The Tragedy of Cambodian History
The incursion of American troops into Cambodia in May, 1970, during the Vietnam War, sparked hundreds of protest demonstrations on college campuses across the United States. Americans once again became aware of the small Southeast Asian country in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Cambodia became the object of an international relief effort; refugees from Cambodia were accepted into the United States, where their adjustment was not always easy; and the stories of suffering told by the refugees were cited by former supporters of American intervention in Vietnam as evidence that the United States war effort in Southeast Asia should never have been abandoned.
By the middle of 1992, Cambodia, after years of civil strife, was at a crossroads between peace and continued civil war. Four groups were contending for power: the non-Communist followers of the former king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk; the Vietnamese-backed Communist regime in the capital city of Phnomh Penh; the anti- Vietnamese Communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge; and a group that was both anti-Communist and anti-Sihanouk. Such is the solipsism of American public opinion, however, that little attention was by then being paid to Cambodian affairs by the average American. The Vietnam War of 1961-1975 was almost forgotten; the Soviet-American Cold War, of which the Vietnam War had been the hot front, seemed to have been won finally with the apparent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-1991.
Chandler, who teaches Southeast Asian history in Australia and who was stationed in Cambodia as a U.S. foreign service officer in the early 1960’s, has consciously avoided discussing in great detail that part of Cambodian history that is most interesting to the general American reader: the story of American government and military involvement there. All too often, Chandler suggests, Cambodia has been regarded by Americans as a mere pawn in the worldwide struggle between Communism and democracy, or in the domestic struggle between Congress and the president for the control of American foreign policy.
The main question troubling students of modern Cambodian history is the search for the origins of the terrible political and human disaster that befell the country in 1975-1978, under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. The death toll reminds some of that wrought by Nazi Germany’s attempted extermination of the Jews in 1939-1945; the chief difference was that the Cambodian Holocaust was carried out in the name not of a master race but of a master ideology.
Ironically, the triumph of Communism in Cambodia in 1975 would have been difficult to foresee twenty years earlier. In Vietnam, Communists took control of the war for independence from France as early as the late 1940’s, and in 1954 they gained control over the northern part of the country. In the early 1960’s, a strong Communist guerrilla movement arose in non-Communist South Vietnam. In Cambodia, by contrast, Communism was for a long time relatively weak, and the traditional royal dynasty, of which Norodom Sihanouk was a representative, was deeply revered by the peasant population. It was King Norodom Sihanouk, not Communist guerrillas, who in 1953 won from France (which had, with a brief interruption during World War II, ruled Cambodia as a protectorate since 1863) recognition of Cambodian sovereignty. In the 1960’s, Sihanouk kept his country out of the ever-worsening war in Vietnam. The overthrow of Sihanouk by Lon Nol, an anti-Communist military officer and Sihanouk’s onetime right-hand man, in March, 1970, plunged Cambodia into involvement in the Vietnam War on the side of the Americans. This was the ominous first step on the road to April 17, 1975, when Cambodian Communists occupied Phnomh Penh and forced Lon Nol into exile.
Journalists, scholars, and Cambodian survivors have all written about the Cambodian Holocaust of 1975-1978. Up to the early 1990’s, most books on the subject either concentrated narrowly on the Holocaust itself, such as François Ponchaud’s Cambodia: Year Zero (1978) and Karl D. Jackson’s edited work Cambodia, 1975-1978: Rendezvous with Death (1989); or else, like Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey (1987) and Cambodian Witness: The Autobiography of Someth May (1986), simply presented the testimony of a survivor. Chandler has a different approach.
Refusing to see the Cambodian Holocaust as merely a reflection on the folly of international Communism as an ideology, Chandler discovers the deeper historical roots of the disaster within Cambodia itself. He compares Cambodian Communists not only with other Communists in China, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union,...
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