Journalist's scholarly account of Cambodia's complicated story
When the War Was Over: The Voices of Cambodia's Revolution and its People, by Elizabeth Becker. New York: Simon and Schuster. 448 pp. $19.95 Before this book was published, so complete a picture of the forces that converged to create present-day Cambodia was not available.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Theravada Buddhism, animism, Cambodia's god-kings, the kingdom of Siam, French colonial administrators, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Vietnam, the United States, and the Cambodian people themselves all figure in the complicated, dialectical web.
Elizabeth Becker covered the Cambodian war for the Washington Post. In ``When the War Was Over,'' she ambitiously takes them all on, focusing on how these forces contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and its reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
To read about the Vietnamese or the Vietnam war is not to understand Cambodia. The two countries, Ms. Becker points out, represent two entirely different Asian traditions: Cambodia was influenced by India and Buddhism; Vietnam by China and Confucianism.
For example, according to Becker, a handful of French archaeologists and scholars in Cambodia during the colonial period (1863-1954) were responsible for both the revival of Cambodian nationalism and the rise of Cambodian xenophobia. The Khmer Rouge later transformed these sentiments into fascist racial and ethnic policies and a fanatical drive for national self-sufficiency.
French archaeologists, Becker says, revived Cambodian history by rebuilding Angkor Wat -- the world's largest religious building according to Becker -- and the crumbling ruins of 71 other stone funerary temples of the Angkor kings, who ruled Cambodia from the 9th to the 14th centuries. And French scholars who wanted to improve French understanding of ``the Oriental world'' helped revitalize the study in Cambodia of Theravada Buddhism and other uniquely Cambodian cultural elements (Vietnamese Buddhists, who were a minority in their country, practiced Mahayana Buddhism, Becker says).
On the other hand, the French also created the stereotype of a lazy, decadent Cambodian race unwilling to help itself or to equal its Angkor ancestors, the author says. Beneath them, the French administrators installed Vietnamese mid-level bureaucrats to help run Cambodia -- with an eye toward a future in which Vietnamese would become the majority race in both Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnamese communists later seized upon both the stereotype and the French plan for Indochina by viewing Lao and Khmer communists as their apprentices and Laos and Cambodia as satellites of Vietnam.
Other significant elements of the Khmer Rouge story taken up in this book are: the leaders' political education by the French Communist Party in Paris in the 1950s, the impact on them of physical and political isolation in the jungles of remote northeastern Cambodia in the late '60s, Prince Norodom Sihanouk's support, the help afforded them by the secret US bombings in 1969, and their use of secrecy, confusion, ignorance, and fear to create their image and implement their policies.
The Khmer Rouge years were only the climax of the destruction. The aftermath is not much different: Only Khmer Rouge are now fighting Khmer Rouge.
This cycle of destruction seems to have no end. The spiraling nature of political influence is dizzying. China backs the communist Khmer Rouge, the US and its allies back the Khmer Rouge's noncommunist counterparts in the Cambodian coalition, and the Soviet Union backs the occupying Vietnamese.
But the availability of a growing body of information on Cambodian politics and culture can only help. Informed policymaking and public opinion depend on books such as this one being widely read and discussed.