The Cruel Carpenter

Thirty years ago, during the last days of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, people in Phnom Penh began to ask with an increased urgency and interest: Who was leading the forces of the Khmer Rouge? Who was going to take over in Cambodia? By April 1975 the city was surrounded and cut off by river and land. The airport was about to fall to the insurgents, whose broadcasts could be heard every night. The titular head of the provisional government was the former king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. But he was living in Beijing, and nobody supposed that he had any very tight control over events in the country, let alone in the Communist Party.

Sihanouk was understood to be valuable as a figurehead for the insurgency against the Lon Nol government, for he was still overwhelmingly popular, and the monarchy itself was still, to a degree, venerated. He had been ousted, five years earlier, by a coup, since when the fortunes of Cambodia had sunk. That Sihanouk would return after a Khmer Rouge victory, and bring back happy days, was a powerful thought among the poor. They tended to believe that the presence of the King would bring good fortune to the land. You could think this with the magical side of your brain (magic was always important in Cambodia), and still be under no illusions about the temporal prospects of the King’s restoration.

Another theory held that the people who took over would be the North Vietnamese or, colloquially speaking, the Vietcong. But this, by 1975, was a discredited line of argument. It was a long time since the forces defending Phnom Penh and the other cities had encountered any Vietnamese on the battlefield in any significant numbers. Cambodians knew—indeed the fact made them angry—that in this war Khmer was fighting Khmer.

So it was with a sense of having seen through two false versions, inspired by propaganda, that people came to the view that, at the head of the insurgency, which for a long time had held the majority of the countryside and was now poised finally to take the cities, there were Cambodian leaders who could be known by name: Hou Yuon, Hu Nim, and, preeminently, Khieu Samphân. And this view was not entirely false.

Hou Yuon was indeed one of the leading figures in the group. What none of us in Phnom Penh knew was that he was in the process of falling out of favor for his outspoken criticisms of Khmer Rouge policy. In Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Philip Short tells us that he was reputed to have criticized the speed of the imposition of the Khmer Rouge’s “cooperative system,” and to have accused the Party of cheating the peasants over compensation for requisitioned rice. He was later widely credited in Khmer Rouge circles with telling Pol Pot in 1974, “If you go on like this, I give your regime three years. Then it will collapse.” The next …

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