(Not sure why but decided to dip into a reddit question prompted by Kissinger's death - fueled by lack of sleep + coffee, this was written from about 10am this morning until about 1pm... and here is the unedited essay)
I often see a quote attributed to Anthony Bourdain floating around about social media (particularly today), where he says ‘once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.’ This is usually shared, along with the notion that Kissinger should be held responsible for war crimes.
But, wrapped into this vengeful quote, is I would say a fairly good insight into what a pretty large percentage of casual onlookers might consider to be facts. That Kissinger (and Nixon) bombed Cambodia so extensively that the country has still not recovered, that this was a primary reason the Khmer Rouge came to power, and that accordingly, anything bad that happened after that bombing was a result of the bombing, so can also be added to the grim list of charges. Meaning that the Khmer Rouge regime, and their policies, and their killings, and their destruction of their own country, was also Kissinger (and Nixon’s) fault.
This is a ‘take’ on a long and complicated historical story that feels perfectly comfortable picking a page somewhere near the end and saying ‘this is where we will start’.
Now, let me be absolutely clear about something before I go on. I am no fan of Nixon, or Kissinger, or the systems of war and the transformation of human lives into statistics that can be deleted with ease by decisions made on desks thousands of miles away from where they will be felt. The reliance of ‘death from above’ as a means of “achieving peace” is a horrible procedure. And I think there are a great many number of people and parties and nations, with a lot of blood on a lot of hands when it comes to Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.
So, what happened under Kissinger (and Nixon) that has led so many to consider him one of the arch demons in the Cambodian nightmare?
To quickly summarise what happened from around 1969-1975:
Nixon ran on a campaign of ending the Vietnam War.
His methodology was to “Vietnamize” the conflict, as to reduce the number of American troops fighting. As well as disrupting the NLF/NVA war effort by clearing out communist strongholds (“sanctuaries”) and supply networks that were set up by the Vietnamese and ran through neutral Cambodia (and Laos).
In March, 1969, a secret bombing campaign (“Operation Menu”) began which targeted these areas on the border areas of Cambodia and Vietnam. It was secret for a few reasons, the legality is far from clear, and it signalled a widening of the war. Kissinger was a primary architect.
While the secret would eventually come out (and played a part in the story of Watergate), US involvement in Cambodia and their own civil war with the communists would deepen through support of the Lon Nol Government which ousted Prince Sihanouk in 1970. Cambodia became a second South Vietnam, and was far less supported than the Vietnamese as by this time the Americans were very much on the road out of the region.
By 1975, the Khmer Rouge eventually won and turned Cambodia into what they saw fit.
Now, the key word that I see associated with this version of events is ‘destabilization’. That the bombing destabilized Cambodia to the extent that (it at least hastened) the Khmer Rouge victory in a war they never would have won otherwise (and some people also throw in that it brutalised them to an extent that they would exact revenge on the population that hadn’t supported them).
This is where I would contend that the extent of Kissinger’s role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge needs to be determined.
What is often smuggled into the version of events that posits Kissinger (and Nixon) as chief antagonist, is that Cambodia was an ‘island of peace’, functioning perfectly, and that the bombing campaign came out of nowhere and wrecked things so badly that the Khmer Rouge strolled to power.
Cambodia, from about the mid 1960’s, was hardly a stable place. And if it was an island of peace, it was maybe only in comparison to the fact that it was surrounded by an ocean of fire. Let’s start with Sihanouk, who had gradually destroyed political pluralism and democracy in Cambodia since he abdicated the throne in 1955 and ran for office with a new party (the Sangkum). To put it briefly, he did not run a very fair campaign. Not only that, but in the decade that followed, he systematically eroded the other political parties in the country so that only the Sangkum remained. This caused a dysfunctional government that often relied on Sihanouk’s prestige and power to get anything done.
During this same decade, Sihanouk had wisely predicted that the US would probably leave Vietnam before the communist Vietnamese. As a result, and because he had some beef with US foreign policy as well as personal problems with US officials, he began secretly and not secretly backing both the NLF and Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). He figured that he would essentially be backing the future winner, so in order to stay on their good side, engaged with them diplomatically and made deals which would allow communist Vietnamese use of Cambodian territory. Likewise with the People’s Republic of China who supplied the Vietnamese military wares, which helped to replenish Cambodian stocks once the US aid had been disconnected. He strenuously denied that he had allowed for this use of the border regions, but he had made the deal as long as the Vietnamese would more or less keep to themselves. This was what is usually called his ‘balancing act’, or perhaps confusingly, his position of neutrality.
This set up a dynamic where the Cambodian communist movement (an outgrowth of the original Indochinese Communist Party – which could be read as Vietnamese Workers Party) was unable to function in an open political forum. Sihanouk would ruthlessly suppress any political opponents, forcing the movement to begin solely operating underground, and eventually turning to armed resistance as the only method of pursuing their political aims. To the annoyance of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot, the communist Vietnamese actually had a much greater interest in keeping Sihanouk in power as he had allowed use of their border regions, as well as overland supply of Chinese arms from the western port of Sihanoukville. If he was gone, and perhaps a right-wing government was in place (like the future Lon Nol regime) then this would threaten their supply routes and bases. Therefore, the CPK were continuously discouraged from openly challenging the Sihanouk regime in a civil war.
Why is this important? Well, the turning point comes in 1967-1968. By this time, Sihanouk (who was moonlighting as a film director, producer, writer, actor and jazz musician) was losing grip on power. His constant overtures to the international left had left many conservatives in his dysfunctional government unhappy, and his pitiless repression of the domestic political left had pushed even some non-communist activists into the arms of the underground movement operating in urban and rural areas. The economy was also in terrible shape, for a variety of reasons including the cutting off of US financial aid and diplomatic ties in the mid 1960’s, as well as failed attempts at nationalising certain industries and the black-market rice trade which saw communist Vietnamese purchasing rice directly from Cambodian farmers at a far higher price than what the government would pay for it. This effectively cut GDP in half. As a means of rectifying this, and under a new conservative government that had been ‘elected’ without Sihanouk picking every representative for the first time, the government simply went into the various ‘breadbaskets’ of Cambodia and made the farmers sell the rice to them (for far less than what the Vietnamese would have offered).
This rammassage campaign was unpopular, and in the region of Battambang in the west an uprising occurred in April 1967 that was stoked by local communists but led by peasant farmers. Sihanouk and his then Prime Minister Lon Nol, would stamp out this peasant revolt in fairly ruthless fashion. Not only was the air force used to bomb and strafe targets, but the military and local militias were encouraged to cut off rebel’s heads in order to get a financial reward. Many of those encouraged along these lines realised they could simply cut off an innocent head and say that it was a rebel. Perhaps 10,000 deaths occurred in stamping out this peasant revolt.
In the same year, North Vietnamese and NLF forces – some retreating from ‘search and destroy’ missions employed by the US/SV – were building up on the Cambodian side of the border. As we said, this was not a new development, but as both sides of the Vietnam War struggled to find a victory, both sides looked for solutions. The communists were looking to a massive counter offensive surprise that would quickly cripple the South Vietnamese regime and make the US come to the negotiating table, the Tet Offensive.
The US, on the other hand, and under President Johnson, were looking at clearing out the strongholds and bases they knew the communists were using in Cambodia as a means of securing the war effort in the South and capitalising on the gains they had made.
It turns out that in the same month, January 1968, both of these stratagems would come to pass, as well as the CPK (Khmer Rouge) deciding that they would ignore both Chinese and Vietnamese advice to not start a civil war, which they embark upon on the 18th of January. Which, by the way, Sihanouk also employs the air force to bomb suspected villages and areas in which the insurgents were thought to be hiding. Rewards for severed heads of communists was also reinstated, although eventually a rifle had to be produced as well in order to ‘prove’ the decapitated person’s prior communist affiliation – and one wonders why that change had to be made?
One week prior to that, a very important event occurs, as rapprochement between the Sihanouk regime and the United States comes back into frame. Sihanouk, increasingly concerned about the extensive use of his territory by the Vietnamese, as well as worried that they were seemingly unable to stop Cambodia’s own communist movement from attempting to remove him from power (and the seismic shocks that came from the Chinese Cultural Revolution) led him to consider his balancing ‘neutral’ act once more. Could the US be used as leverage? And what would they want in return?
The visit of US Diplomat Chester Bowles to Cambodia and discussions between his delegation and Sihanouk led to the prince finally conceding (not in public) that the Vietnamese were using his territory, and (I’ll paraphrase) “that if he couldn’t stop them from doing so, I suppose he couldn’t stop the US from attacking them there in hot pursuit”.
Now, this was not quite fully appreciated at the time, it was a hugely important point. While the US delegation reported that Sihanouk was now allowing for US forces to be permitted to engage in isolated military actions to disrupt these communist ‘sanctuaries’, later, it would be used by Kissinger himself as permitting widespread bombing. He stated as much, under oath, in 1973;
“In a January 10, 1968 meeting with US emissary Chester Bowles, Sihanouk stated that he did not want any north Vietnamese in Cambodia, and further stated that while he could not say so officially, he wanted the United States to retaliate against these North Vietnamese forces with ‘hot pursuit’ or bombing (emphasis added) in the unpopulated border areas of Cambodia.”
So, while we don’t actually know 100 percent for sure whether that was said, all contemporary CIA documents from that meeting in January that have been declassified do not mention Sihanouk welcoming a bombing campaign. And remember, this is still under Johnson.
But, what are we to make of the fact that bombing of Cambodian territory had been occurring since 1965, and that in 1968, a now retired general said that Sihanouk himself would be handed lists of bombing targets via an Australian military attache, which he would then approve of and apparently warn these villages of the incoming attacks? And recall, that the year after that 1969 Sihanouk had re-established ties with the United States and was saying nothing about the secret bombing campaign as it began. As Philip Short says, perhaps ‘not because he agreed with the bombings, but because, at a time when his priority was to mend relations with America, all the alternatives were worse’.
What some historians have suggested, is that the Kissinger (and Nixon) Operation Menu bombing of Cambodia represented was not the start of bombing ‘neutral Cambodia’, but rather the beginning of carpet bombing. I am not going to contest that this was a decision which led to many deaths, perhaps many thousands of deaths – civilian too.
But here we arrive at the question of Kissinger’s extent in the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Kissinger himself argues that, as you might have gathered from his version of ‘hot pursuit’, that essentially the United States were invited to bomb the Vietnamese in these areas, and by 1968 this also included the stronghold zones of the CPK.
By 1969, when his hand was on the button, he could say that they were also looking to prevent Vietnamese forces from using the Cambodian bases to attack US troops.
To me, the key juncture here does not occur in 1969 when the bombing of these territories occurs, but in 1970 when Sihanouk is ousted in a bloodless coup. There is much controversy surrounding the complicity of the CIA in this, as they did have form in Cambodia previously (the 1959 Dap Chuuon Plot) and although there is no concrete evidence either way, I would probably put the Sihanouk coup in the category of ‘unspoken encouragement’ rather than hands on the wheel.
Once Lon Nol becomes leader, and his government becomes the “US backed regime” that it is commonly referred to as, Sihanouk rapidly becomes the face of an ostensibly ‘united front’ to support the Khmer Rouge (which he had spent the last ten years trying to murder). This also meant that because the Vietnamese no longer had to try and protect the previously established relationship with Sihanouk, that they could support the CPK war effort – which until this time had been described as Pol Pot as ‘a revolution waged with empty hands’.
Because Sihanouk still commanded such an aura of royalty with the peasant population of Cambodia, his urge to take up arms and fight against the Lon Nol government caused a massive surge of recruiting to the cause.
The Vietnamese began training vast numbers of Khmer Rouge soldiers, and more or less took over the Cambodian Civil War on behalf of their much weaker “comrades”. It wasn’t until around 1973 that the bulk of fighting was undertaken by the native communist movement, and by that time the Lon Nol regime was already so badly damaged that it may have been saved by an extensive US bombing campaign that year to prevent the Khmer Rouge victory two years before it occurred.
I realise this answer is taking up a lot of space, so perhaps I should wrap up slightly and make a few salient points.
How destabilized was Cambodia prior to Nixon taking office? And how much more destabilized was it by the bombing campaign that led the Khmer Rouge to an easier victory?
I’m not sure how convinced I am that both of those questions can be answered in definitive ways that point to Kissinger (and Nixon) being blamed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge had been building their ideology and forces in Cambodia since 1955 - what role did Kissinger play in that? The Khmer Rouge had initiated a civil war prior to Nixon taking office, and had been on the receiving end of bombs from the US, again, prior to Nixon taking office.
To what extent can Kissinger’s (and Nixon) bombing campaign be differentiated from what had preceded it, and to what degree can it be blamed for causing massive amounts of recruits into the Khmer Rouge?
I would say that Kissinger continued and expanded on what had been previously done, and that with the rise of Vietnamese combatants in Cambodia, it could be reasonably said that the campaign was directed at those the US was at war with. Similarly, I think Khmer Rouge propaganda found much more success on relying on Sihanouk’s gravitas rather than US bombing. This leads to the suggestion that Sihanouk would be just as much to blame, if not far more, than Kissinger for the rise in Khmer Rouge numbers. Not to mention his role in ‘destabilising the country’ since he had been, by his design, its sole leader.
And while I am here, you will often see this number associated with the bombing of Cambodia: 2.7 million tons of ordinance. This comes from a 2006 article in a rather obscure magazine called the Walrus, authored by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owens. It is cited a lot. What is not cited, pretty much ever, is that in 2010, the same authors issued a correction to that article, stating that they had relied on mistaken technical analysis to arrive at those numbers. They said that the number was probably just below 500,000 tons.
Another common number I see comes from a slight blurring of “the Cambodian Civil War”, with “the bombing of Cambodia”, and that the death toll are somehow the same. This is sometimes put into the high hundreds of thousands, even close to a million. There are also different periods of ‘the bombing of Cambodia’, that were not done in secret and were, ostensibly aimed at -as Kissinger said- helping an ally (the Lon Nol Regime).
It is worth noting that the most recent demographic analysis of these casualties has placed the number of those who died during the Cambodian Civil War probably in the region of 250,000. The number of those that died directly from the Operation Menu bombing is unknown, it was predominantly done in relatively unpopulated regions. The number of those who were civilians is also, sadly, unknown. Estimates of bombing casualties over the course of the war also vary, with some in the region of 100,000. It must be said that there is still unexploded ordinance scattered across Cambodia from these campaigns that still kill and maim to this day.
The bombing, particularly the carpet bombing, was indiscriminate in many instances. There is no doubt that it had some effect on Khmer Rouge recruitment, and there is no doubt that it caused a great many civilian deaths. One struggles to put a number on when any amount of civilian deaths means that the bombing was not the right thing to do.
One can easily say it was not the morally correct thing to do.
You could even make the convincing case that it was the incorrect course of action from a foreign policy point of view, although one could make that case for the vast majority of the US excursion in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Which, again, preceded Kissinger’s direct involvement.
I will leave it to readers to decide how much they think Kissinger is to blame for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and to what extent he should shoulder that. I think what is rarely injected into that conversation is the historical context that preceded his involvement, even the United States involvement, in this process.
The only thing I would say however, is to echo Haing Ngor’s explanation of ‘blame’, someone who was there before, during and after the events in question… Which I feel takes a slightly more even-handed tone than say, a celebrity chef:
It is a complicated story, going back many years. To begin with, France, our former colonial ruler, didn’t prepare us for independence. It didn’t give us the strong, educated middle class we needed to govern ourselves well. Then there was the United States, whose support pushed Cambodia off its neutral path to the right in 1970 and began the political unbalancing process. Once Lon Nol was in power, the United States could have forced him to cut down on corruption, and it could have stopped its own bombing, but it didn’t, until too late. The bombing and the corruption helped push Cambodia the other way, toward the left. On the communist side, China gave the Khmer Rouge weapons and an ideology. The Chinese could have stopped the Khmer Rouge from slaughtering civilians, but they didn’t try. And then there is Vietnam. Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Vietnamese communists used eastern Cambodia as part of their Ho Chi Minh Trail network, they were putting their own interests first. They have always been glad to use Cambodia for their own gain. But sad to say, the country that is most at fault for destroying Cambodia is Cambodia itself. Pol Pot was Cambodian. Lon Nol was Cambodian and so was Sihanouk. Together the leaders of the three regimes caused a political chain reaction resulting in the downfall and maybe the extinction of our country.
Chandler, "Tragedy of Cambodian History"
Short, "Pol Pot"
Kiernan B, Owen T, Making more enemies than we kill? Calculating US bomb tonnages dropped on Laos and Cambodia and weighing their implications https://apjjf.org/Ben-Kiernan/4313.html
Heder, "Cambodian Communism and the Vietnamese Model"
Osbourne, "Sihanouk"Ngor, "Suriving the Killing Fields"
ECCC "Expert Demographer Report 2009"
Hi everyone, had kind of forgot there was a blog section of the website... and that last post is grim ! haha. Wasn't the best time... and I think we've had like 7 episodes or something since then so, don't worry, it kept going.
But, when I took about 3 minutes to figure out something to write as a blog piece to make that last one not the top one still, the only thing I could really think of was, oh, I forgot, I've been doing this for more than FIVE YEARS!
While this isn't exactly a "job", I think this is now the longest job I've ever had, and its a while off still from an ending.
So I just wanted to say a few things about those five years.
Firstly, I have learned a lot in this time. That has been the biggest thing. I thought I used to know some things about Cambodia when I started, now I realise just how little I knew then. This has been the best learning exercise I could have done.
Secondly, I think the more I do this, the more books, the more sources, the 'better' I get at this, it does seem to take longer. Episodes take a lot of research, they run into the tens of thousands of words for a script, the editing takes days... You'd think I might have been able to shorten that amount of time, but I suppose having other jobs or responsibilities also influences that a lot. But, yeah, I think they are better researched, and get at the complexities of the modern history more... perhaps because I was more aware of these previously, but either way, I hope the quality is coming along.
Thirdly, it has been so rewarding being able to ineract with people, with listeners, other podcasters, survivors, sons and daughters of Cambodian refugees, students, journalists, historians and fellow Cambodia lovers generally. It is such a pleasure. Not to mention being able to use listener donations to support two different charities in Cambodia, genuinely making a difference for people and animals. That makes me very happy to have put so much time and effort into this multi-year project.
While I've gotten used to 'the process', I still have many moments of fascination, energy and excitement when I continue to research and produce it. Thank you to everyone who has listened.
Here is an unrelated picture of me in Mexico where I now live:
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.