David Blackburn

From the archives – the Khmers Rouge’s debt to 1950s France

From the archives – the Khmers Rouge’s debt to 1950s France
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It is 13 years to the day since Pol Pot died in mysterious circumstances while in exile on Cambodia’s remote western border with Thailand. Where did Pot and his maniacal fellow travellers acquire their politics. There are a number of candidates from the megalomania of the 20th Century, but Michael Sheridan, the Sunday Times’ former Asia Editor, notes that France, or more exactly aspects of French culture at the end of the colonial era, played its part. He explained why to the Spectator.

Pol Pot and Chardonnay, Michael Sheridan, 21 September 1996

Not long ago, the Americans found in their archives in Washington a long-forgotten film about Cambodia, made by the United States Information Service at the beginning of the 1960s. The technicians converted the 16-millimetre cinefilm to video and flew a copy to Phnom Penh, where the American ambassador solemnly presented the tape to King Sihanouk. It is a curious fragment of fin-de-siecle history: the elderly God-King sitting in some gilded salon of his palace, watching the flickering images with Cambodia's ghosts flitting around him and the impoverished city hushed in darkness beyond the palace walls.

In its faded frames the film records a Phnom Penh where graceful girls cycled down fragrant boulevards lined with trees, where cafe life pursued a Gallic rhythm, where the cigarette smoke held a tang of Gauloise, and fresh baguettes appeared each morning at breakfast. The 1950s buildings boasted the curved balconies and facades that characterise similar late-colonial edifices still standing in Beirut and Algiers. In short, it was not so much Cambodia as Indochine, a tropical Aix-en-Provence with the extra attraction of exotic sex and the charms of the opium pipe.

The baguettes still appear at breakfast, even if the crust is a bit thick. But in the dilapidated streets of King Sihanouk's riverside capital only a few symbols remain of the presence of France. Long seasons of rain and decades of neglect have left but a faint patina of the painted signs that once proudly identified the premises of bistros and breweries. In the few oases of night life, the strains of the karaoke tape and ubiquitous Filipino bands playing American pop music entertain a hard-faced breed of Asian client. French culture, so intimately bound up with the splendours and evils of modern Cambodia, is in retreat.

Nobody could accuse the French government of surrendering without a fight. From Paris the orders have come for a rearguard action of splendid dignity: c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. An enormous new French embassy has been constructed, at least five times the size of the modest villa inhabited by Her Britannic Majesty's three representatives. But it is the BBC World Service, not Radio France International, that is listened to throughout the city on an FM relay. The French have poured millions of francs into the encouragement of francophone education through teaching and scholarships. But there is already open confrontation with young Cambodians who want to learn English, the universal business language in Asia. “Thais talk to Vietnamese in English and Chinese talk to Malaysians in English and Singaporeans talk to Japanese in English,” says a local businessman.

In one unguarded moment the French ambassador is said to have permitted himself the rueful observation that Cambodia was never really a francophone country, a lapse into frankness that earned him a stiff rebuke from the Quai d'Orsay. Since one is informed with haughty politeness (if not the strictest truth) that “monsieur l'ambassadeur ne parle jamais aux journalistes”, this gem is, alas, impossible to verify. Its entertainment value to the rest of Phnom Penh’s small diplomatic corps, however, is indubitable.

Of course, tragedy runs beneath the vanishing of French Cambodia, but it is a tragedy with its roots in post-war France. The elimination of Cambodian intellectuals was the work of men and women christened by the francophone Sihanouk ‘Les Khmers Rouges’ and when these fearsome ideologues retreated to the jungles they were known at first as the maquis. They had imbibed their political theory on the Left Bank during its unyielding, existentialist period of the 1950s. The dictator Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, studied radio electronics in France. Leng Sary, who played Molotov to Pol Pot's Stalin but has now broken from him, was educated there in commerce and politics. Khjeu Samphan, the movement's military commander, won a scholarship to Paris and submitted his thesis in 1959 on Cambodia's economy and industrial development. It was revolutionary, prescriptive and autarchic, no doubt winning plaudits from his teachers. The appalling Hu Nim, a craven figure who became the Khmer Rouge information minister, wrote a dissertation on economic organisation. Hu Nim was later ‘crushed to death’ at the torture centre of Tuol Sleng in one of Pol Pot's insane purges.

The common vehicle for the exiles was the Khmer Student Association in France. They used French freedom of expression, denied them at home in Sihanouk's languid kingdom, to imitate the French Communist Party. At that time the PCF was a thoroughly Stalinist body, steeped in overt hatred of the bourgeoisie, which preached the collectivisation of agriculture. In 1975, when these people conquered Phnom Penh, they applied such principles with a literal-minded intellectual rigour that even the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai found terrifying. Their latest, and possibly final, split is in the revolutionary tradition of personal factionalism and murderous rhetoric.

Thus France and Cambodia were bound together through colonialism and communism, the one playing down the years in counterpoint to the other. Just as the French established 19th-century Cambodia's borders against Thai and Vietnamese encroachment, so they practically invented the modern Khmer identity through that miraculous moment when Henri Mouhot rediscovered the temples of Angkor Wat in the 1860s. Then, the destruction of Cambodia was founded on a system taught, no doubt with Cartesian exactness, by French academics. It is a legacy of such ambiguity and menace that perhaps the only way for the French to cope with it is to pretend that none of the great issues ever happened.

So the pages of Cambodge Soir, a small daily paper published by a group with the evocative name of Editions du Mekong, report the dispatch to the Grand Palais in Paris of 27 precious statues from the lost Khmer epoch. French experts will restore the damaged pieces before they go on exhibition. Cambodge Soir concerns itself with such things as the anniversary of the death of Denis Diderot and a column instructing readers in the correct application of French vocabulary. In Phnom Penh's few bookshops one may find reprinted editions of the French classics of Indochina exploration. In the capital's most expensive hotel, a French chef prepares excellent magret de canard and crepes suzettes for wealthy local diners, most of whom look the sort of gentlemen who took lessons in civic probity from the former mayor of Nice.

Far from Phnom Penh, in the small provincial town of Siem Reap near Angkor, we were served a chilled bottle of chardonnay from the Ardeche for a mere $16. You have to admire the resilience of the finer things in French life. Perhaps M. Juppe, who is in search of public spending cuts, should bring home the cultural attaches and send out a few more crates of chardonnay.