Cambodia Under Its New Rulers

Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Prince Norodom Sihanouk; drawing by David Levine


Now, perhaps more than ever, the lives of Cambodians are seen from a great distance or through the prism of propaganda: as a starving people policed by crazed and vengeful warders, or as a liberated peasantry happily rediscovering the land from which war had torn it. Henry Kissinger has announced that “atrocities” have been visited upon the Khmer people since April 17, 1975: one of his counter-parts in Peking (like enough to him to insist that he too be known only as “a senior official”) promises that “the internal situation is quite good; they are rehabilitating the enemy and everyone is properly fed.”

The New York Times, whose reporting of the war, especially by Sydney Schanberg, was consistently very fine, concluded in July that “the barbarous cruelty of the Khmer Rouge can be compared with the extermination of the Kulaks or the Gulag Archipelago.” The Indochina Resource Center in Washington, which throughout the war distributed well researched and usually untendentious analyses of its catastrophes, now assures us that all is for the best in the best of all possible Cambodias. And the Reader’s Digest is preparing a book on the country which will begin with April 17 last year.

Since no reporters have been allowed into Cambodia, there are only five primary sources of information on Cambodia today: refugees, the Phnom Penh radio, Sihanouk in public, Sihanouk in private, and former Sihanoukists. Each is, at its very best, partial; taken together they are inadequate. But if one compares and analyzes them they do at least help to show how a callow force of perhaps 70,000 men behaves when it tries to remake a nation of over six million after a foul and vicious war, which not only destroyed some 600,000 people (Sihanouk’s estimate) but also a society. The process is atrociously brutal.


Before 1970 Sihanouk personified Cambodia; the country was his private property in the same way as he belonged to the country. For seventeen years he preserved Cambodia’s precarious neutrality, even though the price was its systematic violation—by CIA-backed Khmer Serei forces in Thailand, by Vietnamese troops, and then by US bombing. “Logic demands,” he said in 1965, that Cambodia play off “rival external influences against one another in such a fashion that they cancel each other out.” For a long time they almost did.

Until the end of the Sixties, Sihanouk pitted right against left as successfully at home as he did abroad. He created from a string of dusty villages and French colonial offices the capital of Phnom Penh, a city of 600,000 that reflected his own vanity, love of comfort, and tolerance of corruption, at least when it was regal. To millions of peasants he was the God King in a country where food supplies were always adequate. Before 1970 one crop of rice a year provided enough even for export and because of this,…

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