Statues in the ruins of Angkor Wat, photographed in 1952. Photo by Baron/Getty Images
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Finding Pol Pot’s lost love

For most of his thirties, Cambodia's brutal dictator worked as a French teacher in Phnom Penh and his students adored him.

Whenever I meet people who knew Pol Pot before he became Cambodia’s brutal communist dictator, I am puzzled by how much they liked him. For most of his thirties, he worked as a French teacher in Phnom Penh and his students adored him.

How do you explain Pol Pot’s transformation from popular schoolteacher into the man responsible for Cambodia’s 1975-79 genocide, in which as many as two million people died? Keng Vannsak, his former mentor, told me that he believed the revolutionary suffered from a broken heart.

According to Vannsak, in 1949 Pol Pot fell in love with a princess and one-time beauty queen, Son Maly. Around five years later, she left him for Sam Sary, his political rival and the second most powerful man in the kingdom – and Pol Pot gradually lost faith in both romantic love and democracy, devoting his life to revolutionary struggle.

While researching my latest novel, which is set in Phnom Penh in 1955, I wondered what had become of Son Maly. Keng Vannsak had told me that she left for London with Sam Sary (as well as his wife and children), after he was appointed Cambodian ambassador. The pair apparently made tabloid headlines after she escaped from the embassy with her newborn baby and sought asylum, claiming that Sam Sary had whipped her. He was recalled to Phnom Penh and stripped of his privileges. A few years later, he died, most likely killed by his former allies.

I found an article about Sam Sary’s disastrous spell as ambassador in Time magazine, dated 21 July 1958. There is no mention of Son Maly. The piece claims that Sam Sary brought two women from the 1955 Miss Cambodia beauty contest with him: the winner, Tep Kanary, and another competitor, Iv Eng Seng. Iv Eng Seng was the woman who claimed asylum. Changing your name is common in Cambodia, yet when I met Sam Sary’s son, Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia’s opposition party, he denied that Iv Eng Seng had ever been in a beauty contest or been called Son Maly.

So I focused on the other woman, Tep Kanary, and returned to Cambodia. I dug through what remains of the national archives after decades of turmoil and interviewed dozens of people. Finally I found her family’s elegant home outside Phnom Penh. The neighbours remembered her – “What a beauty,” they recalled. But their story did not match Keng Vannsak’s: Tep Kanary wasn’t of royal descent.

I vowed to confront Keng Vannsak with these contradictions. The then 83-year-old scholar was reluctant to receive me, tired of everybody “who wanted things but never gave anything in return”, but he finally agreed to meet me in Paris in the spring of 2009. In December 2008, I read his obituary. We would never meet.

I wrote once more to Sam Rainsy, who replied: “Tep Kanary, whom I know little of, was not a part my father’s household in London.” I had reached a dead end.

Then a small door opened in the wall. I received third-hand information about another woman named “Somaly”, who allegedly accompanied Sam Sary to London. I started asking around and again came up against a barrage of confusing, contradictory information.

I had finished writing my book and given up my quest when finally I was given a phone number for a woman I strongly believed was Son Maly: a 75-year-old real-estate owner in Texas. Yet I already knew, as I slowly dialled
the number, that no one would answer. 

“Song For an Approaching Storm” by Peter Fröberg Idling is published by Pushkin Press (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder