His life is Cambodia's story

IN the days before communist Khmer Rouge forces rolled into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 1975, Dr. Haing S. Ngor and his fianc'ee ate out every night at French restaurants along the capital's Monivong Boulevard, chauffered to and fro by Mercedes. Months later, with much of the once-urban population organized into hillside collectives to harvest rice, the best meal the physician and his wife could muster was two field mice, cooked out of view of their captors. The two Cambodians were among hundreds of thousands reduced to scavenging for crabs, ants, and field insects to keep from perishing under the gun-rule of young teen-age soldiers, whose leaders were Cambodian (Khmer) communists, backed by the Chinese. Millions of Cambodians perished - many by starvation, the rest by killing - during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979.

Ngor survived the four-year ordeal, including three bouts of brutal torture, sustained by his personal vow to one day bear witness.

``I knew I could never rest until the outside world knew the truth about the brutal annihilation of my people,'' says Dr. Ngor, sitting in his two-room apartment in Chinatown, where he emigrated after escape in 1979. ``I wanted to chronicle the terror for all to see that the anathema of inquisitions and holocausts is not just something for the history books. It exists today, and must be stopped.''

That chronicle has now reached print with the autobiographical book ``Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey,'' in its fourth printing just weeks after release.

Ngor's observations of war, the horror of captivity, and the wholesale desecration of Buddhist culture and religion make for sheer narrative power; but the book's real impact has to do with triumph of human spirit under such conditions.

Ngor is best known for his Academy Award-winning appearance as Dith Pran in ``The Killing Fields.'' The 1985 movie documented the brutality and execution of thousands of educated and professional Cambodians who, like Ngor, escaped death by concealing his upper-class status. The movie had a happy ending with its main character, New York Times interpreter Dith Pran, united with family in the United States. But of the 41 people in Ngor's family, only nine survived.

``That movie only touched the tip of the iceberg,'' Ngor adds. His book documents his entire odyssey, from happier days under Cambodian ruler Norodom Sihanouk, to the corrupt days under US client-state dictator Lon Nol, to the days of the Khmer Rouge. The details are graphic, often grisly. Certain chapters depicting torture of him and others carry warnings: ``This chapter tells of the very depths of suffering that people like me saw and experienced under the Khmer Rouge regime. It is an important part of the story, but it is not a pleasant part. So if you wish, or if you must, please skip this chapter and go on to the next.''

His own story includes being crucified and left to hang over a smoldering fire, punishment for saving scavenged food for personal use. As more and more of his family disappeared, Ngor and his wife lit candles and prayed for their souls in Buddhist ritual. ``I prayed that my father be reborn away from Cambodia,'' says Ngor. ``And my wife and I wondered who would light candles for us.''

His wife later died in childbirth. Ngor might have saved her, but was forced to make the horrible decision to conceal his identity as a doctor to save himself, rather than assist his wife and ensure the execution of both of them.

Besides a personal testament of courage, ``Odyssey'' is a clearly written inside look at politics and history, shedding much light on the complexities of Southeast Asia and Cambodia itself, which is still struggling with Vietnamese occupation while three opposing factions seek to reclaim the country. But the book is also a first-hand account of one modern-day failure of totalitarianism.

In March 1970, Cambodia was still an island of peace, says Ngor, independent of French rule since 1953 and neutral, though bordered by the Vietnamese-American conflict. A 1972 coup by Sihanouk's own generals brought to power the corrupt, pro-American leader, Lon Nol. (Some say the coup was backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency to install leaders more agreeable to US attacks against the Viet Cong from Cambodia, though Ngor maintains this has never been proved. Prince Sihanouk, meanwhile, joined a coalition of North Vietnamese and Cambodian Communists (later called Khmer Rouge), both backed by the Chinese, to retake the country. By April 1975, the forces, dominated by the Khmer Rouge, took the country and began the bloody quest to build a new communist society, led by Pol Pot, while Sihanouk became a Khmer figurehead.

Citizens of the defeated Lon Nol regime became ``war slaves,'' ordered from collective to collective at the whim of a faceless ``organization on high'' known as ``Angka.'' Restructuring of the nation evolved too quickly for a stable government to take hold. Leaders developed internal feuds; those at the bottom began open rebellion. Ngor escaped to Thailand as the Khmer Rouge began to crumble, hastened by invasions from Vietnam.

Eight years beyond captivity, Ngor seems driven by his mission. Though he is capable of infectious smiles, his demeanor is somber but animated, eyes welling with occasional tears. Fiery of temperament, he speaks emphatically in high-pitched staccato. ``You will learn from this book,'' says Ngor with an intensity that will not wane in 90 minutes of interview. ``And you will think more of your great freedom because of it - and hopefully do something for the freedom of my homeland.''

Early reviews have ranged from ``landmark'' and ``best book on Cambodia ever'' (Chicago Tribune) to ``one of the more important biographies of our time'' (Los Angeles Times). The book has already been optioned by Warner Bros. for a television movie.

Profits from the autobiography are pledged to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where Ngor worked briefly as a doctor after his escape. Five-hundred-thousand dollars have already been donated from money he has earned on the lecture circuit, as well as royalties from several movies, and his many fund-raising efforts.

Cambodia now is much worse off than when he left, Ngor said in the interview: It is a country dominated by Vietnamese communists, who are not only continuing the brutal slaughters of Cambodians, but ridding the country of its own language and other customs, art, and culture. (Vietnam disputes that charge.)

``Everywhere you go, you just open your ears and 90 percent of what you hear is in Vietnamese,'' says Ngor. He returns often to clinics on the Thai side of the border, where he provides care as a licensed gynecologist. Two-thirds of his time is spent publicizing the plight of 350,000 Cambodian refugees, 60,000 of whom are homeless children, he says. ``By saving these children, we are saving what little future is left of my country.''

Although he has capitalized on his brief time in the Hollywood spotlight with appearances in such series as ``Miami Vice'' and made-for-TV movies, Ngor's book carries precious little on his instant-celebrity status. (Ngor was plucked from obscurity from his job with the Chinatown Service Center, and his presence on the screen - without previous acting experience - stole the reviews. His Oscar was the start of international notoriety that has been harnessed to his cause.) Instead there is much reflection on the inner workings of the Cambodian personality that in its own way contributed to the years of chaos.

He writes: ``Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge. To be precise, a longstanding grudge leading to revenge much more damaging that the original injury. ... It is the infection that grows on our national soul.'' Thus ``the moment Sihanouk rejoined his old enemies [the Khmer] was the day when the country began its long, ruinous slide into civil war'' and ``under Lon Nol the guilty went free, ... the society had lost its moral direction, and that's why we lost the war.''

His goal now is to continue speaking on behalf of those countrymen who can no longer speak.

``I have been many things,'' he writes at the beginning of his book. ``A trader walking barefoot on paths through jungles ... a medical doctor, a Hollywood actor. But nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That's who I am.''

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