Tag Archives: Khmer Rouge

About Cambodia on “From Third World to First”

It’s been a long but very interesting reading. It’s been inspiring and eye-opening. There are lessons about leadership, about relationship, about politics, about purposefulness, about confidence …. all of which I find incredibly empowering.

In addition to all above, here’s a short extract that I found really captivating and moving – definitely one of my favorite parts of the book.

“[…] I prefer to remember Cambodia as the oasis of peace and prosperity in the war-torn Indochina of the 1960s. Choo and I made our first visit to Phnom Penh, its capital, in 1962. Prince Norodom Sihanouk personally greeted us at the airport and had dancers in traditional costume scatter flower petals on the red carpet as we walked to the car after I had inspected a guard of honor. Phnom Penh was like a French provincial town, quiet and peaceful with wide boulevards reminiscent of the Champs Elysees in Paris lined with trees and flanked by side roads also shaded by trees. There was even a monumental archway, a Khmer version of the Arc de Triomphe, at the center of a major crossroads, the Place de e’independence. We stayed at the Palais du Gouvernement, formerly the residence of the French governor general, by the Mekong River. Sihanouk himself lived in the old palace. He entertained us to dinner in grand style, then flew us in his personal Russian aircraft to see Angkor Wat.

Sihanouk was an extraordinary personality, highly intelligent and full of energy and joie de vivre. He had the airs and graces of an educated French gentleman, with allt he accompanying gestures and mannerisms, and spoken English the French way. Medium in height, a little rotund, he had a broad face with flared nostrils like the stone carvings on the temples around Angkor Wat. He was an excellent host who made each visit a memorable and enjoyable occasion. His banquets of French haute cuisine, with the French wines and beautiful cutlery to match, were a treat. I remember going to his palace in the provincial of Batambang, driving up to a raised entrance typical of driveways in French chateaux. As we arrived, short Cambodian guards, looking dwarfed by their thigh-high gleaming black Napolenonic boots with helmets to match, saluted with glinting swords. The reception and banquet halls were luxuriously furnished and air-conditioned. There was a Western and a Cambodian orchestra. Foreign diplomats were in attendance. It was a royal occasion.

The prince was mercurial, hypersensitive to criticism. He would answer every press article that was in any way critical. Politics for him was the press and publicity. When he was overthrown in the 1970 coup he said that he sought refuge in Beijing because he feared for his life. I believe that had he returned to Cambodia then, no soldier would have dared to shoot him on arrival at the airport. He was their god-king. He had kept Cambodia an oasis of peace and plenty in a troubled, war-ravaged Indochina by maintaining a precarious balance between the communists and the West. He sought the friendship and protection of the Chinese while he kept his ties with the West through France. When he stayed in Beijing instead of returning to defy the coup makers, the old Cambodia was destroyed.

I met him again when he came to Singapore in September 1981 for talks on forming a coalition with the Khmer Rouge. It was a changed Shihanouk. He had gone back to Phnom Penh and been a captive of the Khmer Rouge. He had been through a harrowing time; many of his children and grandchildren had been killed by Pol Pot, and he himself was in fear for his life. The old bouncy Sihanouk had been destroyed. He laughter, the high-pitched shill voice when he got excited, his gestures—all were more muted. He was a living tragedy, a symbol of what had happened to his country and his people. The Chinese had rescued him just before the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh at the beginning of 1979. He appeared before the UN Security Council to speak against the Vietnamese invasion, and he became the international symbol of Cambodian resistance. For a long time he was unforgiving and adamant against a coalition government with the Khmer Rouge.

After the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh, the Cambodians, or Kampucheans as they called themselves during Pol Pot’s regime, were not active in the region. A senior minister, Ieng Sary, visited me in March 1977. He was soft-spoken, round-faced, and chubby; he looked the softest, kindest person, one who would look after babies tenderly. He was the brother-in-law and trusted aide of the infamous Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who had slaughtered from 1 to 2 million Cambodians out of the a population of 7 million, including most of the educated, Cambodia’s brightest and best. He made no reference to this genocide and I decided against questing him. He was bound to deny, as their Khmer rouge broadcasts did, that it ever took place. Ieng Sary was realistic. He wanted trade—barter trade. He needed spare parts for factories, pumps for irrigation, and outboard motors for their finishing boats. In exchange, he offered fish from the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s famous inland lake which flooded every year and produced excellent fish. The barter trade did not flourish (they had problems with logistics), so we had little trade or anything else to do with them.

Relations between Vietnam and Cambodia deteriorated with border clashes. Vietnam attached Cambodia in 1978 and captured it in January 1979. Thereafter, Cambodia existed in my consciousness only through our activities in and out of the UN to garner votes to block the Vietnamese puppet government from taking over Cambodia’s UN seat, and through our support for Cambodian resistance forces operating from the Thai-Cambodian border.

Sihanouk’s son, Prince Ranariddh, I had met several times between 1981 and 1991. His father had placed him in charge of the royalist forces near the Thai border with Cambodia. Ranariddh resembled his father in voice, mannerisms, facial expression, and body language. He was darker-complexioned and smaller, more equable in temperament and less swayed by the mood of the moment, but otherwise much in the same mold. He had his father’s fluency in French and had taught law in Lyon University before he took over the leadership of the royalist forces.

When I inspected their training camp in northeast Thailand in the 1980s I noted that it was not well organized and lacked military spirit. It was the best Ranariddh could do because, like him, his generals and officers spent more time in Bangkok than in the camp. As we were supporting them with weapons and radio equipment, I felt disappointed. After the 1991 settlement, the big aid donors took over. Ranariddh became the first prime minister (with Hun Sen as second prime minister) when his party won the 1993 UN-organized election. When we met in Singapore that August, I warned him that the coalition was a precarious arrangement. The military, police, and administration belonged to Hun Sen. If he wanted to survive, Ranariddh had to win over a part of Hun Sen’s army and police officers and some of the provincial governors. Being called the first prime minister and having his man appointed dense minister were of little value when the officers and troops were loyal to Hun Sen. He probably did not take my words to heart. He might have believed that his royal blood would assure him the support of the people, that he would be irreplaceable.

I met Hun Sen in Singapore in December that same year. He was a totally different character, a tough survivor of the Khmer Rouge, a prime minister appointed by the Vietnamese in the 1980s but agile enough to distance himself from them and be acceptable to the Americans and West Europeans. He left an impression of strength and ruthlessness. He understood power, that it came from the barrel of the gun, which he was determined to hold. Once the Khmer Rouge was on the decline, and Ranariddh could no longer team up with them to challenge him, Hun Sen ousted him in 1997 and took complete control, while remaining nominally second prime minister. Sihanouk had become king again after the 1993 election, but his poor health and frequent absences from Cambodia for cancer treatment in Beijing had taken him of the cockpit of power now occupied completely by Hun Sen and his army.

Cambodia is like a porcelain vase that has been smashed into myriads of shards. To put them together will be a slow and laborious task. As with all the mended porcelain, it cannot withstand much pressure. Pol Pot had killed 90 percent of Cambodia’s intelligentsia and trained personnel. The country now lacks a coherent administration. The people have been accustomed to lawless conditions for so long that they are no longer law-abiding. Only the gun is feared.

The people of Cambodia are the losers. The country is crushed, its educated class decimated, its economy devastated. Hun Sen’s coup caused Cambodia’s admission into ASEAN to be postponed. It was eventually admitted in April 1999 because no country wanted to spend US$2 billion for another UN operation to hold fair elections. Cambodia had had 27 years of war since Lon Nol’s 1970 coup. Its present leaders are the products of bitter, relentless struggles in which opponents were either eliminated or neutralized. They are utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings. History has been cruel to the Cambodians.]

Page 324-328, “From Third World to First” by LKY


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