David Blackburn

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

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.

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