PHNOM PENH – PUBLIC FORUM 25-27 January 2007 ‘Society Under DK’

Posted by khmernews on March 15, 2007

Milton Osbome
It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground for supposing it is true.
Bertrand Russell

A common academic device for a writer confronted with difficult questions of interpretation in relation to a particular historical development is to plead that ‘this is not my period’. In my case, and in relation the events that unfolded in Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979, it is a plea that I make with a fair degree of justification. With the exception of the particular issue of what happened to the former King Norodom Sihanouk, now ‘King Father’, while the regime of Democratic Kampuchea was in power, my research interests have lain elsewhere: in the first fifty years of a French colonial presence in Cambodia; in the nature of open politics from Cambodia’s independence in 1953 to Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970; and in the refugee exodus into Thailand that took place after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. Because of two periods of sustained residence in Cambodia in 1959-61 and 1966, much of what I have written reflects a particular and personal perspective in relation to developments in the 1960s.

In approaching the question of ‘Society under the DK’, I have chosen to consider that period as much through the prism of what took place before the Khmer Rouge forces marched into Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975, as in offering extended reflections on-the DK period itself. In doing so I readily cede to others the still contested issue of how one should describe the political nature of the revolution overseen by the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Should that revolution be regarded as quintessentially Marxist-Leninist or ‘recognisably communist’ (David Chandler), or a ‘complete peasant revolution’ (Michael Vickery)? What place is there for the view that in the lead-up to the Khmer Rouge victory the Cambodian peasants ‘were unwitting participants in a revolution’, (Kate Frieson), and how valid is the emphasis placed on the leadership’s “unbridled lust for power, but also the threat of racism’. (Ben Kiernan)? And even in the briefest catalogue of various explanations for what happened during the existence of Democratic Kampuchea, note must be taken of Philip Short’s exploration of the importance of Pyotr Kropotkin’s conception of the totality of revolution in shaping the thinking and actions of Pol Pot. Coupled to this insight, there is a need to consider the validity of the view which Short also expresses of Cambodians being ‘naturally attracted to extremes’.

I have found reward in exploring each of these possible interpretations, and elements in each of these arguments should not necessarily be regarded as mutually exclusive. But, whether in contrast or in a complementary fashion, I wish to pose another factor as underlying both the character of the revolution that the DK presided over and the nature of the decades that preceded it. This factor may be described as the delusional character of Cambodian politics, or to use a term possibly marginally less value-laded, the pervasive presence of a reality deficit. This is a bold call, and one that will not endear me to many Cambodians, for what I intend to argue in this brief contribution is that from independence in 1953, through the period while Norodom Sihanouk led the state, then in the period of the Khmer Republic and subsequently including the DK period, the policies of the successive leaderships singularly failed to match their policies to reality. Why this was so provides the basis for an endless debate, but that such a situation existed appears to me to have been beyond dispute. (As a footnote, I should add the observation that the presence of a reality deficit does not mean that leaders throughout the periods I discuss did not have, in their own minds, the achievement of goals that seemed ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ in the interests of the state and its population. But such good intentions-and I certainly would accept that a case can that Pol Pot believed in what he was doing-were undermined by a disregard for reality.)

When Cambodia attained independence in 1953 its leader and his associates undoubtedly saw this event in more than simply political terms. The attainment of independence opened the way not only to a brave new world separate from French tutelage, but also to a recasting of the Cambodian state with the trappings of modernity. One major problem here was the uncomfortable fact that Cambodia had survived because of the colonial connection, which had done remarkably little to prepare Cambodia for its new status. This meant that in the years of independence Norodom Sihanouk, in his various guises as king, prime minister and chief of state, was seeking to both rule and develop a state without the necessary underpinning of the trained personnel and sufficient resources necessary to the country’s functioning as both an independent and a modern state. The end result, most notably apparent by the latter years of the 1960s, was that whatever might have been claimed to the contrary the administration of Cambodia was, in reality, a house of cards, fundamentally fragile and unstable. Its public face involved the fantasy that Cambodia had developed a thriving secondary and tertiary education system; that it was ‘an oasis of peace’; that Sihanouk, himself, was a world class film maker; and that accommodating the Vietnamese communists would insulate Cambodia from the Vietnam War.

The reality deficits apparent in the successor Lon Nol regime were no less striking. Indeed, in the complex manoeuvring that led up to Sihanouk’s deposition, and after, it is arguable that all of the principal actors displayed a readiness to choose their actions with a striking disregard for reality. While a case can be built to show the decision to overthrow Sihanouk developed from rational (realistic) considerations, the same cannot be said for many of the other assumptions embraced by the plotters before and after they took action. Consider just three of the most striking departure from realistic assumptions: it was assumed that a poorly equipped and trained Cambodian army could force battle-hardened Vietnamese troops from Cambodian territory; it was believed that the same the army, which had been increasingly shown to be unable to make progress against the developing internal rebellion, would be able to fight on two fronts; and there was an assumed reliance on the staying power of the United States to support an anti-communist regime in Phnom Penh, when there were clear indications that Washington was looking for ways to extricate its forces from the region. Against this last point, it is proper to note that America did continue to assist the Khmer Republic, almost to the end, but never with troops on the ground and always in the context of its announced commitment to a withdrawal from Vietnam.

Whatever the examples of a reality deficit at the time of the March 1970 coup, the behaviour of the Lon Nol government subsequently was truly egregious in this regard. In circumstances in which Lon Nol relied on the mystic powers of the Khmer race and took instruction from a monk who claimed to be a reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, the Phnom Penh government mounted such disastrous military episodes as Chenia 1 in 1970 and Chenia 2 the following year. That a regime as bizarre as that which existed in Phnom Penh between 1970 and 1975 managed to survive was not the result of any eventual embrace of a more realistic understanding of what was at stake. Rather it reflected the effects of the illegal American bombing campaign, until August 1973, and the remarkable courage and ability of some Cambodian military units and their commanders.

And so, belatedly, to the Democratic Kampuchea regime, about which I stress again my reliance on the research of others, leng Sary was to tell Philip Short, after the DK regime had fallen, that Pol Pot ‘had a very simplistic vision of things’. And that simplistic view involved the embrace of Utopianism in the pursuit of his concept of the total transformation of the state. It was an outlook that enabled Pol Pot, and his close associates, to disregard the consequences of so many of their actions and in doing so to encourage, or at very least consider unimportant, a pattern of extremism among those who carried out their orders. It permitted the pursuit of production goals lacking in realism, not least in terms of the a population that was increasingly ill-nourished. It placed authority in the hands of those who had no better qualification for the responsibility given them than blind adherence to the dictates of the centre. It privileged that same blind adherence to the centre in place of adherence of technical considerations in the construction of useless hydraulic works. And it ultimately led to the destruction of Democratic Kampuchea as a supreme embrace of unreality led to a belief that its forces could challenge the war machine of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In relation to this last point, one has to ask whether referring to a reality deficit is a sufficient way of describing Pol Pot’s absurd calculations to the effect that Cambodia would triumph over the Vietnamese through each Cambodian killing
thirty of the enemy.

The great British philosopher, Karl Popper, cautioned long before Pol Pot came to power, against the possibility of effecting a total reconstruction of a state. Yet in trying to do so the DK regime came to regard even the possibility of dissent as a basis for the elimination of ‘microbes’. It is impossible to give too much emphasis to the paranoia induced by DK’s radical Utopianism. It accounts for the outlook that a person such as Laurence Picq describes as she worked in the DK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as it does for the most shocking element in the regime’s existence, S-21, the Tuol Sleng extermination centre. We are shocked by what happened at S-21 in terms of the unspeakable brutality inflicted on its prisoners. But it surely is at least, and possibly more, shocking that it took place within the fantastical framework of confessions implicating the imagined machinations of foreign intelligence agencies.

With the demise of the DK regime, analysts have other questions to ask. Have the Cambodian governments which have succeeded the DK regime put the problem of reality deficit behind them?

Milton Osborne is a Visiting Fellow in the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, and an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Asian Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra. In relation to Cambodian history and politics he is the author of:

The French presence in Cochinchiina and Cambodia: Rule and Response 1859-1905, Ithaca, New York, 1969; reprinted Bangkok, 1997.

Politics and Power in Cambodia; The Sihanouk Years, Melbourne; 1973.

River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-1873, New York, 1975; second edition, Singapore, 1996.

Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy, Sydney, 1979; second edition Bangkok, 2004.

Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, Sydney and Honolulu 1994.

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, Sydney, 2000, updated edition, 2006.


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