A New Cambodia

Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot

by David P. Chandler
Westview Press, 254 pp., $24.95
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Prince Norodom Sihanouk; drawing by David Levine


The subject of David Chandler’s excellent and absorbing biography is, one may suppose, even now, in his secret headquarters in western Cambodia or in the carefully guarded house provided him by the Thai military inside Thailand, contemplating how the Khmer Rouge should now react to its disastrous defeat in the remarkable Cambodian election that took place in May under UN supervision. Until the very last moment before the elections began, the Khmer Rouge were widely expected to disrupt the polling and punish whoever voted. In some provinces people were warned that “to vote is to commit suicide.” Elsewhere they were threatened that they would find their houses burned down when they returned from the polls. At the same time, the former members of the Khmer Rouge who controlled the Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh were warning the population that they had to vote—and vote for them. Throughout the country they ordered peasants to go to the polling stations, and often took them there in trucks. They were confident that they would win.

The Cambodian people kept their counsel, and went to the polls in their best clothes. As they waited patiently in line, they seemed to me and to others visibly pleased at the chance to express their views in a secret ballot. (I was there as an observer on behalf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.) Altogether, almost 90 percent of the people who had been registered by the UN during the preceding weeks came to vote; in some provinces the turnout was 97 percent.

A writer in Phnom Penh’s excellent English-language paper, the Phnom Penh Post, called the election Cambodia’s St. Crispin’s Day. Certainly it was one of the most moving events I have ever witnessed. And then the amazing results emerged. The counting took a week, and the United Nations announced new totals each day. As the announcements went on, it became clear that something extraordinary had happened. In spite or perhaps because of the Hun Sen regime’s powerful and often brutal apparatus of control—its secret police and its ability to dispense patronage—people had voted against it, defying not only the Khmer Rouge in the jungle but also the former Khmer Rouge members who ran the government.

The first time Cambodians had ever been given a free choice, they had taken the opportunity to vote for the royalist opposition party, Funcinpec. Funcinpec, which is headed by Prince Rannarith, the son of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had offered a very different platform—reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge—from the continued war proposed by the Hun Sen regime. And, of course, the people were voting for Sihanouk. For all his failings, which David Chandler documents here and in other books, Sihanouk is still widely seen as he sees himself—as the patriotic “father” of the Cambodian nation.

In the end Funcinpec won 45 percent of the vote and Hun Sen’s Cambodian…

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