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

A girl in an Ariana Grande top. Photo: Getty
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The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop - we can't let the Manchester attack change that

What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

This morning, while the radio news talked of nothing but Manchester, my 10-year-old daughter asked me if it was still safe to go and see Adele at Wembley Stadium in July. The ticket was her big Christmas present and the printout of the order confirmation has been blu-tacked to her wall for months. She’s as excited about it as she has been excited about any event in her life, but now she’s also scared. Could this have happened to her when she saw Ed Sheeran the other week? Could it happen to her at Wembley, or anywhere else? I am sure that there are similar conversations happening across the country. Some long-awaited birthday treats will be cancelled. Red letter days erased from the calendar. Parents can allay their children’s fears (and their own), and decide to go ahead despite them, but they cannot pretend the fear isn’t there, suddenly, where it wasn’t before.

When I first started going to gigs in 1989, I never worried about not coming back. I fretted about missing the last train back to the suburbs, or not having a good view of the stage. You can feel unsafe at a gig, especially if you’re a girl in a moshpit where boys can’t keep their hands to themselves, but usually not life-or-death unsafe. Fatal crowd disasters such as Roskilde in 2000 and Cincinnati in 1979 have spurred the concert industry into making venues as safe as possible. There are sensible, practical measures you can take to avoid crushes.

Terrorism at music venues, however, is relatively new and hard to deal with. This is why the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 had such an enormous impact. There is no hierarchy of tragedy — a death due to terrorism is a death due to terrorism, whether it’s in a concert hall in Paris or a mosque in Iraq — but some tragedies are so close to home that they change the way you think. The first show I attended after the Bataclan (New Order in Brixton) was charged with a strange electricity, as defiance defeated anxiety and the rational mind silenced this new kind of fear. A few weeks later I saw Savages in Paris and it was even more intense. The venue was small and subterranean. I have never paid such close attention to the location of the exits.

Everyone has tried to reassert normality after an atrocity has felt like this: the first time they took the tube after 7/7, or went to work in New York in September 2001, or danced in Miami after the Pulse shootings, or stayed out late in Istanbul after last New Year’s Eve. In some countries the fear is never allowed to fade. What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop, and it is often misunderstood, if not patronised and dismissed. Their excitement doesn’t derive purely from fancying the star on the stage — when I saw Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (at the MEN arena in fact), the screaming was as intense as it is for any boy band. In fact, it’s not entirely to do with what’s happening on the stage at all. As a critic in my 40s who’s been to hundreds of shows, I may be bothered by an incoherent concept or a mid-set lull, but nobody around me is solely interested in the performance. Even shows that I’ve found disappointing have an ecstatic carnival atmosphere because a pop show is a catalyst for a great night out — one that may have been anticipated for months. The pop star is a vessel for a mess of inchoate desires and thrilling, confusing sensations (Bowie knew this) so the girls aren’t just screaming for the star; they’re screaming for themselves and for each other. They are celebrating music, of course, but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at its most unquenchable. It’s a rite of passage that should never be contaminated by even an inkling of dread.

First and foremost, I feel compassion for the victims and their friends and families. Then for the survivors, including Ariana Grande, who will be traumatised for a long time to come. But beyond those immediately affected, this atrocity will cast a long shadow across the youths of countless pop fans. Will something like this happen again? Perhaps not. Statistically, the possibility of an attack at one particular show is minuscule. Over time, the fear will subside, because it always does. My daughter is absolutely still going to see Adele, and she’ll have a whale of a time. But the knowledge that it could happen at all means a loss of innocence.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

0800 7318496