The bitter end in Cambodia

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 25 April 1975</strong>

As a young foreign correspondent, James Fenton wrote an article for the New Statesman on the eve of the Khmer Rouge's final victory in Cambodia in 1975. Fenton wondered why so many Cambodian men continued to fight against the Khmer Rouge despite facing inevitable defeat. This sadly prophetic piece conveys an ominous feeling of impending doom, but still does not foresee the scale of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Selected by Robert Taylor

I went back, on Tuesday of this week, to visit the remains of the Khmer Republic — at least all that seems to remain of it (and by the time you read this it may have succumbed as well). It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, a temple complex predating Angkor Wat, set on top of a 1,500-foot cliff, commanding a view which would rival even the Malvern Hills.

The only easy access is through the Dongrek mountains from Thailand. This is why the place has not yet been taken. To enter it, the Khmer Rouge are going to have to scale the cliff, which is possible although the approach has been well booby-trapped. On both occasions that I have visited the Temple of Preah Vihear, some sure-footed mountain creature has stepped on a mine and blasted itself into another existence. These occasional exploding animals must act as a disincentive to the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps when the communists enter they should drive a herd of goats before them across the minefield.

The temple still holds out and the tattered flag of Lon Nol’s Republic still flies over the ruins. About 130 soldiers defend the place and intend to go on doing so until their ammunition runs out. Or so they say. When you ask them why they continue to fight (exchanging small arms and mortar fire at night) they say it is because they do not want communism. But then they say that perhaps in a few days they will move off to Thailand.

They don’t know what to do, it is clear. They heard the old government’s call for surrender but they say (rightly) that it was not read out by the On the other hand they know that their commander-in-chief is now in Thailand. They’ve lost contact with their own headquarters in Siem Reap. They have no money and no supplies. But they don’t give up. They say: ‘If the Khmer Rouge were of good heart, we would join them. But they are not of good heart.’

It doesn’t matter, I suppose, since one way or another their futures are going to be sorted out very soon. But it makes me think of one feature of Lon Nol’s army which the Left has tended to ignore. The fact is the soldiers of the Republic continued fighting their losing battle until the very end. Is this remarkable? Well, I seem to remember reading, before I first went to Indochina, a lot of articles about how appalling FANK (the Forces Armées Nationales Khmères) and its Vietnamese counterpart, ARVN, were, how they would collapse as soon as the Americans left, how it was impossible for Thieu and Lon Nol to find anyone to fight for them.

These views were regularly expressed in the NEW STATESMAN, and continue to appear. Last year, for instance, this paper referred in a leader to ‘the mere fact’ that Phuoc Binh was abandoned without a struggle (a mere fact for which one would be interested

to know the mere source). And two weeks ago Simon Head was declaring that the collapse in the Central Highlands of Vietnam was ‘completely predictable’, and putting it down to the malaise in the army. But the Central Highlands fiasco was at least partly a result of a disastrous top-level decision, which set off a chain reaction of surprising speed — surprising, surely, even to Mr Head.

If the events of the past weeks were completely predictable, the events of the previous weeks and months, during which time thousands and thousands of men have sacrificed their lives for Thieu and Lon Nol, were not. Obviously it is the duty of the Left to take a look at why so many workers and peasants died for causes that the Left so much despised.

The notorious thing about FANK, then, was not its cowardice but its bravery. Having previously been nothing more than the Prince’s plaything (called FARK) it went first into battle against one of the most sophisticated and energetic armies in the world, the NVA (how would the British Army do against the NVA, I wonder, at home or away? Come to that, how would the Brits do against ARVN?). By the time that the Khmer Rouge had really been established FANK had already lost considerable ground, but it picked up considerably (as did ARVN) after direct American support had been withdrawn; and it went on, in last year’s dry season, to hold its own and defeat the attack on Phnom Penh.

During the course of its history, it also suffered several long and bitter sieges, until by the end it was everywhere besieged. Under the worst of such conditions it invariably showed itself at its best. At Kompong Cham in 1973 and Kampot in 1974 it surprised most ‘military experts’ by outlasting a strong and determined attack. In Kompong Seila, during a siege which lasted 11 months, the soldiers lived off Khmer Rouge flesh in order to survive. It is said that they used to send out foraging parties1 in order to bring back a few chaps for lunch. In Neak Luong, which became the lynch-pin of the war, the Khmer Rouge, made it their top priority that the town should be taken before Phnom Penh. Until that time they had never succeeded in over running an important town in which FANK had chosen to fight. The siege began in’ early January and continued, with heavy fighting until 1 April, the day Lon Not left The evidence is that the defenders fought I until the bitter end. Meanwhile the rest of FANK continued until not only Lon Nol had left, but also his replacement had gone, the Americans had gone, every other em bassy had gone long since, the money had almost gone, the ammunition was clearly running out, the airlift had turned to air drops and the Khmer Rouge had forced their way into the centre of town. At this point, on orders, they surrendered. Or rather they did in Phnom Penh. In the rest of the country it is taking a little longer, as we have seen.

Why should it take so long? Why did thel average soldier not throw away his arms and surrender long before? There was littie enough to induce him to fight. The pay was insufficient and usually late; he knew th government to be corrupt and incompeten He knew, or should have known, that he had nothing to gain from the war. I believe that part of the explanation comes from the nature of the Khmer Rouge. For behind the1 military victory . of last week — remarkable though it was — lies a political failure. What the Cambodian communists never succeeded in doing was carrying their revolution to th cities. The conditions, one might have thought, were there. The police apparatus was relatively weak. The Government unpopular. The radical students were allowed to say more or less what they wished, and did indeed do some quasi.revolutionary sabre.rattling. But no move seriously made to propagandise to the anlel Khieu Samphan made some radio broad casts, calling on the troops to surrender, ai yet I think that in two years army changed sides on only two occasions.

The popular image of the Khmer Rouge, encouraged by government propaganda, me F have been a caricature. Towards the end at the war people gave up talking about d! ‘ Khmer Rouge as if they were simply murd. erous maniacs. But there remained a certai notion of the communist movement whid may well correspond to the truth, a notiun of an authoritarian, austere, cruel society where a terrifying justice was meted out I all alike.

What is known about Khmer Rout society? What concepts are particul attached to it? The concept of poverty a way of life, of uniformity (forced haircs for women), of secrecy (secrecy about I Khmer Rouge government and about l outside world — enforced by such measul as the ban on dry batteries), of hard wo as virtue, and the concept of nationalisea Because of the last of these, they came to respected by Phnom Penh, both by tt’ government and the people. But the othea make an unattractive list. Why not! What have they to do with socialism? V/haL have they, indeed, to do with communism? It will be said that the Khmer Rouge had no choice. Working from the direst poverty, they had to achieve a great degree of regirnentation and discipline throughout society j order to win the war. I say that their 0rdering of society was the greatest stumbling block and hindrance to their winning of the war. Nor do I believe that the methods hitherto adopted will now be abandoned, even though society will no doubt eventually become less rigorous.

A certain euphoria came over Phnom Penh just towards the end of the war at the thought that the fighting was soon to be over. And many people seemed almost ready to welcome the communist troops (which is what eventually happened after the surrender). There were some who went into a panic, however, or wondered whether they should leave if possible. One of these was a friend who had previously been in the Khmer Rouge, and who had always hitherto been prepared to speak frankly in their favour. As the ‘Liberation’ forces came nearer to victory, his attitude changed to fear; and when he saw that there was no possibility of his leaving he seemed to sink into dejection. When I reminded him of his previous remarks, he said pathetically that he had only been joking. Why else did I think he had left the Khmer Rouge? Of course he disliked communism.

Nobody knew what to expect but this man knew something more than the rest. He seemed to have just remembered it — and I wondered what it was.


James Fenton is a poet, journalist and literary critic who wrote regularly for the New Statesman in the 70s and 80s.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China