Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes – Yevgeni Kobelev, Nikolai Solntsev and Albert Liberman

Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cambodia was a casualty of Cold War posturing on the part of the great powers.  In their struggle for global domination the competing blocs of East and West cynically used Cambodia as a pawn to be played in their zero sum game. Put simply, the Chinese and Soviets (even though they were rivals) were united in helping the Vietnamese fight the Americans during the 1960s and early 1970s. Once the Vietnam War ended, the USSR and China set about trying to gain influence and control over the newly communist countries of South East Asia.  Cambodia, already destabilised by the war in neighbouring Vietnam, was finally torn apart when Nixon ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1970 as a way to put pressure on the Vietcong.  This led to the collapse of the existing royal government under Prince Sihanouk (who had tried to remain out of the war) and the rise of Lon Nol (a military dictator allied to the Americans). This in turn led to the strengthening of a communist guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to create a new society in Cambodia. With the American exit and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Lon Nol’s regime collapsed and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took power. They immediately instituted a radical form of ultra-communism (inspired by Maoist ideology) in which they attempted to produce an agrarian utopia. In pursuit of this they murdered millions during their rule from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge’s attitude towards killing can be summed up in their motto: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Estimates vary, but the figure given is that they were responsible for the death of approximately 1.7 million people (one fifth of the population) during this period.

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This murderous regime was only ousted when Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed)  in 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed and retreated into the jungle to fight a guerrilla war. Many elements of the group only finally surrendered in the late 1990s after doing a deal with the Cambodian government. However, the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in 1979 exposed the horrific scale of atrocities they had perpetrated in their quest to build a “pure” society. In the meantime, a pro-Vietnamese government was installed in Pnomh Penh and the country was renamed as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This is the basic historical narrative. But what happened during the 1980s is a lot less well known.

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In an attempt to undermine the communist bloc through divide and rule tactics, Nixon opened relations with Maoist China in the early 1970s, deepening a split that had existed between the USSR and China since the 1960s. The tactic worked and China slowly moved towards the West. But the ripple effects of this policy had a profound impact on countries allied to either China or Russia; in South East Asia, Vietnam and Laos were firmly allied to the USSR, while Khmer Rouge controlled Democratic Kampuchea was in the pro-Chinese camp. While tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam had always been a historical factor, the 1979 invasion can in part be regarded as a proxy-conflict fuelled by sparring Chinese and Soviet factions as they sought to establish their dominance over the region.

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So into this steps the United States, China’s new best friend. In effect this meant was that  the US ended up supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge who were still hiding out in the jungle. Throughout much of the 1980s, the US recognised an alliance of the Khmer Rouge (who gave themselves a very cosmetic rebrand) and Prince Sihanouk as the legitimate government of Kampuchea/Cambodia and supported their claim in the United Nations. They even instigated a Cuba-like sanctions regime and economic blockade of the country in support of the Khmer Rouge. This got so bad that Oxfam, the international NGO and aid agency, published Punishing the Poor; the International Isolation of Kampuchea in 1988. This book argued that these sanctions were causing untold damage to a society traumatised by years of terror and murder and called for international assistance to rebuild this fragile society. It also cites a letter from December 1986 from a US senator which details that 85 million dollars were given to the Khmer Rouge between 1980 and 1986 (page 83), a period long after the genocide had been exposed. This was made possible by the fact that public and media interest in that part of the world had waned by the 1980s. Obviously US government support for genocidal mass-murderers would have been impossible without widespread indifference and apathy on the part of the general public to the consequences of political decisions being made in their name.  All this meant that the deeply cynical and immoral stance (to put it mildly) taken by the US government in support of the Khmer Rouge went largely unnoticed and the suffering of those who had survived the genocide was compounded. The lesson is clear; the great powers play their games and small countries are mere pawns to be used for international point scoring. As always, it is the poor and powerless that suffer the most. That lesson is as applicable today as it was in the past.

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Published by Planeta of Moscow in 1988, this book is a pictorial account of the reconstruction efforts being made by the Vietnamese-backed government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under Heng Samrin. A typical 1980s design, this glossy book is a part of Planeta’s Countries of the World series in which they showcased various Soviet allies in a format similar to travel photobooks of exotic destinations the world over. In particular, the book emphasises the aid given by the USSR to rebuilding Cambodia through photographs credited to Albert Liberman which are unremittingly positive. Throughout, the text repeatedly asserts the hideous nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, emphasising how every aspect of Cambodian society was utterly destroyed during this period. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted educated people for execution and broke up family groups in their pursuit of a new and “pure” society. The book begins with some double page spreads of the Cambodian landscape interspersed with small photos of individual workers and farmers. This then moves on to an extensive section which extols the resilience and perseverance of the Khmer people to overcome their recent nightmare and build a better society (with Soviet help). To prove this, the book contrasts images of traditional Cambodian buildings and temples with progressive new hospitals, factories, soft drink sellers and Soviet ships entering port. All this serves to show that old and new coexist peacefully in Soviet-backed Kampuchea. These themes were carefully chosen because all of them were targets of the Khmer Rouge who emptied the cities and forced the population into camps in the countryside. There they were reduced to abject slaves, living in constant fear of starvation or execution. The captions beneath these images further emphasise the contrast between the current situation and the all too recent terror of Khmer Rouge rule.

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As a country in which the rice crop is vital, agriculture takes up the next section. Indeed, all the deaths and forced labour in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge revolved around an insane attempt to increase the rice yield (inspired by similar schemes tried in Maoist China which led to their famine of 1959-61). Now, with Vietnamese and Soviet assistance, sanity has been restored. Traditional agricultural practices along with modern innovations (such as tractors) have succeeded in transforming the countryside back into the picturesque, and happy, state it once was. All the images of those working and living here show a contented and happy peasantry, greatful to be free of the Khmer Rouge and looking to the future.

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This leads on to the next section which concerns the future generations. Here again, the horrors of Khmer Rouge life are contrasted with the progress ushered in by the new regime. Any form of education or exposure to the outside world was regarded as a threat by the Khmer Rouge and they actively attempted to kill anybody who possessed it. Even wearing glasses would get you killed. In pursuit of an ethnically pure Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge wanted a docile population, isolated from the outside world, who would obey without question. The photographs show how the education infrastructure is being restored with schools and third level colleges being established (with Soviet assistance) to give the country a modern future. This progressive narrative is combined with the resurrection of traditional Cambodian culture (also banned by the Khmer Rouge) in order to establish the legitimacy of the new regime by linking it to the past. Thus, it is presented as the inevitable and natural outcome of historical progress. Photographs of historical buildings and artefacts along with people engaged in traditional practices, serve to underline the respect the regime has for the past, in stark contrast to the vandalising Khmer Rouge who sought to wipe the slate clean. The final section of the book is devoted to the overt legacy of violence. Here, we are shown images of the Tuol Sleng prison and the remains of the apparatus of torture and murder used by the Khmer Rouge. These are then followed by images of the new Kampuchean military who are presented as being wholly determined to fight off any threat to the newly established state.

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Trapped between the competing agendas of East and West, the Soviets were actually the lesser of two evils. While it would be a mistake to assume that they were not selfishly pursuing their own geo-political aims, in contrast to the murderous alternative of Khmer Rouge rule their objectives were benign. The USSR and Vietnam had an interest in establishing a stable and functioning society (under their control) in which mass murder and genocide were not a daily reality in order to discredit the Chinese. This book is designed to assert the legitimacy of the Vietnamese/Soviet backed regime through contrasting the bright future ahead with the horrors of the past. While the text continually refers to the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, the images do not (with the exception of the Tuol Sleng photographs). Through the use of predominantly upbeat and positive imagery and a design that is similar to unconfrontational travel photobooks, this publication effectively normalises a deeply divided, fearful and traumatised society coming to terms with a horrific past.

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2 Comments on “Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes – Yevgeni Kobelev, Nikolai Solntsev and Albert Liberman”

  1. christerek says:

    As usual, we learn a lot about history in your posts ! Thanks for another great one !


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