The Third Indochina War

Communist Party Power in Kampuchea (Cambodia): Documents and Discussion Studies, Cornell University

compiled and edited with an introduction by Timothy Michael Carney
Data Paper number 106, Southeast Asia Program, Department of Asian, 76 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Murder of a Gentle Land: The Untold Story of Communist Genocide in Cambodia

by John Barron and Anthony Paul
Reader's Digest Press, 240 pp., $9.95
Pol Pot
Pol Pot; drawing by David Levine


Two years ago I suggested that it was possible to see Cambodia only through the prism of propaganda.1 Since then the volume of the propaganda has swelled. But so has the body of evidence on which it is based. Consider the following letter published in the Vietnamese paper Nhan Dan and broadcast on Hanoi radio. It describes a midnight Khmer Rouge attack on a Vietnamese village last October, soon after the war between the two former allies began.

All of the houses were surrounded by Cambodian soldiers who immediately opened fire and used machetes, axes, sabers and sharpened sticks to slay the villagers…. A fleeing child was caught by a soldier who cut off his leg and threw him into the flames. All seven members of Mrs. Truong Thi Rot’s family were beheaded. Rot was disemboweled and had a seven-month fetus placed on her chest.

All the eight members of Nguyen Van Tam’s family were beheaded and the heads were put on a table for amusement. All eight persons in Nguyen Thi Nganh’s house were disemboweled, the intestines [piled] in one shocking heap. Mr. Quang’s wife was also disemboweled. The killers took out her five-month fetus, then cut off her breast and chopped her body in three parts. Her two-year-old boy…was torn in two and dumped into a well.2

And so on. Such an account is fairly characteristic of the way in which totalitarian governments speak of their enemies in wartime and it might easily be dismissed as mere hyperbole. If it seems more credible than other propaganda this is because it matches refugee accounts of Khmer Rouge behavior in Cambodia itself and the way in which the Khmer Rouge soldiers are known to have performed in the border villages where they have been fighting the Thais. With a few exceptions the stories which have emerged from Cambodia in the past two years have confirmed the impression, given by the early refugees, of a vast and somber work camp where toil is unending, rewards are nonexistent, families are separated, and murder is a constantly used tool of social discipline. Well before Hanoi published similar assessments, Democratic Kampuchea seemed to many in the West a uniquely atrocious experiment in human engineering conducted, in Hanoi’s words, by “infantile communists” who pursued “a consistent policy of national hatred” and were “deliberately turning young Kampucheans into medieval butchers” to indulge in “savage repressions” and “bloody massacres.”

When the French naturalist Henri Mouhot journeyed through Cambodia and Thailand in 1859 he rowed up the Great Lake in search of the ruins of Angkor. The lake he found exquisite. “The shore is low and thickly covered with trees which are half submerged; and in the distance is visible an extensive range of mountains whose highest peaks seem lost in the clouds. The waves glitter in the broad sunlight with a brilliancy which…

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