The road through the landscape. You have to drive well below the speed limit of 70 kph unless you already know the wheeltracks, the potholes, the curves. Roads in Cambodia aren’t much different. An ancient pathway that has grown wider over the centuries. Coated with asphalt in modern times. A surface now thinning and cracked. The society builders are looking in another direction.
My car dates from 1971. Its once-red paintwork is blotchy and on the upper left corner of its cracked windshield are engraved the words “Made in West Germany.” That year the USA carried out 61,000 bombing raids on Cambodia. Pol Pot was still known as Saloth Sar and I didn’t yet exist.
This is the first conversation.
The sun of early summer lies low over the firs. Light green acres dotted with boulders spread where the trees give way. Humans have ploughed this earth for thousands of years.
To me this is a suitable road, because it has more in common with its counterparts in Cambodia than the E4 motorway has. And to me this is a suitable car, because it had already seen service before Democratic Kampuchea had been drawn on the map. More than that I don’t know.
A green gate. On either side of the gate a high, flowering lilac hedge. Through the leaves a glimpse of an old red house.
Is this what I imagined?
I never actually imagined anything.
Not this, at any rate. Not a small red cottage framed with lilac, by a road like this.
It takes barely five minutes to walk the four hundred and seventy-five metres from the gateway of Angkor Wat to its innermost temple. It was built in the twelfth century, and its towers symbolize the five holy mountains of India. The sea is represented by a magnificent moat. Spread over the surrounding ten or so square kilometers are ponds and reservoirs as big as lakes, excavated by hand. Among them stand hundreds of massive temples. It has no counterpart in all the world.
It is believed that when Angkor Wat was built, more than a million people lived there, making it one of the largest cities of its time. Larger than Peking, larger than Paris. The silhouette of Angkor Wat has appeared on all Cambodia’s national flags. It has been shown with the light behind it and as seen in the morning and at evening in books of photographs and on picture postcards. Tourists come from all over the world to see it. And the buildings are undeniably of breathless beauty.
Less frequently do people discuss how the temples were built. How so many magnificent buildings could have been constructed with such primitive means in such a short time. Historians believe only a slave society could have done it. One single great labor camp.
It is easy to bandy statistics of height and weight and time. But how many lives did it cost to build this glorious miracle?
How long does it take to forget the terror and the oppression and just see the monuments?
The currently accepted story does not take much telling.
The war in Vietnam destabilized its neutral neighbor Cambodia. In 1970 the head of state, Prince Sihanouk, was deposed in a coup led by General Lon Nol. Then civil war broke out between the USA-backed Lon Nol regime and communist guerrillas known as the Khmer Rouge. When the USA left South Vietnam in 1975, the regime in Cambodia fell too. The Khmer Rouge took power and, under the previously unknown Pol Pot, initiated an extremely radical transformation. The country was given a new name, Democratic Kampuchea, and the inhabitants of the towns were deported to the countryside, where they were set to forced labor. Private property, religion and money were abolished. The aim was a Mao-inspired peasant utopia. Pol Pot was later revealed as Saloth Sar, a former teacher who had studied in France. During the next three and a half years at least 1.7 million people died, a fifth of the total population, from deprivation, sickness and executions. In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot was overthrown and a pro-Vietnam regime installed. The Khmer Rouge then resumed guerrilla warfare from bases near the Thai border. They did not lay down their weapons until Pol Pot died in 1998. Cambodia’s first democratic elections were held in 1993, under the auspices of the United Nations.
That’s what History looks like.
Pol Pot out of the jungle, from nowhere. Rows of skulls. Simple and incomprehensible.
This is my first memory. The inside of a stroller. Outside, adults walking, all in the same direction. I think the sky is gray, but I may have imagined that later. We are shouting and people are walking and soon I’ll be three. I remember thinking it’s fun shouting “kiss.” Though it isn’t quite that, because we’re shouting “Kissinger.”
Mur! Der! Rer!
Mur! Der! Rer!
We’re in Stockholm and it’s 17 April 1975. “This slap to the USA / has really made our day” is the slogan. Phnom Penh has fallen and that’s where the story starts. But of course it does not start there. How could it start in Stockholm? Rather it starts in a little library in Phnom Penh with Swedish books. A Swedish aid organization and a trainee assistant. He’s from the west coast of Sweden, perhaps Gothenburg. At least his words are colored by that accent when he says that they are bloody out of their minds. He holds up a thin book with a black-and-white photograph on the cover. They’re bloody out of their minds, he says, and the book is held together with yellowing tape.
It is called Kampuchea Between Two Wars and was published in the spring of 1979. A very enthusiastic travelers’ tale from Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea.
The names of its authors are given in alphabetical order. Perhaps because of tradition, or perhaps as an acceptable hierarchy for people who are enemies of hierarchies.
But viewed informally, the order is different. A male mental health nurse, a student, a journalist, and a world-famous writer.
Three people of about thirty, the fourth at least fifty.
Two women and two men.
One of the women is married to a Cambodian she met in France a few years earlier. She is the one with the closest contact to young left-radical Cambodians. Her husband is a revolutionary and was initially posted to the embassy in east Berlin.
By the time the four Swedes are traveling through Democratic Kampuchea he is probably already dead, crushed by the revolution he fought for.
His wife and the other Swedes do not know this. They assume he is too busy to meet them, too occupied with his revolutionary duties.
But naturally it doesn’t really begin in that library with the indignant man from Gothenburg. Nor with a well-thumbed book with names on it in alphabetical order. It starts somewhere else. If you can even say it starts. One thing leads to another. Comes around again, or seems to come around again. Circulates. Can we say it begins where the story ends? Or that it begins where the story starts? Or where it begins again, maybe? Or simply with the fact that it continues?
[Like a flicker of white]
A kick sixty years ago.
One of Saloth Sar’s high school mates still remembers it.
A football match at school in Kompong Cham. A scissors kick. It still exists, though so much else has disappeared.
He must have been a good footballer, Saloth Sar. Not Pol Pot for a long time yet. Just Saloth Sar. Good with a ball, but with a weakness for French romantic poetry too. Paul Verlaine. Victor Hugo. And he liked playing the violin. But he wasn’t so good at that, say those who remember.
One imagines the heavy brown ball. Perhaps a pass to the center. He leaps up with the goal behind him, and lying almost flat on his back in the air make a scissors movement with his legs. His foot strikes the ball and sends it flying toward the goal.
Who was the goalkeeper? That’s been forgotten.
Maybe Lon Non, younger brother of the future coup-leader Lon Nol, and Saloth Sar’s best friend?
Or maybe Khieu Samphan, future head of state in Democratic Kampuchea?
The son of a judge and a swot and several years younger, he is not likely to have been much good outside the goal. People remember that scissors kick, there at the football ground in the provincial capital.
Thirty years later Saloth Sar would confer a death sentence on Lon Non. If not earlier, at least by then they were on different sides of the field. Did he remember the days when they were inseparable, before he gave the order to go ahead with the execution? The days when they played football or swam together in the Mekong River? Or had the revolutionary seminars in self-criticism succeeded in suppressing all sentimentality?
The scissors kick, the goal. The charming Saloth Sar. The smile. Like any goal-scorer anywhere.
The front cover of the taped-up book has a black-and-white picture. People carrying earth by the bank of a river. Woven baskets, and some in dark clothes. Two young people in the middle meet the eyes of the viewer with faint smiles.
The back cover shows the Swedish delegation posing in front of Angkor Wat. It is August, cloudy and hot.They are wearing short-sleeved shirts and sandals. Their clothes seem strikingly unpretentious. Is this a deliberate choice?
Furthest to the right stands Hedda Ekerwald. She is smiling weakly, almost as if the photographer has taken so long over the photograph that her smile has gradually faded. Then Gunnar Bergström, the chairman, serious, with his arms crossed and the Mao cap he bought in China. Next Marita Wikander, smiling, with her raincoat in her hands. Furthest left Jan Myrdal, wearing what look like low black shoes. He too seems happy, almost boyish with his backpack and his practical wristwatch.
The grass is short and broad-leaved. About fifty metres from the mighty towers of Angkor Wat. A solitary sugar palm raises its brushlike crown to the gray sky. It stands beside the steps in front of one of the entrances in the temple wall. It leans a little to the right. If it’s still there it would be easy to find the spot from which the photograph was taken. If it is the same place, would one see what they saw?
On 15 May 1975, just a month after The Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, the author Per Olov Enquist wrote in [the newspaper] Expressen:
For years western imperialism raped an Asiatic land, killing nearly a million people, transforming a beautiful cultured Cambodian city into a ghetto, a brothel. But the people rose, freed themselves, threw out the intruders, found that their fine towns needed restoration. So they emptied the houses and began to clear up the mess. They began to scrub floors and walls, because people were never meant to live in degradation here, but in peace and with dignity. Then crocodile tears poured forth in the West. The brothel has been emptied and the clean-up is in progress. Only pimps can regret what is happening. Let us just learn that the struggle is no historical monument, no dead memorial; it is happening now.
A continuing struggle. Let us remember that.
THE SPADE IS YOUR PEN, THE RICE FIELD YOUR PAPER!
It’s the same every time I listen to that radio bulletin from 18 April 1975. The beautifully modulated matter-of-fact voice, the timelessness of the broadcast. I play it again.
“The silence from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is now to all intents and purposes total. None of the means of communication are functioning. The radio of the National Front has just announced that Cambodia’s second city, Battambang, and eight smaller towns have fallen.” It’s like standing at the border and looking in across the rice fields and sugar palms. The blue sky stretches over everything. The silence of the landscape. The absence of movement. Beyond the horizon the key has been turned, and slowly and laboriously the mechanism has begun to move.
It is a land of water. My plane is not flying over a landscape, but over a sea. I think to myself, how the hell can we land here? Narrow roads bordered with trees run straight through the brown waves. It is September and the rainy season is nearly over. The Mekong River seems to have spread across the whole country.
It looked much like this on 12 August 1978, when after a flight of five hours the Chinese 747 neared Phnom Penh. Just a little less water. In the plane were the Swedish delegation, and a dance troupe from Romania in holiday clothes. The cloud cover opened and three of the four Swedes saw for the first time the country to which they had devoted the most recent years of their lives.
The rice fields, the sun and the brown water. Hedda Ekerwald wrote in her travel diary that tears came to her eyes when she saw that the landscape was pitted all over with bomb craters.
The microfilmed newspaper pages flutter by, projected by white light on the screen in front of me. The projectors stand in rows in the dimly lit hall under the Royal Library in Stockholm. Most are in use, and clatter as researchers spool microfilm backward and forward. Each sits with his square of light full of forgotten news and photographs.
15 April 1975. I spool forward. The pages pass at great speed. 16 April 1975. I go on. Pictures, advertisements, the footballer Ralf Edström has cut his lip, Prime Minister Olof Palme calls the Czechoslovakians creatures of dictatorship.
17 April 1975. The front pages of the evening papers Aftonbladet and Expressen carry the same news: “Phnom Penh has fallen.” Their respective correspondents report straight from the city. Scenes of joy and fraternisation. Guerrilla fighters and soldiers of the regime embracing. Their weapons have fallen silent. Both have seen a deathly pale Prime Minister, Sirik Matak, seeking sanctuary with the Red Cross. And being turned away at the gate.
Their reports continue on the inside pages.
The morning papers were too early for the news, but it covers much of the paper the next day.
The leaders of the revolution are Prince Sihanouk and Khieu Samphan. Khieu Samphan is yet another photogenic intellectual revolutionary. A sort of Cambodian Che Guevara. So different from the left sympathisers in the West, and yet so similar. A man who practices what he preaches. In the photographs he smiles into the camera against a background glimpse of the jungle which has been his home and base as a guerrilla for nearly ten years.
The real leader cannot be seen anywhere. His name is missing from the list of key figures of the revolution. Pol Pot, unknown outside its innermost circle, is still lingering in the shadows.
As the days pass the reports become ever more meagre. Democratic Kampuchea is closed. All communication broken off. There are rumors that the towns are being emptied, though this is refuted by representatives of the new regime. Commentators in the press are bewildered. How should this be interpreted? Analysis is tentative. But so much else is happening in the region. The war in Vietnam is entering its final stage. This fills the columns. There are still a few days to go before the Red Army Faction takes hostages at the West German embassy in Stockholm. The international revolution is about to be fought out in the welfare-state in the middle of springtime.
I turn the knob. The pages pass in an even stream. Another age. What coup in a third-world country would get on the news bills or the front pages of the papers today? What war without any direct intervention by the USA or the EU would rate headlines in the evening papers?
Newspapers are commercial; they were then and they are now. They write about what sells, about what the great majority want to read.
It has been said that the interest people took in those days in small poor countries far beyond the horizon was founded in egoism. 1975 was the time of the Cold War. Every little local conflict lacked nothing but interference on the part of the great powers to grow into a nuclear war of global proportions. So it was important to keep abreast of developments in Angola, Cambodia and Cuba. It’s also possible that in those days we simply cared more about others, even about those who lived beyond the confines of the western world.
Whatever the case, the size of the headlines tells us something about the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association. It’s true that this was only a small byproduct of the pro-Vietnam movement, but the conflict in Cambodia interested more than a few. It was well-known. There could be no doubt that the visit of a delegation headed by Jan Myrdal would attract attention.
A visit to the country that had shut itself in. The land of dreams. The slaughterhouse.
Aftonbladet’s Sven-Oskar Ruhmén found himself in Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. The following day he described the entry of the Khmer Rouge into the city:
“For a Swedish onlooker it was a fantastic sight. Personally, I have never before seen anything so beautiful. I felt so happy and such a sense of relief that I couldn’t help crying at what I saw.”
That was the last telegram sent from Phnom Penh before all the telephones, radio transmissions and teleprinters fell silent.
THE MINORITY HAS TO GIVE WAY TO THE MAJORITY!
[Like a flicker of white]
“We felt like monkeys, straight from the jungle.”
In 1949 Mey Mann was in the same group of 21 scholarship holders as Saloth Sar. They traveled together: Phnom Penh—Saigon. Then Saigon—Paris.
It was his meeting with Saigon that made Mey Mann feel like a monkey. This was a city completely different from Phnom Penh. The trading center for the whole region. The great export harbor for the French. In contrast, Phnom Penh was known for its tranquillity. Broad shady boulevards, almost free of traffic. Two great sluggish rivers, the Tonlé Sap and the Mekong, meet at its quays as if to dictate the tempo.
Saigon was something else.
Then the SS Jamaique, to Europe. A rusty passenger ship, that had been commandeered by the French army. Four weeks in fourth class. The sea, unknown coasts.
It is an adventure the twenty-one young men have never even dared to dream of.
Saloth Sar at the ship’s rail. The wind, the sun and the sea swell that keeps most of his companions in the nauseating embrace of seasickness. He is twenty-four years old and now part of a very privileged group. During the previous fifty years fewer than 250 Cambodians had been educated abroad. What is he thinking of, as he leaves the world he knows for a world he has only read about? They worried about how cold it would be in Europe, Mey Mann said much later. But surely that can’t have been the worst of their worries? How would their studies go? Where would they live? Or were these mere details in the adventure?
On board with them are some French soldiers on their way home from the Vietnam war. Saloth Sar makes friends with them. Each evening they give him a jug of wine from their own ration, and he shares it with the other students.
He also looks after their diet. To the Cambodian students, what they are given on the French ship is uneatable. When the ship calls at Djibouti they take the opportunity to buy spices and lemons. Things they are familiar with. Saloth Sar is the group’s cook. An unsuspected talent.
Wine and food. That must suit him. He seems to have been a man with a taste for the good things of life. A bon viveur. He has left his nineteen-year-old girlfriend Soeung Son Maly in Phnom Penh. The others call her “the beauty queen.” The men who are discussing Cambodia’s struggle for freedom. Saloth Sar doesn’t join in these discussions. He cadges his wine and dreams of Mademoiselle Soeung.
On a bookshelf in my parents’ home I find a familiar book. Its front cover has been lost, but it used to have The History Book written on it. Apparently it is quite common for copies of this particular book to fall to pieces. It was printed in an old farm building in 1970 by a new publishing company called Word Front. The glue that was used to stick it together froze the previous winter and this made the books brittle.
The History Book was its publishers’ first great sales success and I remember often reading it as a child. It is a mainly pictorial account of history. Instead of kings and wars it tells of the conditions in which ordinary people lived, from the ice age to the present.
Or rather, till that time.
The final pages concentrate on colonialism and the revolutions of the sixties. There is a banner draped across a double-page spread. On it is written “Korea Cuba Vietnam China Albania.” Under it is an idyllic picture of people working together in the fields. I read: “The whole population had joined together to free their country. Now they had to make sure that no bureaucrats, party bigwigs or technicians took away their power! So that the office workers and civil servants do not come to think that they are better than the workers, they must experience working in a factory or on the land for a period every year. The university and other higher education is open to workers and peasants. The peasants are not forced into huge industrial cities as they are in the Soviet Union. Instead factories are built in villages and small towns where people are already living.”
IF YOU WISH TO DESTROY THE ENEMY, YOU MUST DESTROY THE ENEMY WITHIN YOUR OWN PERSON!
Four Swedes who had visited Cambodia at a time when almost no one was allowed over the border. A land where a well-lubricated hellish machinery was working ceaselessly and more than a thousand children, women, and men were dying everyday.
If we remain with statistics: 1,330,000 people had already died by the time the Swedes’ plane landed at Phnom Penh.
The names of the dead would have filled 13,500 pages of this size or, if you prefer, thirty-four such books.
And another 3,700 pages would have been waiting, as yet unwritten, for the living who were yet to die.
This is a very cheap comparison. It doesn’t even add up. More died in 1978 than in the preceding years. Slave labor had taken a heavy toll of bodies, starvation was increasingly prevalent, purges ever more arbitrary.
It is easy to lose oneself in numbers. But how else can the facts be presented? It is impossible to visualize all these faces, all these lives. Six tsunami disasters, not spread across half of South and Southeast Asia but concentrated in a single country not even half the size of Sweden? A tidal wave raging around, year after year, through villages and over rice fields?
It becomes impossible to fit them all into a single feeling or a single thought.
A well-thumbed book that displays four names in alphabetical order. Gunnar Bergström, Hedda Ekerwald, Jan Myrdal, and Marita Wikander. Those who were there.
Jan Myrdal has been a public figure in Sweden since the fifties. Still an active writer and combative debater on social issues. But the others? Where were they now? How would they remember those hot stuffy August days spent in Democratic Kampuchea twenty-five years before? What would their attitude be now to the enthusiastic testimony they once brought home from their journey through mass murder?
In his 1964 book Skáldatími, the Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness writes of his earlier journeys to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union: “Many feared—and I was one of them—that it would damage the cause of socialism as a whole throughout the world, if we were to tell of the undeniable destitution caused by Stalin’s socialism—in ‘the central home of socialism.’ One said ‘who can be sure Eyolf won’t come’ and waited impatiently in that hope, concealing the deficiencies for the time being.”
Perhaps that’s the answer? That the Swedes did see, but said nothing when they came home so as not to damage a revolution which was basically a good thing?
Or perhaps they saw things and situations that they can only now understand in context with hindsight?
One or the other. They must be able to give an answer today. Now that what was the present in 1978 has become thoroughly analyzed history.
Three names, sufficiently unusual for it to be possible to trace them.
On the flyleaf are several additional clues. Gunnar Bergström, chairman of the Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association, was a mental nurse in 1978. Hedda Ekerwald, committee member, was a student of Sociology. Marita Wikander, also a committee member, was an editor.
I get started. It seems easy. Soon I have tracked down a consultant on juvenile delinquency, a university lecturer in sociology, and the information chief of a museum.
I felt then, as I wrote down telephone numbers after their names, that I was getting near to finding the answer to my question: How could one travel right through the middle of one of the most enormous examples of mass murder in the twentieth qcentury without seeing anything?
Had their mouths been full of well-meaning white lies to “conceal deficiencies for the time being”? Or were they completely taken in?
One or the other.
It would soon become apparent that it was not as simple as that.
[Like a flicker of white]
My thoughts slip unchallenged toward reasoning against reason. It is soon the summer of 1950 and it is easy to ask oneself whether everything could have been different.
I don’t know where this question is supposed to take me. Toward thinking for a moment: perhaps not?
But it’s spring in Paris, 1950. Nearly the end of term and the Cambodian students have a choice between two different holiday destinations. One in Switzerland and the other in Yugoslavia. Still nothing more than names on a map to them. The difference is that the first alternative costs money and the second doesn’t.
We cannot know whether Saloth Sar would have preferred to wander in the Alps. Quite possibly. That would fit our picture of the twenty-five-year-old Saloth Sar. But he’s penniless. That decides the matter. He chooses Yugoslavia.
A great new motorway is being built outside Zagreb. It’s called the Road of Brotherhood and Unity. The workforce includes an international brigade. Young people from all over Europe working together to rebuild their war-ravaged continent.
This is where Saloth Sar’s travels take him.
They work three days a week and dedicate themselves to culture, sport, and other activities on the other four. The food is bad and the work hard. But it’s summer and they are young and they have a good time. When, later, Saloth Sar has become Pol Pot and gives one of his few interviews, to some Yugoslav journalists; he speaks warmly of his days in the workers’ brigade.
Did he enjoy it or didn’t he? Or is it a dead end, like so many others of his autobiographical claims?
But perhaps what he claimed was true. He returned in the summer of 1951, but this time for a camping holiday with several friends.
What impression did the workers’ brigade make on the as yet apolitical Saloth Sar? How far was he impressed by the grandiose vision of working side by side to build one’s country’s future? Do the meagre rations and often demanding work tell us anything of conditions in Democratic Kampuchea twenty-five years later? Was this where his concept of a working population was born?
Or are these merely parallels that I imagine to be there because I want them to be there?
A new Europe is rising from the ruins of the Second World War. Rapid economic development is laying the foundations of a modern consumer society. Fifties Sweden takes the USA of the pioneers as its model. A new age.
Household budgets stretch ever further. More young people complete their school studies and go on to university. Children from the countryside move to the towns and housewives go out to work. The welfare state develops.
A rapid movement toward something new, something better, something more modern.
The world war is over and there will never be another. Pacifism unites people of all kinds and plans to develop a Swedish atomic bomb are halted.
When the violence in Vietnam begins to stream out of every TV set the reaction is proportional. Perhaps the indignation is all the greater because the American liberator has now been transformed into an imperialist oppressor? So much further to fall.
In Sweden and in the rest of Europe, opposition to this war tends to the left. But in the fossilized positions of the Cold War the Soviet Union offers no obvious alternative. People are more likely to feel solidarity with developing countries and colonies. With their struggles for political and economic independence.
The focal point is the Vietnam war. It lays the antagonisms and injustices of the world open to the light of day.
In May 1968 a student revolt reaches its climax in Paris. Cars burn in the streets and ten million French workers start a general strike. All over the world, demonstrators march and make direct demands for change. The rising isn’t just local, it seems to be global.
In Sweden many groups are formed to support the Vietnamese struggle; this becomes known as the FNL movement, named after the resistance army of South Vietnam. Money is collected. By 1973, 8.3 million Swedish kronor have been assembled. It is above all the young who get involved. They sell a newspaper called The Vietnam Bulletin outside department stores and state alcohol outlets and rattle collecting boxes. But their aim is not just to collect money. They want to make a difference by initiating political discussions with passers-by. The target is as broad a “united front” as possible, with party politics subordinated to the main goal.
The many working FNL groups are driven by idealism. It is an impressive movement. The activists are often expected to give up three evenings a week and frequently Saturday afternoons as well. They form study circles, and arrange meetings and demonstrations. It is serious work. A good activist is ideologically aware and disciplined and avoids alcohol.
Everything seethes with life, bringing back fire and fervor to politics. The cylinders of stencil machines roll and whirl. Power seems to have deserted the leadenfooted parliament and is now to be found among those who are ready to fight. What is and is not done on the streets of Sweden is expected to influence the politics of the world. Politics concerns everyone, not only remote figures who wield power. Protest demonstrations, long since fossilised into a Social-Democratic ritual, now degenerate into riots if the police interfere.
But it is not only the young who want to see an end to the war. All five parties represented in the Swedish parliament combine in a common initiative to collect signatures on an appeal to President Nixon to stop bombing Vietnam. Within a month 2.7 million Swedes, one-third of the population, have signed.
This involvement sets a mark on those who take part. They “rely on their own powers” and many feel deeply for the Vietnamese who are seeing their towns destroyed by bombs and their families burnt alive by American napalm. The war is so cynical and so deeply immoral that it is impossible to look on in silence. The USA has forfeited all trust. It is necessary to act.
YOU TOO CAN MAKE A REVOLUTION EVEN ON YOUR OWN!
Those years of struggle. All the weekday evenings in meetings and study circles. All those shelves full of books that in one way or another reinforced one’s belief in what one was fighting for. The hours spent outside the co-op. The discussions. The insights and connections.
And the conclusion.
That the USA’s war conflicts with international law.
It is an attempt to keep an oppressed people in their chains.
But see the country that is being smashed by bombs! See its people dismantling cannons and carrying them through the jungle on bicycles. They won’t give in. They refuse to yield a metre. Instead they are taking back their land, inch by inch, kilometer by kilometer. Better death than defeat and captivity.
The Americans are forced to accept a fundamental truth: you can’t win a war if you have a whole population against you.
You can’t win a people’s war.
And since the people are fighting side by side, woman and men, managers and peasants, they will build the new world together. There will be room for everyone.
Not at all like what we have seen in the West. It is in the developing countries that the modern society of the future will rise.
It’s almost like a film from hell. Not because it includes hellish scenes, but because it’s a film from the other side. Pictures from a country that hardly exists in any sort of pictures, let alone on film.
A country that exists for the most part as text. As memories. As opinions.
The film is shown on TV1, one of the two Swedish public service channels, on 1 April 1979. It is introduced by Jan Myrdal, who starts in English: “These are notes from a journey in Democratic Kampuchea during the Monsoons. These notes are biased.”
Jan Myrdal is not only speaking to the living rooms of Sweden. He is addressing an international public, conscious of the unique privilege of having been allowed to film in Democratic Kampuchea.
The quality of the film is poor; the camera whirrs in the background and Myrdal is standing rather underexposed in front of the silhouette of Angkor Wat.
The film is one of the results of the delegation’s journey. It and a record of Cambodian revolutionary music, and the book gathering dust in the little Swedish library in Phnom Penh.
The camera whirring in the background has been borrowed from the Drama department of Swedish TV. Not a department whose job is to make documentaries. Jan Myrdal is said to have arranged and financed the camera through informal contacts in the Drama department. This could also explain why the film was later secretly cut as soon as an empty studio could be found. It would not have been possible to make an official booking without someone starting to ask questions. This was why the film took so long to complete. When it was shown it was no longer topical; by then Vietnam had overthrown Pol Pot and in effect had eradicated Democratic Kampuchea.
But that happened later. At the moment the camera is whirring and Jan Myrdal is continuing in Swedish: “Yes, this film has certainly been made with preconceived intentions. It is not just that I like Kampuchea and have great respect for its culture. I believe that the peasant wars that have marked the history of our countries have been just wars. Our forefathers were right to burn Faxehus in 1433. It was right when the peasants of Europe rose and it is right when the peasants of Asia rise. I also believe that revolutions are just. The North American revolution of 1776 was just. The French revolution of 1789 was just. And 1830, 1848, 1871, 1905, 1917, and 1949, to name just a few dates, were milestones in our common history. And I also believe that national independence is vital.”
But it is not so much what Jan Myrdal says that is bewildering. It is the pictures that send a weak but perceptible vibration through my view of the world. The traditional image of Democratic Kampuchea is that of a concentration camp. Straight lines of emaciated slave laborers dressed in black. When the dead collapse their bodies serve as natural fertilizer for the rice fields.
Naturally this is not what I expect to see when I switch on the video in a little room at Swedish TV one pale March morning in Stockholm. But I do expect perhaps to detect a hint of it in the background. A glint in someone’s eye, when they think the camera is pointing in another direction. Or that with my experience of modern Cambodia I may see something that the visiting Swedes would not have been able to interpret.
The delegation traveled through what has been described as the worst example of genocide in the twentieth century. They documented their journey carefully. Surely the terror must be detectable somewhere?
But I can’t see it. I see happy, healthy people. Certainly some are dressed in black, but others are wearing the same clothes as Cambodian peasants wear today. They are building solid houses and ploughing fields. The camera glides over bulging sacks full of cashew nuts, cassava and rice, destined for export. An abundance of food in a country where, according to all the history books, the population starved to death.
All this is accompanied by Jan Myrdal’s authoritative voice. He states that the once devastated landscape has now been rebuilt, and that each hard-working Kampuchean gets thirty kilos of rice a month.
Rice fields. The structure of a dam. People bearing heavy loads of earth smile as they pass the camera.
Then footage from a collective dining hall. Heaps of rice on the tables. The members of the collective are eating slowly, not ravenously as starving people should. Myrdal’s voice: “In the centre of the villages are large common dining halls. These also function as meeting rooms. People eat together. The pattern of life is new and old at the same time. New collectives, and at the same time village traditions that were developed in the distant past.”
And: “City dwellers who once lived in villas with servants do find the food a bit meager. But the co-operative guarantees food for all.”
And: “This is a poor country. The average age of the population is low. Half are probably under seventeen. At fifty you are old. But the hard work, and what you will see as the simple guarantees of dwelling space, clothes, and food that the new society provides, turn the dreams of a poor peasant into reality.”
Life is the same for all, hard but just. Revolution is a necessary step toward escaping a desperate situation. In building the land anew. In building prosperity for the future.
Hard work now, reward later.
Afterward I walk along Karlavägen street. The sunlight is pale, the streets still dirty from winter. The wind is tossing about last year’s dead leaves.
What have I seen? A thirty-minute documentary, once shown on Swedish television, that fulfils all the superficial requirements of such a program. Facts and statistics supported by images and interviews. And a well-known cultural celebrity as my guide, an able and persuasive presenter.
During the years I have lived in Cambodia I have listened to countless witnesses of the terrible privations of Democratic Kampuchea. And despite these witnesses, despite everything I have been told, I find myself thinking that perhaps it wasn’t quite so bad after all.
That perhaps there has been some kind of misunderstanding.
[Like a flicker of white]
A number of well-known faces. But not too many for each to know who the others are.
A little flat in central Paris and half a dozen of the first generation of Cambodian students. Yet another discussion club. Not art or law this time. Politics instead. Politics in a very wide sense.
At home the struggle for independence has intensified. Different groups are fighting the French. Khmer Issarak, a loose-knit group which has many leaders with powerful profiles. Khmer Viet Minh, Vietnamese communist guerrillas with a Cambodian streak. And what about the young king, Sihanouk, who is working with the newly instituted parliament dominated by the nationalistic Democratic Party? Is he a puppet of the French, or does he have a political will of his own?
Suits and tightly knotted ties in the fashion of the fifties. A pedestal by a wall, with a little statue of Buddha in the lotus position on it.
In Paris Existentialism rules. Camus and Sartre. The pessimism of the postwar years and the forties has been replaced by the fifties’ faith in the future. The French Communist party is the biggest in western Europe, and communism is the song of the moment.
Today’s subject for the discussion group: Should Cambodia’s struggle for freedom be fought weapon-in-hand?
Over to you.
Look at the Vietnamese, what a fight they’re giving the French! Vietnam is treated with respect now, but Cambodia just gets condescension.
Then what about India? And Burma! They freed themselves by peaceable means, didn’t they?
The flat belongs to Keng Vannsak, a Cambodian student nearly twenty-five years old. He is something of an intellectual hub and has recently married a Frenchwoman.
The Kengs have helped Saloth Sar find a room to rent. Keng Vannsak has also invited him to join the discussion club.
Saloth Sar sits silent and listens. Much later he will say that he didn’t want to reveal himself, confess his color.
But is there really any color for him to confess? He, who has never shown any interest in politics before now?
The following year he will buy some books from the book stalls along the Seine. No longer just French poetry, but Marx and Kropotkin as well. He won’t understand everything in these books. Maybe hardly anything at all. After all, French is not his native language and Kropotkin’s 749-page tome dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century.
But that’s not the most important thing. He gets an impression. Revolution is as much an attitude and an ideal, as a method.
Soon a new and secret association is formed out of the discussion group. One of its motivators is twenty-six-year-old Ieng Sary, the future foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge. This new group, Le Cercle Marxiste, has a frankly communist profile. It is divided into cells, with several individuals in each. Each cell is independent and does not know about the others.
No one remembers any longer exactly when Saloth Sar joined them. But they do remember that the leader of his cell was a student of mathematics called Ok Sakun. Another member was Hou Yuon, working on a doctorate in economics, who was later to be one of the Khmer Rouge’s leading intellectuals.
They are already there, nearly all those who were to march into Phnom Penh as victors on 17 April 1975.
The obvious leader then, at the beginning of the struggle, is the energetic Ieng Sary. He urges his comrades to masturbate rather than waste time on women. Their time should be devoted to the Struggle.
YOU CAN BUILD SOCIALISM ONLY IF YOU HAVE SOCIALIST PEOPLE!
Food is limited. There are a great many of us. But instead of a few eating their fill while others go to sleep hungry, we share what we have equally. Everyone gets the same amount. That is just.
We do the same with our water. That is just.
We share equally. No one gets more than anyone else but everyone has something.
Everything belongs to us all, like the sky, like the sea. We must prevent anyone helping himself at the cost of others.
Everything belongs to us all, like the air and the fruit of the trees. That is just.
For far too long we have failed to respect one another. The strong have looked after themselves at the cost of the weak.
The children of the rich have inherited their parents’ money and power.
The poor have inherited their parents’ debts and ignorance.
Everything belongs to us all, but some have taken more than their share. The more they have taken, the more powerful they have become. If we want justice, the rich must stop taking more than their share. If we want no one to go to sleep hungry we must divide the limited food available, not according to strength but equally. The strong must take a step backward. The weak must take a step forward. Everything belongs to us all. That is just.
We must raise our eyes from ourselves and share between us. We who have must see those who have not. We who have must become better informed. No one stands alone.
We must see those who have not. We must be ruled by respect and justice instead of egoism and private appetites. Only when we share equally will no one go to sleep hungry.
We must free ourselves from our egoism and built a just society. Food is limited but no one shall go to sleep hungry.
All belongs to us all.
THE HEART, COMRADE, IS NOT LIKE THE KNEE, WHICH CAN BEND AT WILL!
[History, if you will]
Koh Santepep, or the Isle of Peace, is what Prince Sihanouk called his little Cambodian kingdom. A verdant contrast to a sea of war. To the east Vietnam was fighting the French. Then the Americans. To the west Thailand was becoming increasingly unstable. To the north Laos was being dragged into the Vietnamese turbulence. In Indonesia hundreds of thousands of communists were killed during a violent military coup.
Through all these conflicts ran the frozen trenches of the Cold War. And the looming presence of a constant threat—that the balance would tilt too far to one side and the other would press the nuclear button.
But Cambodia was the Isle of Peace. On warm evenings by the Mekong the nuclear winter was far away.
Beyond the horizon bombs were falling, like a distant thunderstorm, while the divine prince watched over his children. This was the picture he painted for his subjects and for foreigners.
Prince Sihanouk was installed on the Cambodian throne by the French colonial power in 1941. He became one more in the line of legendary kings of Angkor. At the time, he was a dreamy nineteen-year-old with a passion for films. He mentions in his memoirs the first time he met the French governor’s wife. She burst out, “Qu’il est mignon, ce petit!” (What a cute little boy!)
And that was the intention. That he should be a cute little king whose most important quality was that he should be easy to dupe.
The French could not have made a bigger mistake. The French general de Langlade later took the opportunity to state that Sihanouk was certainly a madman, but a madman of genius (NB: original quote).
After several introductory years as a self-indulgent libertine, the king decided to make his mark on the history of Cambodia.
France’s grip on her colonies had weakened following the Second World War and in French Indo-China all her energies were concentrated on the war in Vietnam.
The Cambodian independence movement was fragmented, but gaining strength. The communists were better organized than anyone else.
Onto the stage strode a no longer so cute king.
You could call it theft. When it seemed that at last the independence movement might be winning, Sihanouk suddenly initiated a “royal crusade.” He traveled around the country and promised that he and no one else would make Cambodia independent. Within a year.
In November 1953 the French were forced to give up Cambodia. The country was once more its own. And Sihanouk took the whole credit for himself.
This was the madman’s first stroke of political genius. The independence struggle was backed by the people. It had also been the reason for the growing popularity of the communists. With this late crusade, Sihanouk managed to win the admiration of the people and at the same time bury the communists under his feet. It would take them nearly twenty years to become once more a force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile the constitution limited the room for manoeuvre available to the king. That didn’t suit Sihanouk’s ambitions. So his next stroke of genius was to abdicate.
Exit a king.
Enter a prince.
His newly resumed title of prince gave him freer hands. He placed his apolitical father on the throne. But he was very particular about styling himself “the prince who had been king,” so that no one could doubt his true status. And no one did.
He continued to live in the palace and retained power over the army and police. He remained a demigod, whose subjects only dared to approach him crawling. Sihanouk soon showed himself a master of divide and rule. The energetic and charismatic prince outmanoeuvred the political opposition time and again. He used the same tactics in foreign policy. According to him, Cambodia must be uncompromisingly neutral. This agreed with the conditions imposed by France for recognizing its independence, but was a controversial position to take in the polarized world of the Cold War. But in the meantime it gave him a chance to play the great powers off against each other. Which he did, with astonishing success.
It was a vertigo-inducing act of tightrope balancing. But the surrounding world was charmed by the elegance with which Sihanouk warded off the gusts of wind. One forgot how high above the ground the tightrope had been fastened. The brilliant little prince with the shrill voice became a symbol of the Alternative. It was the sixties and colonialism was collapsing, and the third world seemed to be on the move at last.
Starting in the mid-fifties, Sihanouk set great store on building schools and roads. In 1955 there were five thousand high-school pupils in Cambodia. By 1968 there were more than a million. In 1955 there were a thousand kilometers of roads suitable for cars. By 1968 there was ten times that amount. Railways were constructed, large sports facilities were built, and provincial towns were designed.
The aim was a welfare state in which each rice-peasant would be literate and speak two languages. Sihanouk founded what he called Sangkum reastr niyeum, the “People’s Socialist Community.” Under its wide umbrella people of all political views would be welcome to meet and exchange ideas. The idea was to prevent any splitting apart of the nation. But at the same time it was illegal to criticize the umbrella itself.
This ensured that all real political opposition was impossible.
In 1955 Sihanouk was thirty-three years old, enlightened and autocratic—a twentieth-century renaissance prince. He directed the country in detail with manic energy. He never missed an opportunity to travel round the countryside so that the people could do him homage. Nor did he hesitate to grab a spade and symbolically help with the construction of any new building he happened to pass—and he expected the same of civil servants and foreign ambassadors too.
But at the same time it became more and more difficult for Sihanouk to make a distinction between Cambodia and his own person. He took any criticism of Cambodia personally. This made foreign policy in particular unpredictable.
It has been said that, unlike the men who ruled the country before and after him, Sihanouk really loved the Cambodian people. The only problem was he loved himself even more.
The Isle of Peace. Prosperous, independent, and refined. The pearl of Southeast Asia, with Phnom Penh as Southeast Asia’s answer to Paris. Boulevards and Vann Molyvann’s light, elegant architecture in the functionalist style of Oscar Niemeyer. The culture-loving Sihanouk used his vast store of excess energy to compose symphonies, direct films with the army serving as extras, and arrange sumptuous parties that went on till sunrise. The border with war-devastated Vietnam lay barely a hundred kilometers from his perpetually glittering royal palace.
I’m standing on the edge of the Mekong River where it meets its sister the Tonlé San some tens of kilometers south of the border with Laos. Behind me is a godforsaken little trading post called Stung Treng. The town has a handful of streets and a few thousand inhabitants. It is dusty and charming and a long way from the modern world.
As if time stopped there fifty years ago.
Two boulevards run from the quay separated by a broad area of grass. A sort of neglected park. The whole thing is a monstrosity, more suitable for a city a hundred times bigger. But it does say something about the spirit of the times. About the hopes that Sihanouk and his urban architects harbored. About their conviction.
This is the spirit people remember now. Sihanouk’s sixteen years of almost unlimited power have taken on precisely the lustre of myth he wanted.
An island of peace and prosperity amid the gloom of history.
A light in contrast with the time that follows.
[Like a flicker of white]
They may have met in the doorway.
Saloth Sar, ready to board the SS Jamaique again and return to Phnom Penh.
And Son Sen, who was studying political science and was about to take over Saloth Sar’s musty hole above the wine shop on Rue Letellier. A few square meters with an old bed and a chair.
Later they would share much worse conditions. Guerrilla war, malaria, a life of constant fleeing through the jungle. But years of power too. Son Sen would be Pol Pot’s Minister of Defense. Son Sen would be his chosen successor.
Saloth Sar has failed in his Radio Electronic studies. Or simply tired of them.
He loses his scholarship and there isn’t much future for him in France.
Almost forty-five years after that meeting in the doorway, Pol Pot orders Son Sen and his family to be executed as traitors. The murder of one of his very earliest allies will also be his own downfall.
But then is not now.
Now it’s 1953 and they are just two young radicals of about twenty-five and Son Sen reaches out his hand and takes over the keys to the room. And wishes Saloth Sar a safe trip.
Hedda Ekerwald offers me a glass of hot milk and freshly baked bread with honey. We are sitting in her kitchen in the red house behind the green gate. The house is a crofter’s cottage, built long ago. All low ceilings, high thresholds, and crooked corners. Outside the light of early summer.
Her husband and their two daughters are sitting at the table too. The older one has just come home from soccer training. A few days ago she graduated from high school.
A little while before we had our bread and honey we were in Democratic Kampuchea. Hedda Ekerwald has most of the photographs from the delegation’s journey. Nearly four hundred color slides. A unique document from a land that has hardly been illustrated at all. Her photographs are strikingly beautiful and well composed. Nothing like tourist snapshots.
This is how she wants us to do things. Look at the pictures, chat a little.
Perhaps go on later to a regular interview.
The projector is in the bedroom. Bedcovers have been hung over the window and she has laid out a good many numbers of the newspaper Kampuchea on the bed.
Box after box of pictures. Yet again I am struck by the similarities.
Kampuchea looks just like Cambodia. No sign of the abyss that should be there somewhere, just behind or to one side.
The projector rattles. A picture falls out of it, a moment’s darkness, then another picture. Smiling people by an irrigation dam.
LET US ALL LIVE AS ONE HUGE NEW FAMILY AND THINK ONLY OF THE INTEREST OF THE COLLECTIVE!
[Like a flicker of white]
It was a different Saloth Sar who returned to Cambodia in 1953. A new man of the world and a member of the French Communist party.
It was a different Cambodia he returned to. Cambodian freedom fighters and French soldiers were killing each other daily. It wasn’t quite full-scale war, but its presence was clearly felt. It affected life in large areas of the country.
Saloth Sar traveled to his home village outside Kompong Thom. His return was a shock to him. In an interview not long before his death he remembered: “[At the terminus], someone—one of the cyclo-pousses—called out to me: ‘Oh, you’re back!’ I looked, and it was one of my uncles. He asked me: ‘Do you want a ride home?’ I was so shocked! That man used to have land, buffaloes, everything. I wept to see him like that. I rode home with him, and over the next month or so I talked with [other] relatives who had also lost everything. The Cambodian countryside was being pauperized. Having lived in Europe, seeing these things hurt my heart.”
[History, if you will]
But Sihanouk’s Cambodia was naturally no paradise. Nepotism and corruption became ever more common. The security police were brutal and Sihanouk became increasingly intolerant of any points of view that differed from his own.
His kingdom claimed to be a democracy but was rather a false front for a political farce that became ever more absurd. Sihanouk was immensely popular, but he took no risks. The elections he organised were neither particularly free nor fair. For example, it was his custom to select the candidates the voters could choose among himself. Certainly these contained people starting from differing political positions so as to preserve the balance which was his trademark, but the national parliament never became any kind of counterpoise to Sihanouk himself.
The crossroads was the first election, in 1955. During the campaigning before this election police persecution of opposition politicians was intensified. Many were imprisoned and some murdered.
On election day security police stood by the voting boxes to ensure that people voted “correctly.”
So it was no surprise that almost everybody voted for Sihanouk. In some constituencies where, despite everything, Sihanouk lost, the voting boxes were burned and the winning candidates were later found dead.
But Sihanouk celebrated his landslide victory. In practical terms, he was now answerable only to himself.
In his memoir, Souvenirs doux et amers, he writes: ”It is true that I have been an authoritarian head of state, or more exactly a blend of Sukarno of Indonesia and Nasser of Egypt. But I have never been in the same class as Amin Dada of Uganda or Macias N'Guema of Equitorial Guinea, even less their undisputed master of cruelty, Pol Pot of so-called Democratic Kampuchea. Neither have I been this isignificant and feckless 'little king' depicted by some right-wing French newspaper, which see me as a kind of 'negro king' . . . with yellow skin.”
He continues with the kind of shy sincerity that charmed so many of those round him: “Quite simply, I am a man, with his good points and his bad. I am neither more nor less virtuous than my brother men, created, in the words of Genesis, in the image of God, but having to assume the inheritance of original sin."
The suspiciousness that all absolute rulers seem to develop in Sihanouk’s case was nourished by circumstances. He succeeded in averting several attempted coups orchestrated from South Vietnam and Thailand. He himself was entirely convinced that the CIA was holding the strings behind everything.
In 1959 two boxes of presents arrived at the palace. The sender was a businessman with affiliations in South Vietnam and the USA. A box addressed to Sihanouk’s mother was opened by the royal butler. In it was a powerful explosive that blew out the whole room and killed three people.
This attempt on his life proved a knock-out blow to the little confidence Sihanouk still had in the USA, South Vietnam, and Thailand.
A few years later John F. Kennedy was murdered. Just before that another of Sihanouk’s antagonists had been assassinated, the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. When the Thai leader Field Marshal Sarit died shortly afterward, Sihanouk declared happily in a radio address that “now the three of them will meet in hell.”
[Like a flicker of white]
1955 was a year of possibilities. Cambodia was finally independent and the war over. Free democratic elections were due to be held for the first time. You must have been able to feel it in the air. A new era had begun.
Saloth Sar’s mentor Keng Vannsak, he who arranged a flat for his homeless friend in Paris, is now back in Phnom Penh. Despite his radicalism, Keng Vannsak has joined the Democrats, the largest political party. The struggle will be fought within the parliamentary system.
Keng Vannsak is reckoned to be an angry young man. A bit of a radical, but the party leadership decides his left profile will attract voters. Saloth Sar is often seen at his side. It is their habit to eat breakfast together in Keng Vannsak’s delightful house on Boulevard Norodom.
Pink and white bougainvillea, bowls of noodle soup with innards. Fresh spices to crush and mix with the soup. Segments of lime. Ice-cold jasmine tea in tall glasses. Or had they been so influenced by their time in France that they preferred coffee and croissants?
According to Keng Vannsak, he did the talking and Saloth Sar listened. Saloth Sar was no doubt pleasant company, but he was of course nothing but a failed student of radio electronics. A mediocrity. An intellectual lightweight. If pleasant enough.
What Keng Vannsak didn’t realise was that Saloth Sar had an agenda. The small secret communist party of Cambodia had chosen him to infiltrate the Democrats. Keng Vannsak was the unsuspecting instrument. The door.
Perhaps Keng Vannsak was right about him being a lightweight. Perhaps he was wrong. Saloth Sar had never been noted for intellectual brilliance. But what about his powers of persuasion? Which many were to comment on later? That infectious smile and his charisma with small groups? Who was really duping who across the breakfast table?
For some time now Saloth Sar had been leading a double life. On one hand he was a communist conspirator, living in a humble little hovel in one of the poorest parts of the city. On the other, a well-equipped and worldly young man with a smart black Citroën and good contacts in both the royal palace and the political establishment.
He and his girlfriend Soeung Son Maly were still an item. They had waited for nearly six years to be able to marry and the imminent parliamentary election would be decisive. If, as everyone expected, the Democrats won, Saloth Sar could be sure of a respectable position near the centre of power. It was taken for granted that in this case Soeung Son Maly’s family would approve their marriage.
The obvious question remains: What would have happened if Prince Sihanouk had not completely fixed the election? If he hadn’t used violence and his full political skill to annihilate the Democrats?
Would parliamentary democracy have established itself in Cambodia and would the communists have preferred political struggle to armed struggle? Would Soeung Son Maly have married Saloth Sar?
Instead she became the mistress of Deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary. A conservative thug who persecuted the left opposition with great brutality.
The simultaneous collapse of democracy and love. A fiancée throwing herself into the enemy’s arms. One can only speculate on the personal consequences this may have had for Saloth Sar.
It had been a time of opportunities. Now he only had two alternatives left: either give up all thought of politics, or proceed using other methods.
From Pol Pots leende. © Peter Fröberg Idling. Published 2006 by Bokförlaget Atlas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Silvester Mazzarella. All rights reserved.