In Memoriam: Cambodia-Kampuchea

by Milo Clark

November 18, 2002


Tuesday, 5th November 2002
Pahoa, Puna, Hawaii 8:00am HST

As the United States, I can no longer say "we," prepares yet again to diddle still more peoples at phenomenal material expense and deepening depredation of soul may we pause to remember Cambodia-Kampuchea, a once truly beautiful people plunged beyond death, still more than a quarter century later lying gauntly ruined, desecrated, bared and gutted of humanity and soul.

The 1970s Nixon-Kissinger "incursions" into then Cambodia directly and indirectly but no less surely spawned destruction beyond measure; deaths beyond calculation leaving walls and mounds of skulls in barren killing fields and haplessly naïve just-the-same-dead students at Kent State University in Ohio, USA.

"Incursion" was the spin-word adopted then to mask a most naked aggression crossing yet another border in pursuit of chimeras greatly destructive to American being. We lose. We go home. They stay to die most horribly. Physical death by the untold millions. Soul death for the survivors still descending.

Cambodia had been a French colony, part of what was named French Indochina on world maps pulled down in American school rooms. With an ambivalence hardly remembered, alternating French governments of the interregnum between world wars now socialist, now reactionary, now liberal brought to France the best and brightest of young men from the colonies. Some came to be educated for proper assimilation, to staff schools, hospitals, bureaucracies, churches "back home." Some came to escape French authorities. Some were exiled to France.

A few of those best and brightest young men of French Indochina have etched their adopted names into even most callous American minds, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Pol Pot of Kampuchea.

Imbued with a sense of nation, wrong word although perhaps not inaccurate, frustrated and harried by a vicious colonial administration, unable to implement French ideals of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity through French agencies; these men and many, many others of the time, Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, turned to the only succor offered, Moscow.

Whatever the actualities involved, they thereby draped themselves with the curse of Soviet Communism. Next door to France, in Spain, a complex civil war pitted the antagonists and protagonists of the times in a desperate clash of wills.

The young men of Southeast Asia watched, listened, participated, fled and grieved. Born separated from the West, these Asian young men were then again separated from the West politically and indelibly. The rest is history. History repeated and repeated and repeated and now about to be repeated once more.

In the quagmire we call Vietnam, the actualities for the peoples involved in spaces on maps labeled Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, even border regions of Thailand, were varieties of deaths, untimely deaths, grotesque deaths. Living, life itself, was barely tolerated.

If not directly killed, then indirectly. Just as dead. Poisoned by defoliants, maimed by anti-personnel mines, deprived of home and livelihood amidst devastated villages, desecrated fields, smashed paddies, decimated families, the pictures which Americans barely knew through detached television images. All to deprive peoples of their opportunities to be themselves as they would define it.

Physical destruction through bombing and then "incursion" was paralleled by American attacks on the governance of Cambodia which, to use the spin word, "destabilized" the government. The Cambodian royals finding little aid or support in the West on terms less than accession to post-colonial colonization by US interests, attempted to dance a merry jig, sometimes a waltz, sometimes a Han folk dance.

The trouble with that fancy footwork was that the American (and European) oligarchic loathing of Soviet Communism was, to a potent degree, exceeded, if possible, by a detestation of anything Red Chinese. However phrased, however determined, however formed, rightly or wrongly, governments or nations or states or communities with a nominal if not actual dedication or concern for people, rights, workers, peasants, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, must be denied always in the name of freedom and democracy and so on and so forth.

Jensen, see below, says: "There can hardly have been any totalitarian regime this century . . . which has not invoked democracy as its ideal and goal; although perhaps a deferred democracy, sometime in the future; a democracy for which the country or its people were not quite ready. Totalitarian rule always presents itself as something like a waiting room for democracy; a forecourt, indistinguishable from a prison yard, under surveillance of guards with hourglasses in one hand and automatic rifles in the other; tragic figures these guardians, if one were to take their word for it, democrats at heart, but having to don the uniforms of dictators temporarily, due the regrettable backwardness of the population." (p. 38)

Pol Pot, as he styled himself, and his closest associates modeled themselves along three general lines: they were school teachers, they were tribal, they were not capitalists. Does than make them communists or socialists?

School teachers, in the French model, were martinets. Classes were rigidly held to rote learning which is imposition more than education.

The tribal peoples of north and eastern Cambodia, strung out along Thai and Vietnamese borders, along the great Mekong River in part, were never subdued by the French or brought into the colonial economy. Those across the Mekong in Laos or Vietnam (to be) or over the border in Thailand (Siam) were ageless enemies and competitors in a hunter tribal ethic. In such tribal configurations, you are either with us or against us, no middle ground possible or tolerated.

The young men and school teachers who formed themselves around the man who would call himself Pol Pot were superficially conditioned by exposure to Marxist rhetoric, Socialist fantasies, Communist schooling and Maoist modeling. It may have been the Maoist modeling which most influenced the diabolical ideation implemented by Pol Pot.

By 1975, Americans were three years gone from the once French Indo-China. Vast areas lay barely breathing as the surviving peoples groped again at the land, reassembled villages, stared blankly at the anarchy succeeding war.

Death from above and without was replaced by death from within. In Vietnam, it was "re-education." In Cambodia, it was physical death, cultural devastation. Being was scourged from skeleton and then skeleton smashed to dust. Flesh rendered dead meat in horrors far beyond mere flailing. Inquisition carried beyond logical extreme.

In April 1975 Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Those who knew the city before the calamities of the 1960s and later describe it as a cosmopolitan center comparable in ways with Saigon, Hanoi, Bangkok, a French or European veneer over a Southeast Asian actuality.

Welcomed momentarily as possible liberators, perhaps stabilizers may be a better word, the child and tribal army of Pol Pot had a mission engraved in their psyches. Absolute destruction of what was to be replaced with a social, political, cultural and economic moonscape.

Some attempt to compare Pol Pot's implemented fantasies with Mao's Cultural Revolution. Young people, barely teenagers at the time, given license, tore at the fabric of their societies. There is, however, an essential difference. In Mao's China, the state unleashed the scourge but maintained control. In Cambodia, becoming Kampuchea, unlike China, the children were given guns and other weapons to fight the central government and to win the military contests. Then let loose, unleashed is hardly the word.

Visiting Cambodia in the early 1990s, when the United Nations at great expense (more than 5 billion U.S. Dollars) attempted to stitch up the corpse of Cambodia-Kampuchea, Danish writer Carsten Jensen, sought reason where it is unavailable. (1)

With victory, in 1975, bullets were deemed too expensive. The killings to come were direct, short range, personal and utterly impersonal. The weapons to be used were ordinary household and farm implements: hoes, rakes, mattocks, pickaxes, bludgeons, shovels, crowbars, sledge hammers; you know, the heavy stuff lying around the house, barn and workshop.

The meticulous school teacher model dictated that careful records, dossiers, photographs, diagrams and illustrations of the details of death be maintained. Visitors such as Jensen will find them carefully preserved today.

Pol Pot, in contrast with the more common totalitarian models, needed no Gestapo, KGB, FBI; no secret services or police at all, no bureaucratic distancing. In Jensen's words, "He put the killing back in the hands of the people, he cancelled out the distance between murderer and victim. . . and brought them face to face once more." (P. 147) Contrast that with killing from a bomber cockpit at 30,000 feet or more.

Jensen continues, "Pol Pot's key weapon was the breaking down of man's natural inhibitions against killing (when not in self-defence) and, hence, his advance guard was formed by those bodies in whom the inhibition is least well developed: children and primitive tribesmen." How do we explain the natural inhibitions overcome by U.S. pilots, special forces, et al.?

And thus by a cleansing far beyond merely ethnic, Pol Pot emptied Phnom Penh in April 1975. In three long years of unbridled, perhaps orgiastic massacres, as many as a quarter of all Cambodians then living were bludgeoned from life.

The tortures carefully documented fail description, as there were humans inflicting the most gross inhumanities on their families, their neighbors, their friends, their enemies, their people. At least the U.S. will soon and again be bombing "others."

Flung loose, the children tore at the culture, taking down and smashing antiquities, museums, temples, palaces. . . without stay, without succor, without stop. Not even Islamic, yet. Animist maybe. Buddhist somewhat perhaps.

Exhaustion may finally have intervened along with the Vietnamese who invaded in 1979. Even they, maybe better, especially they, were shocked and numbed.

And therein lies yet another horrible scar on the American being. The United States, in 1979 and for many long years thereafter, allied itself with Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, supplied Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, defended Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia-Kampuchea.

United Nations experts estimate that more than 4,000,000 active land mines are still in place in Cambodia-Kampuchea. Jensen notes that villages in the countryside routinely put out a ring of mines at night to harass or to deflect continuing raids of Khmer Rouge and various rogue elements of the Cambodian militaries intent on perpetuating the killings into the 21st century.

Children given guns now ravage vast areas of Africa where other Pol Pots scheme to cleanse their faltering nations trapped within illogical borders decreed by departed colonial governments. These are non-states denied even the dignity of failure.

The shaky fabrics of nation-states stretching from Adriatic to Bering Seas, now focused in the oil and gas resource states, are about to experience "incursion."

May whatever passes for gods and goddesses help us!

Obviously "we" can't.

Apparently "we" won't.

· · · · · ·


1.  Carsten Jensen, "I have Seen the World Begin," (trans. Barbara Haveland), Harcourt, NY, English edition 2000, Danish edition 1996, ISBN 0-15-100768-3.  (back)


Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, comes from a classic Eastern Establishment background culminated by a Harvard MBA. Perversely, however, he learned to think. Applying thought, he sees beyond and tries to write about what he sees. He now lives in the rainforest of non-tourist Hawaii near the lava flows.

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Published November 18, 2002
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