If what is left of Cambodia is to be saved, an international conference must take place soon. Like the Geneva Conference of 1954 it would have to agree on the neutralization of Cambodia as part of a regional settlement endorsed by the great powers, including Russia and China, for all of Indochina. Norodom Sihanouk, who jealously tried to protect Cambodia’s neutrality from 1954-1970, is now in Paris and on his way to the US to plead for such a settlement, which would very likely involve Sihanouk’s own return.
If no settlement can be worked out, it now seems inevitable that the obliteration of Cambodia will be completed. That obliteration, if it is allowed to happen, will not be easy to explain to our children. Eventually, indeed, the death of Cambodia will be seen as one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. What will seem even more incomprehensible and unforgivable is that it took place not suddenly, unexpectedly, over night, but during ten years.
The manner in which the Cambodian people have been abused has differed from year to year, and the race and ideology of its assailants have altered, but throughout those ten years there was at least one constant. While tears were wept by prominent crocodiles (Kissinger, Pol Pot, Pham Van Dong have all dabbed their eyes), cruel and unusual punishments were inflicted again and again on ordinary Cambodians. Public opinion and relief agencies in the West have finally been aroused; but the irony is that our concern—bags of rice, trucks, and children’s clothes—may have only a short-term effect. One of the most dedicated chroniclers of Cambodia’s death now believes that “a new, subtle form of genocide is taking place,” conducted this time by the Vietnamese. To that, charity cannot respond.
One image of Cambodia that pervades each of the last ten years is of brutal forced movements of hungry people. Before Kissinger and Nixon invaded the country in May 1970, over 80 percent of the Cambodian people made their living from land that was more abundant than most. During the next five years the intensity of the US bombing and then the cruelty of the emerging Khmer Rouge forced about half of the seven million people to flee from their homes, their pagodas, into the towns. A great many more were dispersed through the countryside itself. In 1975 the victorious Khmer Rouge emptied the towns at gunpoint. But few people were allowed to go home; harsh new work camps were established throughout the country in a fearful atmosphere of murder, disease, starvation, and frantic labor. Further huge, disruptive movements of people were enforced during the next four years.
After the Vietnamese invasion of January 1979, the Khmer Rouge fled to the mountains and jungles whence they had emerged a bare four years before. Since then they have fought a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese similar to the war they fought against the American-backed regime of General Lon Nol. The Vietnamese …