our own Vietnam—it’s called the dating game.”
We don’t know whether good soldier Trump took any flak in the hell that was Studio 54, but anyone keen on rehabilitating Henry Kissinger and the killing fields of Cambodia could well be suffering from syphilitic nightmares.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including Letters of Transit and, most recently, Reading the Rails.