In 1970, after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk and the American invasion, Cambodia became fully involved in the war in Indochina. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) swiftly took over much of the countryside and enabled the Khmer Rouge movement, the Cambodian Communists, gradually to replace them. Phnom Penh, the capital, was in the hands of the pro-American president Lon Nol, as were most of the other cities. But by the time the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973 (the agreement which led to American forces’ withdrawal from the whole of Indochina), the provincial capitals were more or less all that Lon Nol controlled. Some of them still had airports, others could only be visited by helicopter, or one could land on a strip created out of the main road leading into town.
What was going on in the countryside, beyond these numerous front lines, was a matter of intense interest and speculation, and any journalist who worked in Cambodia in those days (as I did on and off between 1973 and 1975) wanted very much to find the answer. For Phnom Penh and for the Americans it was important for purposes of propaganda to insist at first that the Communist forces were either NVA or NVA-controlled. Critics of the entire war tended to the view that the insurgency was (as became increasingly true over the five years that it lasted) led by and fought by Cambodians, by Khmers. It was Cambodians who in 1973 ran those parts of the country that had long since been rendered out of bounds to the Lon Nol forces. Sihanouk, the titular head of government, was in exile in Beijing, and his authority among the Communists might well have been something of a sham. But there was a native liberation movement in Cambodia, the critics’ argument went. The Khmer Rouge were not just puppets of the North Vietnamese.
Ideally, to test such a hypothesis, one would have liked to visit the liberated areas, to get far behind front lines so as to see Khmer Rouge society at work. The trouble was that, in marked contrast with the Vietnamese Communists, the Khmer Rouge were passionately hostile to foreign observers. Those journalists who crossed the lines, whether by mistake or on purpose, only survived if the people they encountered on the other side were or included the North Vietnamese. The ones who met with the Khmer Rouge invariably disappeared without trace.
Some of them were celebrated characters such as Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, the friends Michael Herr later wrote about in Dispatches. Others included two Japanese who, shortly after I arrived in Cambodia, made the crossing in the apparent belief that they had somehow had the way prepared for them. But as far as I knew in 1975, when Phnom Penh was about to fall, and many journalists asked themselves whether to stay on and see what would happen, no Western observer of life under the Khmer Rouge had lived to tell the tale.1
François Bizot’s story—he was held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge in 1971—was unknown to anyone of my acquaintance. If it had been we would, I hope, have been keen to get him to tell it. I say “I hope” because he warns us that he is bitter. And a part of that bitterness is reserved for left-wing journalists and various fellow travelers of the period.
Early on, just after the war has begun, Bizot describes becoming embroiled in an attack in the neighborhood of Siem Reap, the city near Angkor Wat, whose temples had been taken over by the North Vietnamese. The account he gives vividly describes the North Vietnamese going into action as being accompanied by a Cambodian cadre, who speaks over a loudspeaker, calling on his fellow Cambodians on the other side to lay down their arms. Throughout the course of combat, this kind of psychological pressure is put on scared soldiers by unseen voices who know them by name. Bizot’s is a plausible depiction of the kind of cooperation there may have been between Vietnamese and Cambodian Communists at that stage of the war, when the Cambodian Communists were few in number.
After escaping from Siem Reap with the help of the Vietnamese, Bizot comes to Phnom Penh, where he attends a dinner in honor of the well-known journalist and author Jean Lacouture (then foreign editor of Le Monde). Asked to describe his experiences, he explains how the Viets had attacked a bridge near Battambang. Lacouture corrects him: “You mean the Khmer Rouge. I don’t think there are many North Vietnamese in Cambodia! Even if this theory may suit Lon Nol…” Bizot: “I saw only Vietnamese, North Vietnamese.” Lacouture: “Don’t be fooled. It’s very hard to tell them apart, you know. And the ambiguity is widely exploited.” Bizot in reply shows Lacouture the safe-conduct pass issued to him in Angkor, written in Vietnamese. But this makes no impression at all on Lacouture.
Anyone who has returned from an unpleasant adventure and had his word doubted in such a way will sympathize with some of the bitterness, but not—I think—with the general statements that are allowed to stand in this book that are patently untrue but that come from this infection of bitterness. For instance we are told that “the North Vietnamese had seized upon Lon Nol’s coup d’état as their pretext to cross the frontier from 1970 onward. The international public was totally unaware of their presence in Cambodia.” But in the exchange he describes, Lacouture is telling him not to be fooled by propaganda: Phnom Penh and the Americans were doing all they could to emphasize the North Vietnamese involvement in the war.
Bizot refers to the years after 1975 as “the shameful years—remember them—when the ‘peasants’ liberation’ shone in the West with the fire of revolution.” And again:
What oppresses me, more still than the unclosed eyes of the dead who fill the sandy paddy fields, is the way the West applauded the Khmer Rouge, hailing their victory over their brothers in 1975. The ovation was so frenzied as to drown out the protracted wailing of the millions being massacred.
But it was soon obvious that, after the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge had evacuated all the cities, and that this had been an act of utter brutality, a great crime. The accounts by Jon Swain and Sydney Schanberg (in the London Sunday Times and The New York Times, respectively) had appeared within weeks, and were very detailed. In the years of Cambodian isolation that followed, there were a few foreigners who sought to defend the logic of this peasant revolution, but they formed a tiny minority: English proponents of the Burmese road to socialism, Australian and German Maoists, and certain writers for Le Monde who had later to recant. By contrast, the first internationally famous book about what had happened in the country was François Ponchaud’s Cambodia: Year Zero. And it pulled no punches.2
Lacouture, to be fair to him, wrote in The New York Review on March 31, 1977:
François Ponchaud’s book can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. It should be shaming as well to those in the Nixon administration who bombed and laid waste Cambodia, undermining Sihanouk’s regime, and refused to pursue negotiations with him in Peking, making an unmitigated Khmer Rouge victory all the more likely. And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we now know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan….
Lacouture’s review was criticized for certain inaccuracies by Noam Chomsky, and he returned to the subject, accepting Chomsky’s factual corrections but insisting:
I think the problem that presents itself today is that of the life of a people. And it is not only because I once argued for the victory of this very regime, and feel myself partially guilty for what is happening under it, that I believe I can say: there is a time, when a great crime is taking place, when it is better to speak out, in whatever company, than to remain silent.
Bizot is more than entitled to his dislike of the fellow-traveling left. He describes himself at the time as having been neither for nor against American involvement in Vietnam. He was not, by temperament, anti-American, and yet today he tells us that he does not know which action by the Americans deserves more reproach, their intervention in or their withdrawal from Cambodia. Emotionally, I can understand what he means. What he is not entitled to do is mislead the reader on points of fact.
He tells us for instance that on the evening of April 16, 1975,
the new deputy prime minister, His Excellency Hou Hong,…announced the surrender of the army several times on Radio Phnom Penh. Once issued, the order was irrevocable. The city’s defenders, armed to hold out for months, were immediately struck at the very source of their strength.
The next day, when the Khmer Rouge entered the capital, the puzzled locals “found that they were children, equipped so basically that Lon Nol’s soldiers, highly trained, overequipped, and ordered to surrender, laughed and cried simultaneously.”
Since the consequences of surrender were so dire, the reader will be baffled about why Hou Hong could have given such an order. One answer might be that a week before, in a speech to a joint session of Congress (in which he requested almost a billion dollars of military and economic aid for South Vietnam, whose regime was also crumbling), President Ford had quite publicly abandoned hope for the Cambodian regime. He omitted to request any Cambodian aid at all, and he regretted that as of that day it might be too late to save the country.
The reason why Ford did not ask for more aid was that the defenses of the capital were collapsing. The city had once been supplied by river and road, but the river had been blocked at the start of that year’s offensive, and the roads for as long as I had been there. The airlift to Pochentong airport could only last as long as that airport was safe, which it no longer was. The army had not been properly paid for months and whole units were deserting. Even if the defending soldiers Bizot knew were under the (false) impression that they had months’ worth of ammunition, everyone was aware that all fuel had to be brought into the capital by air. And the city was dependent on food aid. On the morning of April 11, twenty-four hours after Ford’s speech, an American chartered plane was hit by shrapnel as it landed at Pochentong and four of its crew members were killed. It was not quite the last plane into Pochentong, but its fate precipitated the American helicopter evacuation the next day.
What Bizot is remembering is the utter lack of realism among the defenders of Phnom Penh. What he is forgetting is that Lon Nol’s army (Lon Nol himself had been finally induced to leave at the beginning of the month) had never fought without air cover. Even in the last months of the war, they still had their T-28 planes, which they used to drop napalm and cluster bombs on the advancing Khmer Rouge. But these great advantages were not enough to save the Phnom Penh regime, and Bizot is incoherent in his explanation as to why.
Traditionally, he tells us,
the Khmers have been warriors. At the time of French Indochina, the commando sections were composed entirely of these loyal, upright men, who never waver and are not afraid to die; they have an innate sense of the terrain and an instinct for camouflage and ambush. The Americans, unfortunately, were about to transform them into maladjusted soldiers, impossible to bend to the rules of technological warfare or to mobilize against a Vietnamese enemy who, though possibly less naturally talented, was perfectly trained. The Phnom Penh government, at great cost, did its best to ready an army of brave young men disguised as GIs, rigged out in heavy helmets and thick combat boots.
This passage serves as a reminder that imperialism, like satire, is a mirror into which a man may look and see everyone’s face but his own. Under the French protectorate (1863–1953), Bizot tells us, the Cambodian soldiers were “loyal upright men” (loyal to the French, that is). Then the Americans came and messed things up. Quite apart from the fact that this view ignores seventeen intervening years of Cambodian independence, what we are being offered here is an old colonial commonplace: the French knew how to run things in Indochina. To hear some of the old Indochina hands talk, one might be hard put to guess that Dien Bien Phu had ever taken place.
Bizot, who learned both to speak and to read Khmer, and who lived for a long time in a village near Siem Reap, who collected Buddhist texts and who understood the jargon of the Khmer Rouge, is clearly a great expert on Cambodia. He castigates the Americans, quite justifiably, for their ignorance of the country. What he cannot offer, it turns out, is any explanation of his own for what happened after the fall of Phnom Penh. The nearest he gets is as follows:
This Cambodian paradox [Sihanouk’s indebtedness to the hated Vietnamese], which consisted in never being able to ad-mit foreign complicity in the defense of the nation, and this taciturn people’s deep-rooted pride, would result, five years later, in the colossal contradiction—an incomprehensible mystery to the outside world—of a nation perpetrating genocide on itself. It would also allow the West to justify, in the name of non-intervention, its failure to lift a finger to prevent the massacre.
But the alternative for America to abandoning Cambodia in April 1975 was to invade it all over again, to open up the land supply route to the capital. Emotionally, I understand why Bizot cannot decide which was worse, the original American interference or the eventual abandonment. But the emotions make poor guides in this particular case.
Where I can judge Bizot’s work, I find that he does not always choose his words carefully. So where I cannot judge, I find I must make allowances for an impetuous pen. Bizot warns us early on:
I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit. A sense of hopelessness runs through it. I now believe only in things; the spirit can detect what is eternal beneath their outward appearance.
We assume that this desperate state of mind is the result of the Cambodian tragedy. A few pages later, though, we learn that the death of Bizot’s father is the event that has produced in him “an inextinguishable rage,” a sense of aloneness and destitution.
The young Bizot is in England at the time, training to be a potter, when he is called back to France to his father’s deathbed. Perhaps he was something of a prodigal son. The next we hear of him, we conclude, piecing together, with difficulty, evidence scattered throughout the book, that he must have resumed or completed his education, for he is now in Cambodia in 1965 as a member of the École Française d’Extrème Orient, studying Buddhist texts, restoring ceramics and bronzes at Angkor. He lives with a woman by whom he has a daughter, Hélène. He refers to this woman throughout as Hélène’s mother, without giving her name—a habit that worries the reader.
In 1970, he is involved in the fighting around Siem Reap, as already mentioned. The next year we find him living in Phnom Penh, researching Buddhist practices associated with the state of trance. On a field trip to the Oudong region, northwest of the capital, he is accompanied by his little daughter and by two assistants, Lay and Son (to whom The Gate is dedicated). Leaving his daughter at the house of one of his assistant’s uncles, he goes to see a head monk, and is arrested by the Khmer Rouge along with his companions. For three months (and this forms the core of the book) he is kept with Lay and Son under arrest at a prison camp in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains. His camp commander, called Douch, turns out to have been later in charge, under the Khmer Rouge government, of the notorious torture center at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh.
Douch is indeed currently under arrest for his activities at Tuol Sleng. He has been interviewed at length and has spoken about the circumstances of Bizot’s arrest and release. (In fact it was the realization in 1999 that Douch had been arrested that inspired Bizot to write this book.) So there is no question of Bizot’s having dreamed up the whole sequence of events. He was released after three months, but his companions were killed.
Bizot was able to observe Douch at length, and to talk to him with somewhat remarkable frankness toward the end of his captivity. One even feels (and it is a convincing touch) that prisoner and captor could, under different circumstances, have become friends. The Gate is thus a memoir by the only Westerner ever to survive a Khmer Rouge prison, as its publishers claim. Not only that, the figures in this part of the story include important officials—Ta Mok, Von Veth, and Saloth Sar (that is, Pol Pot himself)—who consider his case and argue over it.
However, because of the lack of judgment in so much of Bizot’s writing, it is hard to be sure which bits of the story come from contemporary observation, and which have been spliced in from later reading and inquiry. Watching a North Vietnamese bicycle unit go by, he tells us in great detail how the soldiers were equipped, including the surprising “pornographic photos (part of their official kit) in their shirt pockets.” Suddenly we realize that he is relying on some other source than his own eyes, since he could hardly have seen the army-issue pornography under the soldiers’ nylon capes. On the next page he tells us of these soldiers: “This was the USSR (which pulled the strings of these sacrificial marionettes) thumbing its nose at the contradictions of the West.” But if the NVA were marionettes, why waste all that pornography on them?
During his account of prison life, Bizot suddenly tells us how the executioners
made it a point of honor to postpone until the last the moment of shame when the prisoner, overcome with uncontrollable terror, dissolved into pitiful sobbing and pathetic twitching. They denied the obvious even while making the poor wretches dig their own graves. They also knew that once these awful moments had passed, during the seconds preceding the final blow, the victim would become still and docile.
But how Bizot, the prisoner, who tells us he was never allowed to see executions or torture, knows what his captors were thinking is never made plain. A better editor could have stopped the reader forever fretting about the author’s reliability.
Bizot is released, and returns to his daughter and his daughter’s mother in Phnom Penh. The years pass in a trice. The daughter, given the impending fall of the city, has been sent at the last moment to France. Her mother decides, in due course, to leave the city by road (presumably to return to her village; much later, she apparently escaped from Cambodia and now lives in France). Bizot himself, the one foreigner who knows at first hand the kind of things the Khmer Rouge might have in store for him, stays on in Phnom Penh.
Reading between the lines, at this juncture of the story, we discern the extent to which Cambodia had become an irrational obsession to Bizot, as it was, in different degrees, to so many of us. Still, it is hard to understand the obsession in his case, or to explain it by the vanity of the other French in Phnom Penh, who seemed to think that none of the opprobrium of the imperialist would attach itself to them. When the French consul heard that the Khmer Rouge had decided to enter the city from the north, and therefore to pass in front of the embassy, he was delighted: “According to him, it was a clear acknowledgment of the revolutionaries’ gratitude for French support.” (France had recognized the Khmer Rouge government all of five days earlier.)
In due course, all of the foreign community was herded into the French embassy, and those who had stayed on in Cambodia against the often expressed wishes of the new regime were very lucky to escape with their lives. No Cambodian who sought refuge there was allowed by the Khmer Rouge to remain. That the foreigners later managed to get out to the Thai border was due in no small part, according to one of the survivors, to the efforts of Bizot himself, who used all his skills to deal with the new victors, and who helped round up the scattered members of the French community throughout the capital. He must be a remarkable man, and I wish this were a remarkable book. As has been noted, he warns us early on:
A sense of hopelessness runs through it. I now believe only in things; the spirit can detect what is eternal beneath their outward appearance. Does not the most enlightened philosophy teach us to mistrust man?
Maybe it does, but I should have liked to have more trust in this book. There comes a time when bitterness is no excuse.
July 3, 2003
Of course it was possible that Flynn and Stone and the two Japanese were still alive somewhere. Their deaths had not yet been confirmed. It has also since been pointed out to me that there was a French writer, Serge Thion, who crossed over from Bangkok and wrote a collection of essays called Watching Cambodia: Ten Paths to Enter the Cambodian Tangle (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1993). I have not seen this book. ↩
Cambodge, année zéro (Paris: Julliard, 1977). ↩