Lost in Cambodia

“Why did a radical British professor become a cheer-leader for Pol Pot? And why was he murdered on the very day he’d met the brutal dictator? Andrew Anthony on the extraordinary life and death of Malcolm Caldwell”

From Andrew Anthony of the Guardian (H/T Norm Geras @ Normblog) comes this compelling story of Malcolm Caldwell. The breadth and depth of the political, historical, and human issues it brings to our attention are an education beyond an entire college course – a half a semester, even a whole. Read it.

In Pol Pot, Caldwell found someone with an argument that suited his purposes. Pol’s plan was a massive increase in rice production to finance Cambodia’s reconstruction. It required collectivisation and slave labour, though Caldwell preferred to see the effort in terms of spontaneous revolutionary spirit. In the event, owing to the shortage of technicians and experts (who were killed as class enemies) and lack of peasant support, production fell well short of targets. But terrified of underperforming, regional commanders still sent their designated contribution to be exported. The result was the opposite of self-sufficiency: famine. Unable to accept the shortcomings in his plans, Pol instead blamed spies and counter-revolutionaries, and that meant that, in the absence of rice, spies and counter revolutionaries had to be produced. The network of torture camps was the only area of Democratic Kampuchea’s infrastructure that met its targets.

Of these dreadful facts, Caldwell remained ignorant on the Friday morning in Phnom Penh that he was taken in a Mercedes limousine to see Pol Pot. The setting for the meeting was the former Governor’s Palace on the waterfront, built during the French colonial period. In a grand reception room replete with fans and billowing white curtains, the two men sat down and discussed revolutionary economic theory.

Becker had met Pol Pot earlier the same day, and in When the War Was Over she writes: “He was actually elegant, with a pleasing face, not handsome but attractive. His features were delicate and alert and his smile nearly endearing.”

On our two trips to Vietnam, Julia, our companions, and I encountered a culture that excels at what it endeavors to accomplish. Over the course of our travels more than one among us was compelled to observe ironically, “We won the war.” One of the tallest buildings in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), what residents still call Saigon, says Citibank at the top. As it turns out, the Vietnamese are remarkably good capitalists, and as a matter of political culture, the transition is not really that hard: marketing and customer service are just propaganda with a profit motive in place of the ideological.

One of the things the Vietnamese have excelled at historically is dominating Cambodia, among the many local, historical details Kennedy’s best and brightest overlooked in viewing the

Killing Fields Memorial, outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Killing Fields Memorial, outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Vietnamese as only pawns in a chess game with the USSR and China. They excel, too, at tourism, in which the Cambodians struggle, as in all else, to stay in the game. In both countries, as everywhere in Indochina, workers in the tourism field are among the better educated. It doesn’t take too much educated interest and questioning to open them up to rich and enlightening conversation. Our young Cambodian guide readily shared his mistrust of the Vietnamese, his resentment of the Chinese – without whom, he argued, there could have been no Pol Pot, and no genocide – and his lament that Cambodia is victimized still by the longstanding governance of ex-Khmer Rouge sanitized by the Vietnamese and recognized by the world.

In Anthony’s story, too, Cambodia is only the local backdrop to one of the later – but, alas, not final – scenes in a long-running tragedy of human deception and self-deception, of intellectual and moral corruption. While the drama plays out still, in Phnom Penh one encounters on the street many limbless and crippled victims, even now, of landmines from those wars more than a generation ago. One can also sit at night and be served brandy at the garden tables of the restored Raffles Le Royal Hotel, not far from the Mekong River, light cigars to glow among the torches, recall the glory and disregard of colonial rule, the crushing deliverance from it, be reminded of a guiltless nostalgia for past glories, know that some still pray to the god of history.


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