The Khmers and Cambodia

February 19, 2009

Ten years ago, filled with the zealous vim of second-hand knowledge, I used to insist to every student whose path was unlucky enough to cross mine that they needed to know about Cambodia. Understand Cambodia, I said, and you’ll understand how mad the world is, and therefore how international ‘diplomacy’ operates. All over Devon, and of course, across the country, there are people in their late twenties and a little older whose light bulbs may have gone on this week (if they read the papers). Thirty years after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s control of Cambodia, a motley crew of survivors is finally to be tried, including Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, the three major figures from Pol Pot’s inner circle still in this world.

The Americans were fond, in the 1960s and 1970s, of referring to the former French colonies known as ‘Indo-China’ as ‘South-East Asia’. Like the French, they lumped together Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in a casual way, ignoring hundreds of years of history. What they ignored, and what many still don’t realise, is that the Khmers – the ethnic group in Cambodia – ruled a huge empire in the thirteenth century, an empire which grew and shrank and vanished, to the extent that even many Cambodians actually assumed that Angkor Wat (the ruined temple city) was a myth. And what was also ignored was that the Khmers and the Vietnamese are long-standing historical enemies, and have different cultural and ethnic identies. (James Fenton describes this eloquently in All The Wrong Places, by describing the completely different reactions a simple joke would elicit in each country. He also writes brilliantly about the Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmers who lived in Vietnam in territory long since seized, whose nationalist tendency was pronounced, but who were mistrusted by the Cambodian army for which they signed up, and were put in the first front line going. This is a very typical Cambodian paradox.)

International logic at its most cruel can be seen in the way the Cambodian wars were perpetuated. The Russians funded the North Vietnamese (not the Chinese, who have their own ethnic tensions with Vietnam). The Americans and the British mistrusted the Russians. So when the (by then reunited) Vietnamese rescued the Cambodians in 1979, and drove out the Khmer Rouge, the Americans and British supplied arms and support to any force opposing the Vietnamese. This consisted of a small force led by Son Sann, one of the republicans overthrown by Pol Pot; a force loyal to the monarchy of Sihanouk overthrown by the republicans; and the forces of the Khmer Rouge themselves. So cold war tension meant that three separate Khmer groups, who had successively fought each other, wound up being supported by the West. And Pol Pot was therefore bankrolled by the West.

Just to compound the complications, consider these:

1. Sihanouk, who was installed by the French in 1941, the French meddling in the royal succession, was overthrown by an American-backed coup. He subsequently associated himself with the Khmer Rouge (funded by China, because they didn’t like the Russians), before shifting his position when it became undesirable.

2. Heng Samrin, the first Khmer leader installed by the Vietnamese in 1979, had been a member of the Khmer Rouge. So too was his successor, Hun Sen (still in office as Prime Minister). To be fair, they got out when, as with all Khmer Rouge commissars, they were under threat (Pol Pot had his own deputy, Son Sen, during an in-house spat in 1997, run over by lorries, together with many of Son Sen’s family). To be unfair, they got out when the going was good. It is no surprise that the trials for genocide have taken so long to set up.

3. Although Sihanouk technically abdicated as King in 2004, he still holds the honorific title ‘King Father’, and possesses some constitutional power. Since 1941 (when he was 19), he has been either Prince, King, President or leader-in-exile of Cambodia – in some sort of power for 68 years. No-one else in modern history (in history?) comes close. His cleverest wheeze occurred when the West, trying to tidy up the ‘Indo-Chinese’ mess in the 1950s, banned monarchs from standing in elections. He abdicated, set up his own party, and won by a landslide.

Ieng Sary, Pol Pot, Son Sen

Ieng Sary, Pol Pot, Son Sen

I’ve tried very hard to simplify the complex pattern of factions (and it is much more complex than this) – but my point is that Cambodian political history is as complex as that of the world. It is a tragic object lesson in twisted logic, for which two million and more paid with their lives. The trials for genocide will be show trials. They will provide no answers. Only more clues.