This book is intended as a contribution to the history of Cambodia
between April 1975 and 1982--the period of Democratic Kampuchea (the
so-called 'Pol Pot Regime') from April 1975 to January 1979 and the first
three years of the succeeding People's Republic of Kampuchea ('Heng Samrin
Regime'). The formulation 'contribution to the history of Cambodia' has
been chosen with all deliberation. I do not claim to have written The History
of Cambodia, nor even A History of Cambodia for the period in question,
primarily, as is explained in chapter 2, because the sources used are too
incomplete and unrepresentative of the Cambodian population as a whole.
Those sources merit the attention given them, but entire areas of information
essential for The History of Cambodia remain untouched by them and cannot
yet be studied adequately from other sources either.
If the form and emphasis of the book are determined in part by the
sources used, they also depend in some measure on my own experiences of
Cambodia, which began in 1960.
I first arrived in Cambodia in July 1960 to begin work as an English
language teacher in local high schools under one of the U.S. government aid
programs to that country. In that capacity I spent nearly four years in Cam
bodia, the first two in Kompong Thom, then a year in Siemreap, and a fourth
academic year in Phnom Penh, cut short in March 1964 as a result of Sihan
ouk's termination of all U.S. aid projects.
During that time I acquired fluency in Khmer, began studying, through
examination of old newspaper files and conversations with friends, the post-
1945 political history of Cambodia, and decided to make the country the
main focus of academic research which I intended to undertake.
In March 1964 I was transferred to a similar position in Vientiane,
Laos, where I remained for three more years and during which I was able to
make regular extended visits to Cambodia.
Then, after spending three years ( 1967-70) at Yale University, I re
turned to Cambodia in late 1970 for nearly two years of dissertation research
there and in Thailand; and except for one more brief visit in 1974 I was then
cut off from direct contact with the country until 1981, when I was able to
travel there for three weeks.
Although my original interest in Cambodia was in the contemporary
period, I kept pushing further back into the country's history until I pro
duced a dissertation and other writings on the 14th-16th centuries, something
which occupied most of my research time from 1970 through 1977; and
after 1973 I virtually ceased collecting or organizing material on the contem
The turn taken by the revolution after April 1975 surprised me as it
did nearly everyone else, but I found the first wave of atrocity stories over
the next year suspect and felt that given the squalid record of our own coun
try in Indochina, Americans who could not view the new developments with
at least qualified optimism should shut up.
Until early 1980 I did not try to follow information about Democratic
Kampuchea systematically. Besides the newspapers readily available in Pen
ang, where I worked from 1973 to 1979, in Bangkok, and from late 1979 in
Canberra, I read no more than Francois Ponchaud Cambodia Year Zero,
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indo
china and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, to which I contributed
impressions of a visit to a refugee camp in 1976, and a pre-publication draft
of Ben Kiernan "Conflict in the Kampuchean Communist Movement."
In February 1980 I received word from a family whom I had known
well that they had all (20 persons) survived and were in the Khao I Dang
refugee center in Thailand. Because of that news I went to Thailand in April,
and during most of the next few months, until the end of September, worked
for the International Rescue Committee's educational program in the Khao I
Dang and Sakeo camps, where I tried to collect information about life in
Cambodia since 1975.
It was soon apparent that the refugees had a wide variety of experiences
to report, that conditions in Cambodia during 1975-79 had differed signifi
cantly according to place and time, and that some of my doubts about the
standard media treatment of Cambodia had been well founded. This was the
main impetus to collecting the information which is presented here.
Only after returning to Canberra in October 1980 did I attempt to
only then that I read some of the material published earlier on Cambodia's
fate after 1975. I had only begun to read Stephen Heder's work mid-way
through my time at Khao I Dang, and I did not look at Barron and Paul
Murder of a Gentle Land nor the work of Kenneth Quinn until November
1980. Thus the way in which the material for this book was collected and
organized was very little affected by previous work on revolutionary Cambo
dia, and it resulted almost entirely from at first random contacts with refu
gees on the part of a foreign historian of Cambodia who had known the
country fairly well before the war and who was a competent speaker of the
language. To the extent that the contacts were not random, it was a result
of a search for people who had lived in regions not well represented in Khao
I Dang, that is, anywhere except the Northwest or pre-1975Phnom Penh,
whose inhabitants made up over 70% of the Khao I Dang population.
I have made no attempt to count the number of people with whom I
talked, nor even the number of people whose stories have directly contrib
uted to the present work. Interested readers can do that for themselves. There
is no claim here for statistical validity nor, given the conditions, could any
statistically valid study have been undertaken. I was admittedly most inter
ested in people whose experiences were different from the stories which had
been given prominence in the international press, and I found my most valu
able sources among those whose variety of experience, education, or intelli
gence enabled them not only to report their own experiences but also to
make wider observations about conditions in Cambodia. My purpose has not
been primarily to chronicle individual experiences, but at a higher level of
abstraction to deal with general situations over rather wide areas. That the
results have probably not been skewed by the statistically insufficient number
of informants is indicated by the circumstance that Ben Kiernan's informa
tion from an entirely different body of informants agrees with the areal and
temporal patterns I have inferred, and interviews conducted by others, to the
extent that they have been presented in a comparable manner, also support
those relative conclusions even if there is a difference of opinion about
absolute levels of suffering.
Although there is a scholarly apparatus indicating the source of each
item of information, the purpose, contrary to that of most such edifices, is
to prevent, rather than facilitate, direct access to the sources by the reader.
Some people requested anonymity for various reasons, and since many in
formants provided me with information contrary to the accepted view of
Cambodia and which they themselves might regret seeing in the context in
which I have used it, I thought it best to protect them all from harassment
which might ensue. Thus the anonymity of most sources has been protected
by using only initials or pseudonyms, and the only exceptions are people
whose names have already been published elsewhere. The same initials always
indicate the same person, and there has been no further attempt to disguise
their identities through alteration of the details of their stories.
Some of the previously published work on Cambodia has been dis
cussed and its information integrated into my own constructions. There has
not, however, been any attempt to survey the literature about Cambodia
during 1975-82. I have given attention primarily to work which represents
either personal experience ( Pin Yathay, Ping Ling) or direct questioning of
Khmers ( Barron and Paul, Carney, Heder, Honda, Kiernan, Ponchaud, Quinn)
and which either adds to the picture I present or which in my opinion re
quires critique. Unless they were useful for illustrating a particular point, I
have neglected those writings which are at third-hand, which are commentar
ies on the work of those who deal with primary sources, or which are exe
geses of exegeses. Thus there may be people who have previously said some of
the things I say or imply here, and my neglect of their work should not be
taken to imply either disapproval or ignorance. It is simply because I have
chosen to limit my discussion principally to my own and others' collections
of primary material, and I did not read other secondary compilations until
my own material had been organized.
Several important areas of the recent history of Cambodia have been
ignored. Except for the conflict with Vietnam, foreign relations have not
been discussed at all, and even if the intricacies of relations with China, for
instance, are interesting, I consider that foreign relations and influences are
very nearly irrelevant for an understanding of the internal situation, which
is the subject of this book.
There is also very little here about the structure and function of the
governmental apparatus of Democratic Kampuchea--how decisions were
made, how the distribution of produce was organized, how policies were
determined and instructions for their implementation transmitted. Beyond
the impressions which are recorded, that information was not to be found
among my sources, and it may still not be available anywhere. Most of the
Democratic Kampuchea officials in positions to know are either dead or
still part of the DK forces, and virtually no documentary evidence on such
matters has been preserved within Cambodia.
More could have been said about the history of Cambodian communism
and the organizations which have represented it, but the specialist on those
questions, Ben Kiernan, is soon to produce a dissertation on the subject, and
I have included here only what is necessary for clarification of the events of
In addition to those whose stories are the material of this book, I wish
to express thanks to a number of people who, beginning in 1960, first helped
me to learn about Cambodia or who since 1979 aided and encouraged my
My wife Anchina and her family, from Battambang, were invaluable
guides into the lives of ordinary Cambodians, and the family was instrumental
in arranging some of my most interesting contacts in Khao I Dang.
My trip to Thailand in 1980 was facilitated by research and travel
grants from the Australian National University, where I held the post of
Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific and Southeast Asian History,
Research School of Pacific Studies; and the wide freedom offered by that
institution provided the time necessary to complete the work.
The International Rescue Committee, under its then director for Thai
land, Pierce Geretty, by taking me on in their educational program, made
possible free access to the Khmer refugee centers in Thailand, without which
the research could not have been undertaken. Since IRC has acquired the
reputation of promoting a certain political line, I wish to state that its per
sonnel involved in Khmer refugee work did not show any such ideological
limitations and were sincerely working to improve the conditions of refugees
and advance the eventual recovery of Cambodia.
A number of people in other aid organizations helped me in various
ways to find interesting sources and collect material, and if I do not try to
mention them by name it is because I know some of them require anonymity.
Timothy Carney, Stephen Heder, Ben Kiernan, and Serge Thion all
provided me with information from their own research and shared their own
insights into Cambodian problems; Noam Chomsky gave much encourage
ment and often sent published material which I might otherwise have missed;
and David Chandler took great interest in the project from its beginning,
offering helpful advice and searching out relevant historical material.
John Barbalet, David Chandler, Noam Chomsky, Otome Hutheesing,
Ben Kiernan, David Mart, Glenn May, Alfred McCoy, Ansari Nawawi, William
O'Malley, Sandra Power, Andrew Watson, and Gehan Wijeyewardene read
parts or all of either an early draft or the finished manuscript, offering helpful
criticisms. If I did not always incorporate their suggestions, it does not mean
I did not give them careful attention or appreciate the thought which was
involved. Many parts of the finished product have been greatly improved
through their suggested revisions.
The Gentle Land
The first thirty kilometers northwards from the main road were not too
bad, and we covered them in half an hour. The next thirty over rough, dusty
roads, took about twice as long, and toward the end of that stretch we saw
something new to our experience--wild-looking boys, alone or in twos and
threes carrying dead lizards strung on sticks like freshly caught fish. They
were obviously hunting them to take home for the family dinner--a type of
beast not eaten at all in any other part of the country I had seen. The last
thirty kilometers to the village took about two hours, for the road had
become nothing more than a track across dried out former rice fields and
there was a bump every few yards over what had once served as the embank
ments around the quadrangular plots.
On arrival in the village we stopped at the sala, an open pavilion found
in all villages and used either for meetings or for temporary shelter. In fact,
we expected that someone would invite us to his house to sleep and eat, as
was common in Cambodian villages, but the people seemed strangely hostile.
They grudgingly said yes, we could sleep in the sala, but they hoped we had
brought our own food, for they had no rice--not having been able to plant
for three years because of drought. We also heard mutterings to the effect
that they didn't like city people anyway, for their arrival generally meant
The above is not an account of the arrival of 'new' people, former city
dwellers, arriving in a revolutionary village after April 1975, nor the report of
a journalist in Cambodia in 1979-80, but impressions of a trip I made in 1962
to visit the Angkor-period temple of Banteay Chhmar. 1 Three of the details,
however, recur constantly in the reminiscences of urban refugees: eating
lizards and other exotic fauna, no rice, hostility of villagers toward city peo
ple; and it is this which makes the anecdote relevant as a starting point for a
book about Cambodia during 1975-81.
One of the most typical horror stories of Democratic Kampuchea (DK)
is that of city families sent out to primitive villages or forest areas where
there was little or no rice, where they had to forage for all sorts of unfamiliar
food--lizards, snakes, field crabs, insects, roots; where the local people, if
any, were hostile; and where many of them died of hunger and disease, if not
The continuation of my own story is more cheerful. It is true that the
Banteay Chhmar villagers had no rice, but they didn't miss it, because they
could find wild tubers and other vegetables in the forest, while protein was
provided by chickens, pigs, fish caught in a pond not too far away, and of
course the lizards caught by the boys along the road. Indeed it seemed to be
one of the healthiest backwoods villages I had seen, with large families of
cheerful, robust children.
There was also an interesting, and potentially valuable, cottage industry.
The villagers made beautiful silk, handling every stage of the process from
raising the worms to dyeing and weaving the cloth. Perhaps, I first thought,
this was their secret. They took their silk down to the market at Thmar Puok,
25 kilometers away, to trade for rice, sugar and other goods. But my offer to
buy some proved the contrary. The silk was for their own use; they had never
sold any and didn't want to; and when I tried to convince them I would give
a good price which they could later spend in the market, they said there was
nothing in the market they wanted. And I never did get any silk.
Another interesting feature of the village was the people's dislike of
anyone and anything from the towns of Cambodia. They had seen officials,
some of very high rank, who had come to visit the temple or inspect the bor
der area. The villagers hated their pretensions and false promises of aid and
development. Most of all they disliked the officials' wives, who minced about
the footpaths in high heels with handkerchiefs held to their noses. Such peo
ple meant only trouble and it was best to avoid them and to hope that they
never came to the village.
Thus for reasons of climate, inaccessibility, and incompatibility Ban
teay Chhmar village had evolved a nearly autonomous, autarkic lifestyle,
wanting only to be left alone. Such villages were numerous outside the central
rice plain and their inhabitants probably felt they had made successful adjust
ments to fate. At best they seemed healthy and happy, but had no access to
modern medicine or to schooling beyond the bare rudiments, and often, as in
Banteay Chhmar, did not have even a Buddhist temple or monks.
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