Ok, well – no esoteric setting of the scene today with a little vignette or hypothetical situation to place yourself in. I was trying to toy with some kind of corona virus meets living under a colonial regime and put yourself in ‘these shoes’, but to be honest it just wouldn’t work, it was too much of a stretch and would have dated the show a little unnecessarily – as will dwelling on something I’m not even going to talk about – so, what I do actually want to spend some time speaking about at the start of this episode is history itself.
First things first, I am not a historian, I simply consider myself a student of Cambodian history with a meagre amount of experience living in the country and an even smaller amount of experience working with a historical organisation like the documentation centre of Cambodia.
So my focus has always been primarily on the Khmer Rouge. One thing I’ve found really interesting and a kind of, enjoyable challenge, has been broadening that scope for the purposes of explaining the wider story for this series. Three years ago, if you’d asked me about late 18th century Cambodian history I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much.
Now, part of learning about history, at least in my experience, is that there can be a kind of illusionary aspect to it. Like seeing a mirage in the desert. From a distance, you can look at events or particularly how events played out and be able to think it was pretty clear what happened, why and what happened next.
But the closer you get, the more you read, the more sources you look at or which historian’s you trust to explain those events, well that really begins to change what that picture looks like. That mirage in the distance can look really different from one angle to another. It’s like when we talked about the ‘marxist’ interpretation of history. World War Two looks a lot different if you are reading an economic history of that period as opposed to a history focused on racial ideologies or military tactics.
The point being, and it is probably quite obvious to many who are wondering why I am bothering to touch on this, but there is no ‘one true history’, especially if you are taking a rather large slab of history as your focus. This show has focused primarily on Cambodia, but we’ve had to weave in aspects of Southeast Asian and European history in – and we will need to speak quite a lot about US foreign policy in the episodes to come.
So, given that we have travelled about 2000 years through time, historical explanations or kinds of ‘narrative history’, generally pick up themes or lenses to be able to tell that story through.
The theme of this story is the Khmer Rouge Revolution, everything discussed kind of has some tangential relationship with explaining how and why it happened. It just turns out that involves having to talk about a hell of a lot of stuff.
Now, the reason I am bringing all of this up, is because, often, it can be quite hard to get from that easily discernible ‘mirage’ of history that you see from a distance… to the kind of mirage that changes if you are really close and looking at different angles. I can remember being in my late teens, having written what I thought were some extremely impressive high school essays about the Khmer Rouge, patting myself on the back and thinking to myself ‘wow, I sure do have a pretty good handle on this subject don’t I.’
Skip ten to ten years later, having spent countless hours investigating this subject further, and the feeling becomes much closer to ‘wow, I barely know anything about this do I’. I believe this is called the ‘dunning kruger effect’.
I’m not so humble or modest to say that I don’t know anything about Cambodian history, and I certainly know enough to know how much I don’t know. But I’m aware of the big debates, I’m aware that the mirage can change depending on who you ask, what you read, or what angle you look at it all from.
So as we approach the middle of the twentieth century in this series, and indeed begin approaching the 1970s where my focus has been for many years now, I am much more comfortable giving different perspectives or being able to confidently pick and choose which historians I think have done a good job explaining what happened. However, this will still all be ‘my version of events’, based on other peoples versions of events.
I’m afraid I cannot extend the same level of confidence when relaying histories from countries that I will confess I know much less about. Even Vietnam, the literal neighbour to the country I’ve focused on, is a challenging history for me to confidently relay, and I am relying on a comparatively tiny amount of sources than what I have been using for Cambodian history. The same goes for our discussions of the French revolution or the Soviet Union. The same will be the case for China and the United States.
All of this came to the fore to me while researching this episode, in a variety of different ways. One book I think will make a great source was written by Sihanouk, with the help of a well known socialist journalist, Wilfred Burchett, it was published in 1972. Two years after Sihanouk was ousted in the coup, and three years before the Khmer Rouge come to power. It basically places everything under the banner of US IMPERIALISM = BAD. Which is fascinating considering the events that occur after its publication. Another, by Milton Osbourne, is described by the author as a critical look at Sihanouk, one that will not be so quick to blame the actions of the prince on other actors. The text that really made these ‘versions’ of history apparent was the relatively recent book that Ben Kiernan has written about Vietnam. A kind of all encompassing history of the country, like the one his former mentor, and my own, David Chandler wrote about Cambodia.
I have mixed feelings about Kiernan’s work on Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, but I figured his focus on that history would mean that a book he had written about Vietnam would be a useful source for a show that is predominantly focused on Cambodia, with smaller references to Vietnamese history throughout. Apparently this book had stirred at least a minor controversy on its release, and this was highlighted in the review and Kiernan’s response to the review in a French periodical. He was accused of maintaining this kind of ‘orthodox’ or ‘canon’ view of Vietnamese history, specifically the independence movement and the outcomes of the Indochinese wars. Ideas of Vietnamese history framed by western academic’s views of the Vietnam war or how indeed the Socialist Party of Vietnam has expressed this history. (This exchange can be found here https://www.h-france.net/vol17reviews/vol17no243kiernan.pdf)
While I don’t have any issue with what I’ve read in the book so far, nor much of an opinion either way about which version of history it is promulgating or whether that is more or less a version that maps onto reality, it made me realise just how little I knew about Vietnam – how I had probably already expressed ideas about that country’s history that fit into the ‘distant mirage’ version of events that are more easily accessible. Not only that but the source I have purchased that was supposed to be a ‘safe’ text for me to rely upon, has (just like Kiernan’s work on Cambodia) become something that I should also remain wary of relying too heavily upon.
I feel as though this has rambled on far enough for me to not include it in the episode itself, but rather as a blog post. But I guess the point being, or at least the point that was stuck in my mind as I woke up this morning, is that I hope to be able to give a balanced view of Cambodian history. I want to show the kinds of angles on the Khmer Rouge that perhaps people with that more distant ‘mirage’ view will find interesting. But I can’t say I am confident that I could do the same for the parts of the series that veer into what is for me, relatively unknown territory. But I will do my best.