Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winner, has remarked that the twentieth century will be remembered primarily as the century of testimony. The horrors of the century have inspired many superb accounts of the Holocaust and of the Soviet purges and labor camps. Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey exposes the reader to a lesser-known but no less horrible and significant episode, the brutal and fanatical Khmer Rouge (“red Khmer”) Communist regime of 1975-1979.
Haing Ngor is eminently suited to tell this story. He survived the hell of Cambodian genocide, understood it, and sought to communicate it powerfully and articulately in book and film. He has succeeded brilliantly, presenting a rare combination of keen description of the personal experience of daily life with a valuable understanding of historical events.
Before the Communists came to power, Ngor was a dedicated obstetrician. After his years of unspeakable suffering, he became an award-winning actor in the United States. He will always, however, think of himself as a survivor: “I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That’s who I am.” He has dedicated his fine work to his father, mother, and wife, who died under the Communist regime. Ngor’s story begins with his childhood and youth in a seemingly tranquil country. Cambodia, a country the size of Washington state, in Southeast Asia, borders on Thailand and Vietnam. Like Vietnam, it was colonized by the French and became independent in 1953. It remained an agricultural country, Buddhist in religion, and fiercely nationalistic and proud of its traditions. Most Cambodians were peasants and dark-skinned Khmers. Other Cambodians were a combination of lighter-skinned Khmer and Chinese, or Khmer and Vietnamese. Ngor himself was a mixture of Chinese and Khmer stock and came from a fairly prosperous middle-class family.
Ngor characterizes the Cambodians as an outwardly gentle and shy people, family oriented and pleasure-loving. He sees a dangerous underside, however, to Cambodian history, society, and culture. Cambodian society contained deep problems and resentments that have smoldered for centuries. These tensions took the form of hatred between country dwellers and city dwellers, suspicion of foreigners and neighbors who have coveted Cambodia, ignorance of the outside world, and a heritage of widespread corruption and extortion of the weak by the strong. Above all, Cambodians tend to nurse long-standing grudges. Children are reared to be extremely deferential to adults and to bury their anger, while adults are supposed to save face by rigidly controlling their emotions when they are insulted. There is a terrible price to be paid for this, says Ngor. The Cambodians call it “kum,” revenge, and when it explodes, it is sometimes uncontrollable. The people who carried out the Cambodian mass murders were partially motivated by revenge.
Ngor portrays himself as a rebellious, street-smart, resourceful, and tough youth. He became a Buddhist monk, then a doctor, and fell in love with a woman without obtaining his father’s consent. These qualities of toughness and independence helped Ngor survive his later extreme ordeals.
In 1953, Cambodia became independent of France. King Norodom Sihanouk emerged as a popular figure who steered a neutral course between the West and the Communists. In 1970, however, the country began to fragment. When North Vietnam created sanctuaries in Cambodia, and the United States invaded Cambodia to destroy these pockets, General Lon Nol, a military dictator supported by the United States, overthrew Sihanouk. Corruption and incompetence ran riot, and civil war erupted. Communist China and North Vietnam supported the growing movement of Communist guerrillas of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge (red Khmers). The guerrillas were increasingly supported by poor peasants and were led by Pol Pot, a Cambodian nationalist and Communist disciple of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung. In April of 1975, the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the Communists, and life for the Cambodians became a nightmare from which they have not yet awakened.
As soon as the Communists came to power, they embarked on a fanatical attempt to remake Cambodian society through radical social reorganization and, above all, terror and mass murder. The Communists evacuated the cities; marched masses of people into the countryside; and abolished money, the middle and...
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