Hi everyone, I guess there might be a percentage of those who listen to the show at the moment who might be wondering what is going on and why there hasn’t been a new episode in awhile.
I had released a statement on Patreon awhile back which addressed this but it makes sense to do so here as well.
Basically, this is a hobby of mine, not a full-time job nor something I can devote 100% of my time to.
I’ll keep this brief and simply say that, well… I have not had the mental space nor the time to work on the show for the last two months.
The next episode, as it stands, is about half-way done, and the show will continue.
I appreciate your patience as I find the time to work on it and release it in due course.
All the best,
Am I comparing my podcast to the original Star Wars trilogy? Yes.
So, following on from the previous blog post, having listened to one of the early episodes and having a bit of anxious moment about some of the things in there... I decided to pull a George Lucas and go back and change some things. I didn't go full Greedo shoots first, I didn't digitally reintegrate an alien rock band into Jabba's palace... but I didn't stop at simply cleaning up the audio either.
All in all, I had wanted to go back and fix a few things for a very long time now, and having recently purchased some new audio repair software I felt this was a good time to do so. I had not found a rhythm in how to record back then, I did not know some very basic things to make editing easier or create a better sounding end product. But more than that, I had also made some quite strange decisions regarding the tone of the show and I think that stemmed from a lack of confidence about what I wanted the show to be.
I can remember worrying very much that people would simply turn the show off if there wasn't more... excitement. I felt I constantly had to have some kind of background music, or make jokes throughout, or use language more appropriate for a kind of chat show rather than a history podcast. I didn't quite know what the tone of the show should be in these early episodes, and I may have covered up my own lack of knowledge about early Cambodian history with excessive generalisations.
I was most happy with the introductory episode, I think it still stood up really well. I didn't re-record any dialogue for that episode, merely fixed up some background noise issues and some of the pauses between phrases. The two episodes about Angkor however, these are the ones that I remember quite frantically putting together and thinking that people would be bored by, so I took on this kind of... jokey tone. I left the simpsons quote in the first one (after putting it to Twitter and hearing that people actually really liked it) but I re-recorded some things and took out the excessive background music that played over some sections of audio. I did a similar thing in the second episode with the explanation of Zhou Daguan's book, I remember even back then I had already done a re-release after I left in way too much joking about the more salacious things that the Chinese diplomat had included. This whole bit needed work because I think back then I had just taken stuff out, but then kind of referred back to that stuff later, which didn't make sense.
I might continue doing this process in the future. It took me about three and a half days to fix up just three episodes so maybe after the release of the next one I might go back and see if another one or two need anything cleaned up. It is one of the problems with doing this over... what three and a half years? Like you get better at that thing while you do it, but because it is a linear series with a set of episodes that you kind of have to go through one by one, well if those early ones aren't that good then people don't bother continuing with the show.
I had always wanted to have giant Dewback lizards in the background of most episodes, but I just didn't have the time or skill to do so.
I decided to go back and listen to the second episode I released, which was originally I think in early 2018. It was about the Khmer civilisation leading into the Angkor period. It was... strange, it felt like reading an old diary or something of that nature... was that really me who came up with some of these creative decisions?
Tips for anyone thinking of making a history podcast - number one - resist the temptation to use excessive sound effects or background music. I don't know why I felt the need to have most of this episode set to music or sounds... there is a section at the end that just has the sound of rain for like 5 minutes? And the music under some of the discussion of the early Khmer kings was overbearing. I think I felt like nobody would keep listening if there were not interesting sounds - and I think that might explain the Simpsons gag as well.
The dialogue itself though, I was surprised I didn't have too much that I would change? There was the occasional stumble, and I think as I was generally less familiar with that early Cambodian history as I am now I might have fallen into a couple of the common misconceptions - like I mentioned that scholars use the phrase 'dark ages' of Cambodian history - which none do anymore.
I brought this up on twitter, saying that podcasting itself was quite a strange medium in this way. Like, I started this project three years ago, but it was as if I had been writing a book that I had to publish each chapter at a time... without being able to go back and change what I had written even if the story itself had evolved in new directions. Happily someone pointed out that this was one of the benefits as well - that once you have written a book the whole thing is done and thats it, you don't have the ability to change course over time.
I guess I think of those early episodes a bit like the first season of a TV series, sometimes it can be awhile before the show finds its feet and direction. I'm glad that even though I might not like some of the earlier stuff, my tone is a bit all over the place and the amount of sources I had was minimal... I guess it was just necessary to get started and start that journey even if the content wasn't as polished as it could be. And if people like it enough they will see it get better over time.
I just hope I don't look back at the episodes I am releasing now and think the same thing in three years time!
Check out the interview I did with Lina Goldberg of 'Move to Cambodia' fame!
In year ten history class, my teacher Mr Kingsley put a video tape of the “The Killing Fields” on that we watched over a couple of lessons. I look back now and wonder just how important that was for my life, would I be sitting here now, fifteen years later, writing a review of the film as part of my own project to explain Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge to a wider audience? Probably not. I think I owe this movie something for the journey that it influenced me taking.
There are a few things you can say about the film that are hard to argue against. For instance, I believe it is the best ‘movie’ about Cambodia made in the West, not that there are very many. It is also fair to say that it is an important movie, and the impact that it raising awareness about the tragedy that had occurred in Cambodia was beneficial. It is admirable in its attempt to recreate locations, events and people to a highly accurate degree. Lastly, I think the portrayal of Dith Pran by Haing Ngor is one of the bravest pieces of acting ever put to screen.
Fifteen years since I first saw it, I would say that I have probably watched the movie more than ten times. Then, in preparation for a ‘commentary track’, I’ve made more of an effort to research the film itself and the characters portrayed in it, watched it through a slightly different ‘lens’ as they say. I re-read The Death and Life of Dith Pran, the article turned into a book written by Sydney Schanberg and the material which the screenplay is based, as well as Haing Ngor’s Survival in the Killing Fields, Jon Swain’s River of Time and also watched the Khmer Rouge Tribunal footage of Sydney Schanberg and Al Rockoff’s testimony. I tried to formulate my own ‘take’ on the film that I had previously not really bothered to do. I had, more or less, just viewed it as a good movie about a subject I care a lot about.
My ‘thoughts’ about the film have been influenced very much by Al Rockoff, the photographer played by John Malkovich, in an answer to a somewhat bizarre question given the setting of an international tribunal of the Khmer Rouge leadership. When asked by the defence for Nuon Chea if he had seen the film, Rockoff went on a small tangential rant:
“I always get asked that. For the first time back here in 1989, I keep getting asked, ‘you see killing fields? You see killing fields?’ I walk down the street, the tuk tuk drivers, ‘you see killing fields?’, of course I’ve seen the movie, many times. I have my own thoughts on the movie that may not be shared with the public because of how I’m portrayed in the movie. But I consider it a work of art. I might find some fault with how certain personalities are represented or certain facts. But its an important movie.”
It is an important movie, even if some fault can be found with certain representations.
I like The Killing Fields as a movie, it is an important movie with an important theme – but it is a movie. So my criticism of it as history must be tempered by that fact, that it was designed first and foremost to be a compelling experience for your average movie goer – not for the majority of Cambodians, historians or those with an interest in what happened in Democratic Kampuchea. However, the film – like historical writing – does decide what it shows and what it doesn’t, it frames the narrative in certain ways so that your average viewer comes away with an impression of a historical event. For instance, the impression we get of Phnom Penh and Cambodia generally is entirely focused on the US presence, the excess of US bombing, the failure of the US to stop the Khmer Rouge and finally in no uncertain terms Schanberg later blames the insanity of the KR on the effect of a few million tonnes of bombs dropped on them.
Perhaps the cultural context in which the film was made explains some of that angle, the collective need to denounce the US after the Vietnam War, the lack of faith in government, the anti-war movement generally. But because the film is limited in its scope by its reference point of a western journalist bemoaning the way he treated his Cambodian colleague, we get an underwhelming explanation of what else happened or why it happened. Was the US involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia a contributing factor to the Cambodian nightmare? Sure, but it was one of many.
The film also diverges from its own source material in some cases where, if it hadn’t, the whole story might have been made more apparent. In reality, Dith Pran’s exit from the French Embassy lacked a contrived scene of attempted photograph development, but it was no less dramatic. His throwing away of several thousand US dollars, taking on his new identity and getting through a KR checkpoint among the thousands of evacuees from Phnom Penh would have been very interesting to watch. Instead, in perhaps the film’s weakest scenes, the focus is placed on Schanberg in New York. We watch him regret, we watch him slump in a chair. We would have been able to guess his emotional state following his return to the US, but instead we need to be shown that the story is just as much about the US as it is about Cambodia, footage of Nixon, bombs and carnage leaving the audience with a graphic finger pointed at the reason for Democratic Kampuchea. The film spends roughly a quarter of the second half of the film still following the ‘main character’, Schanberg. This, in my mind, was an opportunity to commit to the Cambodian side of this tragedy, experienced by Cambodians, but the script still demands our viewpoint to be concerned with how bad the US should be feeling at this time.
Again, here we come back to the idea that his is a movie, but the lack of subtitles in the Democratic Kampuchea section of the film still places the viewer as the outsider, as the westerner (generally speaking) who must watch in horror as the Cambodians descend into ‘insanity’ because of things we’ve done. Rather than a project that they decided upon and implemented.
The other aspect of the film that I think does need to be criticised – even if it is primarily a movie – is the lack of violence. Cambodian audiences, historians and even those acting in the film (Haing Ngor) voiced their opinion that the film did not go far enough in its depiction of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. You can notice in a few scenes the stunted length of Haing Ngor’s right pinky finger. That part of his finger was cut off during one of his three stints in a rural Khmer Rouge prison near Battambang. The other acts of violence he was witness to at these prisons are some of the most extreme that one can find in studying the regime. And while depicting acts of torture and gruesome violence itself may not have been possible due to ratings concerns, the film does not show the non-violent brutality of the regime. The masses of starving, the sick and the slowly dying.
We are shown ‘the killing fields’, in a tremendous scene yes, but prior to this Pran is helped by a friendly young cadre and after his escape we have him in the company of a moderate commune chief. The percentage of time spent to showing the Khmer Rouge as violent killers is comparable to the amount shown of their accommodating nature. Yes, black and white, victim and perpetrator, these binary distinctions in a period of mass death lack applicability, but I feel the movie does not quite explore this theme satisfactorily – and perhaps goes too far in its attempt to show the grey area, rather than the tragic demise of more than a quarter of an entire population at the hands of one group – the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Alas, it is a movie, and it is a movie that I like very much. I wish it could have shown more of the story as it really happened, but perhaps that is only because I have learned far more about that story since I first saw the film. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the country, but I would certainly not tell them to stop there.
A Question on Reddit by u/DrCharlesTinglePHD)
I'm wondering about this because I have read differing estimates of the count, and differing estimates of the various causes (starvation, murder, etc.). I have many books on Cambodian history, but what I believe to be the most trustworthy one (A History of Cambodia, 4th edition, by David Chandler) is probably out of date.
Also for context, what was the population of Cambodia before Lon Nol took over from Sihanouk? And do we have any idea what was it when Pol Pot took over from Lon Nol?
I'm also interested in the count of executions by motivation - e.g. how many were killed because they were Vietnamese, how many were killed because they were the wrong class, how many were killed for no reason at all, etc.
I would say that the most recent, well researched and accurate estimates of the death toll in Democratic Kampuchea came out of the Demographic Expertise Report titled Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia April 1975 - January 1979 by Tabeau and Kheam. This report was compiled as part of the proceedings of the ECCC and the Office of Co-Investigative Judges. It is an assessment of most, if not all, of the major estimates made of the death toll by various sources and includes much of the information you seek, including cause of death (indirect versus direct), estimates of population sizes and evidence which can be used to base these assessments.
I will be using this document to answer the questions you have but feel free to read it yourself as it can be downloaded here.
The report does not differ too much from the more common overall estimates that you would probably already find in the sources you own, indeed in the one you believe ‘most trustworthy’, Professor Chandler states that Life was hard everywhere. On a national scale it is estimated that over the lifetime of the regime nearly two million people – or one person in four – died as a result of DK policies and actions.
The Demographic Expertise Report places the estimate of the death toll under the Khmer Rouge to be most likely 1.747 to 2.2 million. This estimate is based on the most reliable methods, including projections of population growth based on statistics data prior to and following the regime’s time in power, as well as the death toll linked to mass grave records. This is coupled with research reports, surveys, survivor’s accounts and relevant expert opinions from NGOs and independent researchers. Estimates which posit numbers vastly below this, such as Michael Vickery’s, can come from using a much lower population size at the beginning of the regime. They can also be influenced by what the expert demographers say would be ‘some pre-determined views on what kind of outcome should be obtained’ (read as biased and agenda driven).
Population Prior to DK
The population estimates which the experts find most reliable for the period prior to the regime coming to power (April 1975) is 7.844 to 8.102 million, with the central value of 7.894 million. The population estimates of 1970 (beginning of Lon Nol Period) are from 7-7.662 million. The death toll estimate they feel is most appropriate for the civil war is 250,000, which is generally lower than what is usually given in figures which often exceed half a million.
Causes of Death
As the most likely estimate of about two million deaths is given, you would no doubt be familiar with ideas about how these excess deaths occurred. Starvation, overwork and disease were all prevalent in DK, and much of this prevalence is explained through policies of the Khmer Rouge. What the Demographic Expertise Report suggests however, is that the weighting of these ‘excess deaths’ to ‘direct deaths’ (meaning from violence/executions) may be more even than in earlier estimates. They conclude, and using mass grave data as evidence, that the violent deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge may account for at least 1.1 million deaths. So at least 50 percent of the death toll was the result of execution.
Unfortunately, it is harder to ascertain the answers to some of your follow up questions regarding why certain deaths may have occurred. All that you can work back from are statistics about different ethnic population sizes or in the case of policies relating to targeting ‘class enemies’ (such as the New People/April 17 People) how many from urban backgrounds can be counted before and after the regime. For instance, if there were two million urban Khmer as part of the ‘New People’ category defined under DK, and 500,000 perished, you can make assumptions about that cause of death relating to class status, but you cannot pinpoint the actual reason they died. They died at a higher rate, for various reasons.
There is a similar case in relation to ethnic minorities, and the Demographic Expertise Report notes that Kiernan’s estimates are most convincing, as are his opinions about why they may have been targeted at a higher rate. But they do recognise that there is a degree of uncertainty about the estimates as there are a lack of reliable sources on ethnic groups in Cambodia in the 1970s. Generally it is thought that the remaining Vietnamese within the country, perhaps around 20,000, were all killed during DK. Again, whether 100% of those deaths were the result of these people being targeted on the basis that they were Vietnamese, is hard to nail down.
In an interview I conducted with Professor Chandler in 2018, he claimed that Kiernan’s numbers were subject to significant estimation, based on very little. Watch that interview here
The general estimate of 1.75-2.2 million dying, either indirectly or directly, in DK that has been given in most reputable sources on the matter in the last few decades still holds true. In fact with projects like DCCAM’s Mass Grave Mapping, these estimates have become better evidenced than when they were originally made and can be used to claim even more violent deaths at the hands of the regime than previously thought. While we will never know how many died for precise reasons, the numbers of who were more likely to die and perhaps what policies influenced that treatment are substantiated. If we take the number of those dying directly at the hands of the regime, and presume these killings to be ideologically motivated, than we can say somewhere in excess of one million people were killed for these political reasons during the roughly four years of DK. The most generalised reason you could give to account for their deaths would be under the heading of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, which would take into account killings for breaking rules, for not having the right class background, for being an ethnic or religious minority or a suspected traitor to the regime.
So, it has been more than three years now that I have either been actively planning or making this series! Time flies, and it certainly flies fast during a pandemic.
But three years is a long time, I am so happy that I committed to making this series and I am so proud to have received such positive reactions. Particularly from those Cambodians for whom the show has provided a real access point into their own country’s history, but also from people that have spent a lot of time there or those who only had a vague interest but have found out so much more via the show. I know I’ve made these predictions before but I presume there is about two more years to go, not exactly sure, it used to be one episode would cover a few hundred years… then a few decades… now it is down to about one to five so we are starting to crawl here. But at least we are at the point that most people would presume a podcast about the Khmer Rouge would begin… roughly sometime after the second world war (thanks for hanging in there OG listeners!)
As we approach the 14th episode, detailing the end of the First Indochina War and Geneva and Sihanouk’s rise to prominence, I have been researching and reading and have had the time to check the show and its numbers and engagement obsessively (regrettably) and investigate what others might be doing in the same sphere. I can still confidently say that this is the only series that has taken a long view of Cambodian history and the Khmer Rouge, as well as dealing with these topics exclusively. There are other, far more popular shows that have had a few episodes dealing with the subject of the Khmer Rouge or Angkor (and nothing in between), but not (if I may say so) to the same level of depth.
But the ‘Khmer Rouge Podcasts’ or ‘Cambodian Genocide Podcasts’ that I listened to seemed to take very shallow views of the period and the regime, many with a kind of semi-light heartedness that I did not particularly enjoy. As well as falling deep into the horror side of things, without spending too much time on the history side of things. With the popularity of ‘true crime’ podcasts, particularly the format where one person reads information and others react, I think this has become more prevalent. I have no doubt that there are audiences which align to that kind of content, with the ‘edge’ of the discussion (and some of the historical accuracy) blunted by the need to include jokes or oversimplification for the sake of expediency… but I am happy with the angle that this series has taken. Slow and steady, heavy on the detail and research. What will end up being close to the length of a book, perhaps more than 30 hours.
This all has a bit of a smelly tone to it though, as I’m sure (particularly for the earlier episodes) that someone could take me to task for including a Simpson’s quote or skipping over some important Angkorean monarch or missing some key bit of Soviet Diplomacy. So, I won’t spend too much time patting myself on the back. Apples and oranges, different people have different tastes.
I've been working on this for more than a week now and I am excited to get it out there soon! M13 is a fascinating and awful institution, operating for four years prior to the CPK taking control of the entire country. Duch was in command of what could be described as the prototype of S21; an 'experimental school of brutality' according to journalist and photographer Nic Dunlop - who was kind enough to share some insights and photos that he took while exploring the former prison sites.
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.