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12/ THION ON KR, 1977




Libération (A Paris daily), 7 March 1977 (Original: French. Translated in English and published in Serge Thion, Watching Cambodia, Bangkok, 1993.)




Is there a Cambodian revolution ? Yes, one social organization is replacing another. Do we have to judge this revolution ? Of course, like any other political phenomenon. What do we know about it ? We know that the country is in the hands of a revolutionary anonymous organization (Angkar), that the economy seems to be based on total collectivization, that more than half of the population has been chased from the cities and is treated like a slavish mass, exploited without limits, hungry and terrorized, that the Organization is systematically destroying all those who, one way or the other, had anything to do with the former regime.


Are we able to judge this regime ? Certainly, even from far away, even without knowing the country very well, even if all the testimonies are not equally valid. The authorities have not allowed anyone to come and see what is happening. Without even referring to humanistic views, no revolutionary morality known to this day could approve of this kind of blind massacre where, guilty or not, victims fall in the tens, or possibly hundreds, of thousands. Doubts are unfortunately not possible. After Hitler, Stalin, Suharto, Nixon, the Revolutionary Organization of Cambodia is in the process of reaching one of the best "scores" of our modern barbarity.
The most simple solidarity should compel us to stand with the victims of this bizarre forest bureaucracy, even if we come across strange bedfellows. The right wing is crying over Cambodia, which it viewed with dryer eyes when this country was agonizing under the 500,000 tons of bombs dropped by American warplanes. Good souls who used to wander in Phnom Penh when it was ruled by a weak-minded paranoid called Lon Nol wake up now to explain to us a revolution which they ignored at the time and which they saw only from very far away. From the bunch of recent books, one can take two : François Debré, Cambodge, la Révolution de la forêt, Flammarion, 261 pp., and François Ponchaud, Cambodge, annnée zéro, Julliard, 250 pp., because they contain documents, testimonies and analyses which are not without interest. Debré, for instance, has the story of an old guerrilla who fought along with the Viet Minh and documents about the last attempt of Sihanouk to come back to Phnom Penh [in April 1975] through an arrangement between the French, the Chinese and the Americans while Ponchaud has interesting analyses of the new vocabulary used by the Cambodian authorities. It seems Ponchaud, as a missionary, knows the Khmer language well. These two books, in spite of many factual errors (for instance, Debré's confusion between Seoul and Pyong Yang, p. 252), are worth reading because there is something to be learned from them. But there is one important drawback : neither of the authors understands much about politics, and particularly about the politics of Indochinese revolutionaries. Condemning a policy should not mean sparing the effort to understand it. This is perhaps the most compelling task.


"The Cambodian revolution was ineluctable", writes Debré (p. 36) and Ponchaud seems to share the idea. It is one of these serious mistakes generated by the laziness of fatalistic thinking. Reality is entirely different. Until the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970, the Cambodian revolutionary activists' influence on the Khmer society was practically nil. Their number ran into the hundreds only, most of them hidden in the forests, like the usual outlaws who had always haunted the fringes of the rice-growing areas.
Villagers were poor and victims of the usurers and agents of the central power. But it was tradition : under pressure, the individual could just go away and live somewhere else, because land used to be available. In spite of some peasant rebellions, which were not asking for social innovation, there was no sign of a real social crisis. It was in the towns that political power was confronted by the business class. This showed very clearly in March 1970 when Sihanouk [in Peking] called an insurrection against the newly instituted republic ; the peasants massively answered the call. They did not escape to the maquis, they became the maquis itself because they remained inside the [traditional] legitimacy. The towns were the place where a bourgeois revolution was taking place. It was also the time when the Cambodian communist cadres sprang out of hiding and, protected by the Vietnamese NLF troops, started to organize resistance [in the countryside].


Until then, even when they were hunted down, the communists suported Sihanouk, although they thought his regime was "feudal" and corrupt, because his neutralism was providing a huge tactical advantage for the struggle in Vietnam, where the decisive confrontation with imperialism was taking place. If the communists, after 1970, persisted in putting the Sihanouk label on their propaganda, if they stopped doing so around 1973­4 because their feared a peace compromise, if they evacuated the cities immediately after their military victory, it was precisely because Sihanouk and all his conservative weight still had a very powerful impact in Phnom Penh and in the countryside. Neither the peasants nor the suburban poor felt by themselves the need to make a revolutionary move. The maquis, in 1972, with its Buddhist monks and its peasant cadres, looked rather like a chouannerie.
Radical views belong only to a handful of ideologists, probably born in the countryside but with a smear of education acquired in the pagoda or State village schools. Their power comes from the control they have on the military machine ; they make themselves acceptable by an extreme nationalism which certainly meets a deep popular aspiration. Nevertheless, it is obvious the regime is politically very weak : this weakness explains the use of the concentration camps method. Contradictory to what it claims, this revolution is led from above.


When the Swedish ambassador Kaj Bjork, one of the very few Western visitors allowed into the new Kampuchea, says that "the Khmer revolution is much more radical than the Chinese and the Russian ones", his implicit thinking needs to be turned upside down. In Russia and China, class struggles brought about revolutions, but these struggles have been going on under different forms. If in Cambodia there is no longer a class struggle, it is because the old ruling class is physically annihilated. It is thus a way to come "radically" back to the situation which existed before the emergence of classes. The authorities say that the country is led by "the workers, the poor peasants, the lower strata middle peasants and the other layers of country and town workers who constitute more than 95 per cent of the whole Kampuchean nation". Is this not a picture of a radically disappeared past ?


Ponchaud, Debré, and many others believe, in their naive vision of historical progress, that Cambodia is a place where a modern revolution is happening, a "Marxist" one, bent on creating the nightmare of the New Man. They speculate heavily on the personality of the leaders and the splits between them. Debré believes that the division of tasks among the militants proves the existence of these splits. By isolating the Cambodian problem from its Indochinese context, they both condemn themselves to a kind of new kremlinology which in the end will mire in the fertile rice fields of their imagination.
If we had to qualify these leaders politically, it would probably be best to refer to good old Stalinism. Schooled by the French Communist Party in the 1950s or by the Vietnamese who did not always resist the Stalinist temptation, these Cambodian leaders use old recipes : absolute discipline, the pervasive power of the organization, surrounded by an imposed cult. As a former revolutionary says [in an unwitting tribute to George Orwell] : "The Angkar has got eyes like a pineapple and it sees everything" (Ponchaud, p. 131).
One may ask who is responsible for this bloody mess : the revolutionary leaders who want to change history by force ? The Vietnamese communists who know and keep quiet ? The former leaders of the Lon Nol regime whose stupid greed and sordid selfishness have thrown the country into this atrocious chaos ? They all share a part of the burden. But the main people responsible, those who, against the advice of their diplomats and their intelligence services, launched this country into a chilling war, for some mean electoral profits, Mr Nixon and Mr Kissinger, can rove around today, free and honoured, their hanging for war crimes being most improbable. Talking about the American intervention in Cambodia, Mr Kissinger quietly said : "I may lack imagination, but I do not see where the moral problem is."

Serge Thion

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