A survivor of the killing fields
Cambodia | How a Cambodian Christian overcame tragedy and horror thanks to the love, faith, and courage God gave him
by Les Sillars
Posted 12/10/16, 08:37 am
During the past half-century, U.S. forces have fought in two long conflicts—neither an official war as declared by Congress. Both turned out badly for Americans killed or injured, but even more so for many of the people we were fighting for.
The Vietnam conflict, extended into Cambodia in 1970, ended up with a communist victory in South Vietnam and an imposed dictatorship there. The Cambodian result was even worse: Not only dictatorship but the murder of 1.7 million people supposedly contaminated by education, religion, reading, business ownership, city life, any contact with Americans, and so on.
In the following excerpt from the just-published Intended for Evil, Patrick Henry College professor—and WORLD Magazine Mailbag editor—Les Sillars tells the story of one who survived the Cambodian killing fields. With the permission of Baker Books, here are the author’s note, prologue, and Chapter 1: They introduce us to the overall tragedy and the horror Radha Manickam was able to overcome only through the love, faith, and courage God gave him. —Marvin Olasky
“You should call this guy,” David Aikman told me in the fall of 2013. We were in a hallway at Patrick Henry College, where we both taught. David, a senior Time correspondent for many years, had heard from mutual friends an incredible tale about a Cambodian Christian who had survived the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. According to David, this person wanted someone to write down his stories. He passed along the email address of one Radha Manickam of Seattle.
As my knowledge of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge at the time consisted of a hazy recollection of a movie, The Killing Fields, I had no idea where this might lead. But I sent Radha a note, and we set up a phone call. Radha mentioned his forced marriage, the loss of almost all his family, and seeing people murdered. I promised to do some reading and call him back.
I soon realized that the Khmer Rouge regime was one of modern history’s greatest catastrophes—and one largely forgotten in recent years. I found the Khmer Rouge both horrifying and fascinating. No other government in modern history has killed a greater percentage of its own citizens? The most totalitarian government ever attempted? Torture, starvation, and mass executions? Civil war and bloody revolution? Because of the Vietnam War, the American military was involved in Cambodia and even, said critics, partly responsible? And Radha, then a new Christian and the slightly spoiled son of a wealthy merchant, had lived through it all? Wow.
So in January 2014, I started interviewing Radha; we had long conversations at least weekly for a year. Every time we spoke, he told me something else that made my jaw drop: people sliced open before his eyes, treks through the jungles, unbelievable deprivation, and a faith that survived many doubts and much anger. The story he told was stunning. I hope I’ve done it justice.
The human memory is often less than completely accurate, but Radha’s story was remarkably consistent with what I was learning in my investigations about life under the Khmer Rouge. For example, when Radha described how the leaders of his village were purged in the summer of 1978 or communal dining areas were instituted in the fall of 1976, I later read in various historical and scholarly studies that, yes, the Central Committee in Phnom Penh had instituted just such a policy around that time.
Radha’s story also matched the many memoirs of Khmer Rouge victims; what he described for me corresponded to the experience of many, many other people. He seemed rather reluctant to dwell on the more sensational details, which made him all the more credible to me.
Quotation marks indicate my best attempt to represent accurately the substance and tone of Radha’s conversations as he recalled them, but of course the dialogue is not verbatim; obviously, it’s difficult for anyone to recall exactly what they said thirty-five years ago. Where possible, I confirmed dialogue with Samen or others.
A note on spelling “Angka”: it’s also commonly spelled “Angkar” (pronounced with a silent “r”), but many of the scholars writing closest to the time of the Khmer Rouge tended to prefer the shorter version, so I went with that.
I owe a great debt to the many scholars and writers who have written about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. For background, I relied on respected books of history, social science, or journalism by David Chandler, Ben Kiernan, William Shawcross, François Ponchaud, Karl D. Jackson, Donald Cormack, and Elizabeth Becker. These writers and others are cited where appropriate in endnotes, but I’d like to express my admiration for their careful and diligent scholarship. Where my summaries or interpretations of Cambodian history, personalities, and events fall short, the fault is entirely mine.
“But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself” (Psalm 49:15).
The second time Radha Manickam tried to commit suicide, it was by singing “This World Is Not My Home.” It seemed appropriate. He was lying atop a termite hill next to a small, sputtering fire in a northwestern Cambodian rice paddy in January 1978. He was twenty-five years old, and after three years under the brutal regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, he weighed around ninety pounds. It was raining.
He and the rest of his plowing crew were spending the night out in the rice fields with the water buffalo. The wet, gritty surface of the termite hill rose a few feet out of the soggy rice paddy. His only covering was a thin blanket one yard square. In the darkness around him, his fellow workers were trying to sleep. Chhlops (child spies) were likely sneaking among the dikes, ferreting out imaginary treason, and Khmer Rouge soldiers were patrolling the area. A Bible verse came to Radha’s mind: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Radha was so very weary. He didn’t think he could keep going, driven by the soldiers to do more and more work on less and less food with a few scant hours of sleep per night. The regime was not equally harsh everywhere, but everywhere it was harsh and nowhere was it free.
Cambodia had become the realm of the dead. Khmer Rouge propaganda declared, “Everywhere in the country, in the countryside, in the factories and in the units of the Revolutionary Army, joy, enthusiasm, and emulation prevail.”1 But the countryside contained far more unmarked mass graves than revolutionary enthusiasm. In its doomed attempt to create an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot’s regime would through policy decisions, cynical deception, and stupefying violence murder more than 1.7 million people.2 Mao’s and Stalin’s Communist regimes killed far more people, but no other government in modern history has destroyed nearly a quarter of its own citizens. If Communist Vietnam had not ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, that figure surely would have been even higher.
Some victims died relatively quickly—shot or clubbed or tortured to death. Others lingered for months or years until they died of starvation or some wretched disease.
Millions of Cambodians weren’t in the grave just yet, but they were dying on the inside. Pol Pot once boasted that the Khmer revolution was the purest, most Communist revolution the world had ever seen. He was probably right; no other government has ever tried to exert such totalitarian control over its citizens.3
Pol Pot and other Khmer leaders tried to reshape the identities of an entire nation in their determination to create the “new socialist man.” The regime commanded how and where people would live, work, eat, sleep, and marry. Leisure time did not exist.
Much Khmer Rouge ideology resembled, ironically, key elements of Christianity turned inside out and upside down. This was not deliberate, for the Khmer Rouge knew little of the Bible. Pol Pot insisted that everything about the revolution was Khmer in origin.
Yet everywhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge were shadows of biblical truth and practice—love, worship, community, confession, transformation, unity, judgment, virtue, purity, equality—all hideously distorted. It’s as if some alien intelligence, attempting to create the most un-Christian society possible, distilled decades of totalitarianism from around the world into one ghastly system and then unleashed it on a small, unsuspecting country.
Many Khmers resisted, to the degree they were able, by shutting down. Do your job; don’t complain; keep your head down; and most important, trust no one. Over time, people’s souls shriveled. In one sense, even the Khmer Rouge themselves were dying on their feet. They were soldiers of socialism for whom murder was not a crime but the prelude to a new society.4
Surrounding Radha as he lay on the termite hill were endless stretches of shallow water broken up by dikes and stands of trees. He saw no way out. Lord, he prayed, I really want my rest. Take me home. He waited, and the rain kept falling. If you aren’t going to take me home, I’m going to help you.
So he began to sing in English. With water dripping off the bushes around him, he lifted up his voice and sang, perhaps not as loudly as he could but quite clearly, about how this world was not his home. “I’m just a-passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” It’s a bouncy, country gospel tune called “This World Is Not My Home” that he had learned at Maranatha Church in Phnom Penh. He learned it soon after he became a Christian in 1973. He hummed it to himself in the fields while plodding behind the water buffalo, along with “Call for the Reapers” and “Bringing in the Sheaves.” “Power in the Blood” was one of his favorites.
His voice drifted out over the rice paddies. Had he stopped to listen, he probably could have heard voices and people rustling, but he didn’t. He gradually became aware of a voice. It said, “I have a plan for your life.”
Radha kept singing, but inside he also spoke to God. If you really have a plan for my life, he thought, you should help me now.
Just then a group of soldiers stepped out of the darkness. They had been hanging around the communal kitchen under the tin roof and out of the rain, as was their custom, but had gone for a walk, picking their way across the tops of the dikes. They heard the strange music and headed over to investigate. Their leader, a skinny fourteen-year-old named Sal, carried an AK-47.
“Comrade,” he demanded, “what language are you singing in?”
Radha had expected this. He was tired, and this was the easiest way out of the rice field. It was probably the only way.
He just had to say “English” and, ideally, Sal would just shoot him on the spot, although there was an excellent chance he would be clubbed to death and his body dumped into a shallow grave. It didn’t seem like such a bad way to go—suicide by praise song.
But as Sal was speaking, Radha heard the voice again. “I have a plan for your life,” it repeated.
Radha didn’t really know what he was doing because he couldn’t think clearly, but he changed his mind. “It’s not really a language,” he lied. “It’s just some sounds I put together.”
Sal bought it. “Go to sleep,” instructed the teen, laughing. “You have to go work in the morning.”
Radha rolled over and went to sleep.
Chapter 1: Civil War
“There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed” (Hosea 4:1–2)
In early August 1973, “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney was on its way to the top of the charts, American Graffiti was set to dominate that summer’s box office, and President Richard Nixon was reeling from recent revelations that he’d tried to cover up the Watergate break-in.
Nixon was also facing some awkward questions about secret carpet-bombings in Cambodia. For the previous three years, the US Air Force had executed an intense bombing campaign designed to aid Cambodia’s pro-American government, the Khmer Republic, in a brutal civil war against the Khmer Rouge, Communist guerrillas backed by North Vietnam.
Those questions got much sharper on August 7. At 4:30 that morning, an American B-52 navigator forgot to flip a switch, and so the plane homed in on a radar beacon placed in a ferry town on the Mekong River instead of its intended military target. Thirty tons of bombs came shrieking out of the dark sky and flattened the middle of Neak Luong, a city of about ten thousand people east of Phnom Penh. Shocked residents found the city’s main street reduced to a line of craters filled with flames, concrete, twisted steel, and some scattered human remains. The bombs killed 137 and wounded 268, most of them soldiers of the Khmer Republic and their families.
American officials initially described it as “no great disaster,” but it was soon recognized as one of the worst bombing errors of the Vietnam War. “Yesterday afternoon a soldier could be seen sobbing uncontrollably on the riverbank,” read one New York Times report. “‘All my family is dead!’ he cried, beating his hand on the wooden bench where he had collapsed. ‘All my family is dead! Take my picture! Take my picture! Let the Americans see me!’”1
In a comfortable, second-story apartment on the western side of Phnom Penh, a young man named Manickam Radha (in Cambodia, family names come first followed by given names) saw the TV news reports about Neak Luong. He was deeply angered that the American ambassador came out to the town and offered victims’ families about one hundred dollars each in compensation. Radha was generally pro-Khmer Republic and pro-American, but this felt like a slap in the face of every Cambodian.
Radha was not by birth an ethnic Khmer, but he had been born in the country and identified very strongly with the Khmer people. He was twenty, quite slim, and on the tall side for an Asian at five feet six inches. Playing soccer kept his body in shape, and he had handsome, classically Indian features inherited from his father, Manickam Chetia, who had emigrated from that country in the 1940s. A passport photo from the 1930s shows Appa (the affectionate Tamil word for “father”) as a sharp-looking young man with short hair parted to the side, a broad forehead, and strikingly intense dark eyes. He was a warm father in the Asian sense. That is, he was seldom openly affectionate and didn’t smile much, but he was generous and often took in relatives in need of help. His kids thought of him as a bit of a perfectionist. He was also thrifty and hated to waste food; he would rinse off yesterday’s rice and munch it down, while the kids preferred it cooked fresh.
The elder Manickam had developed a severe case of arthritis, which was worsened by the fact that he was a very big man by Asian standards, standing about five feet eight inches and weighing well over two hundred pounds, with a paunch befitting a prosperous Cambodian businessman. He could still walk in 1973 but needed two canes to get around.
Radha was his eldest child, born in 1953 to Ve Meenachi. She too was fairly tall, about even with Radha, and quiet in the manner of properly respectful Cambodian wives. Amma (Tamil for “mom”) was a kind and giving soul who loved to cook. She often made extra food for her family just to have something to share with the neighbors. Her mother was Vietnamese, her father Indian. A line of children followed Radha in the next two decades: Indira (sister), Ravy (brother), Dhanam (sister), Selvem (brother), and Annapoorani (sister). Lakshmi (sister) had just been born earlier in 1973. The last sibling, Murugan (brother), would be born in June 1975.
Radha was for the most part a good son, at least as far as his parents knew. He had skipped his high school classes sometimes but never enough to get into serious trouble. Manickam was serious about his Hindu faith, while Radha was outwardly respectful but couldn’t get into it. It seemed to him that Hinduism had too many gods. And the Theravada Buddhism of the Khmer people held no pull for him.
Radha thought of himself as “normal” even though as an ethnic Indian he was part of a tiny minority inside the Khmer nation, and his family was moderately wealthy in a country marked by poverty. His father often traveled to India and Hong Kong on business, bringing back perfume and jewelry for the girls and the latest toys for the boys. Ravy was briefly the envy of his friends when in the mid-1960s he got the first battery-powered metal toy car in the neighborhood.
Radha’s grandfather on his dad’s side immigrated to Cambodia in the early 1940s to seek his fortune. He started an arts and crafts shop in the “Old Market” at Siem Reap, once the Angkorean capital, about two hundred miles north of Phnom Penh. Radha’s father followed a few years later.
Grandfather and Manickam were devout Hindus and Brahmins, members of the highest-ranking caste in India. Grandfather never trimmed the fingernails on the pinkie and ring fingers of his left hand. He was the only Indian in town, so the nails of “Grandpa Indian,” which were so long they curled, were quite the curiosity to local children.
Grandfather easily made connections in Cambodia, then a French protectorate. The Manickam family’s long-standing ties to Cambodia’s royal family began with a gunfight. Once in the early 1950s, he accompanied a French general on a car trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. On the way they were attacked by a group of Khmer Issarak, nationalists fighting for independence from France. Grandfather’s “long gun” helped protect the party when the general’s bodyguards ran out of ammunition. Both the French authorities and the king of Cambodia himself, Norodom Sihanouk, awarded Grandfather medals. Grandfather’s long gun was stolen some years later, and Sihanouk made sure the weapon was returned. It isn’t clear exactly how the gun was returned, but family lore said it involved some sort of appeal over the radio, possibly combined with threats in low places. Anyway, Grandfather got his long gun back. Every time Sihanouk visited Siem Reap, Grandfather would drop by with an offering of food or a gift. Sihanouk loved Indian curry, and Grandfather, who loved to cook, never needed an appointment.
Manickam, over time, leveraged the family association with Sihanouk into several businesses in the capital. The family had some rough patches financially, even going bankrupt in 1967. It didn’t help that in the mid-1960s the economy was tanking, in part because during one of Sihanouk’s occasional shifts to the political left he nationalized the import/export business. The family’s finances got so dire that Manickam sent Radha southwest to Sihanoukville, a coastline city, for eighteen months to live with some friends. Fourteen-year-old Radha had to take a bus to school, carry water for the household, and sell watermelon seeds in his spare time to send a bit of money back home. He hated it—every second.
But Radha came home to Phnom Penh in 1968 when business started picking up, and by 1970, Manickam had recovered nicely. He became the only authorized distributor of Sanyo appliances and Suzuki motorcycles in the country. He gave Sihanouk four white 350cc bikes for his motorcade, ordered special from Japan.
THE CAMBODIAN CIVIL WAR BEGAN IN 1970 with a coup that was initially quite profitable for Manickam and many other Cambodian businesses. But the coup was really a cliff at the end of a tragic decline.
In the 1960s, Phnom Penh had been a beautiful, vibrant city of perhaps six hundred thousand, built at the junction of the famous Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, a river flowing southeast from Cambodia’s largest lake. Under King Sihanouk, the “Pearl of the East” had orderly, tree-lined avenues, shaded promenades and squares, sparse traffic, sleepy cafés, and a light, open feel. Many buildings featured elements of Buddhist temples, such as multitiered roofs, golden spires, and gables, all ornamented with figures from Buddhist mythology. To visiting writers, the Kingdom of Cambodia looked like a peaceful place, despite the war in Vietnam raging just across the border to the east. Some referred to Cambodia’s “provincial charm”—the country had been a French protectorate until 1953. True, the countryside was full of poor farmers who eked out a living from rice paddies and fish traps and banana groves, and unrest ruled in certain areas, but overall it was better off than some of its neighboring countries.
Sihanouk was beloved among the Buddhist peasants, in part because he had stage-managed the 1953 “crisis” that led to the country’s independence from France.2 The farmers viewed him as something less than one of the god-kings of Cambodian legend, perhaps, but certainly more than an ordinary man. He was Samdech Euv, “Papa King.”
The business and elite classes, however, thought him a populist trickster, a violent and patronizing figure whose self-serving tactics and corruption had mired the country in poverty. They were especially angry that Sihanouk had been allowing the Communist North Vietnamese, at war with the Republic of South Vietnam and its US ally, to run troops and supplies up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia’s eastern jungles since the mid-1960s. Many Khmers regarded it as a failure to stand up to the Vietnamese.
Sihanouk had hoped the deal with North Vietnam would keep Cambodia out of the conflict; it didn’t work. Sihanouk’s decision to allow North Vietnam access to the trail was a huge military advantage to the North Vietnamese and prompted the United States to begin secretly bombing the Cambodian border regions in 1969.
That deal was one of many factors that prompted General Lon Nol to lead a 1970 coup that deposed Sihanouk, abolished the monarchy, formed the Khmer Republic, and set off a wave of anti-Vietnamese violence within Cambodia.3 In one instance, Khmer Republic troops shot some eight hundred Vietnamese living in the country and dumped their bodies into the Tonle Bassac (a river that roughly parallels the Mekong) to float down toward Vietnam.4 The Vietnamese Communists, who rightly saw Lon Nol and the new Khmer Republic as an American ally, promptly invaded Cambodia. They supposedly did so to help Cambodian Communist guerrillas—a small and largely ineffective group that Sihanouk had driven into the forests in the 1960s, dismissing them in a jocular comment as “Khmer Rouge.”
In response to the Vietnamese invasion, the United States poured arms and aid into the Khmer Republic. Nixon also authorized a massive expansion of the incredibly destructive B-52 campaigns— hundreds of planes flying tens of thousands of sorties—in an attempt to blow the Vietnamese and Khmer Communists out of the Cambodian jungles and prevent them from attacking US forces in Vietnam. Tons of bombs flowed out of each plane’s belly like strings of eggs from a gigantic flying fish, plunging to earth at nearly the speed of sound. The explosions ripped apart buildings, shredded stands of large trees into toothpicks, threw dirt and rocks hundreds of feet into the air, and left behind huge smoking craters.
From his high school desk, Radha heard the B-52s rumble overhead and felt the building shake from the blasts. While out walking, Radha and his friends would talk politics and wonder about the conflict raging just out of sight. They’d see the bombers or fighters go by, and then a helicopter or twin-engine plane from the Cambodian air force would roar past and drop leaflets urging support for the Lon Nol government.
When the leaflets first started falling, Radha and his teenaged friends would rush over to pick them up and pore over the messages, searching for some clue as to what was going on. But they soon stopped. The messages were always the same: the Khmer Republic is the best government for Cambodians and will stamp out corruption, Sihanouk is a traitor, and so on. After a few months, the traffic pushed the unread pamphlets into gutters, and the wind blew them into piles on boulevards and in people’s yards.
Radha slowly began to notice the American influence seeping into Phnom Penh. In place of traditional sarongs and elaborately patterned shirts, people wore bell-bottom pants (known as elephant ear pants), short skirts, and big collars. The uniform for girls at Radha’s school was a modest blue skirt and long-sleeved white shirt, but their clothing after school was different. Radha would often notice a girl on the streets wearing a miniskirt, sporting bobbed hair and bangs, and was surprised to realize she was a classmate.
The changes went beyond clothing. Cambodian traditionalists listened with alarm to the beats of American-style rock music thumping from boom boxes mounted on the shoulders of teens loitering near Independence Monument. They heard of strange new dances in the clubs. They noted with disapproval youngsters lining up to see the latest box-office attractions. And they scowled at the disrespect when long-haired young Cambodians roared through the streets on motorbikes and scooters, forcing their elders to jump out of the way. Some viewed all this as mounting chaos in the midst of civil war, while others saw it as the much-needed liberalization of a society that had suffered too long under the burdens of monarchy and tradition.
Radha was no radical, but he thought some change was in order. He graduated from high school in 1972 and started working for his dad as a bookkeeper. Appa’s Khmer wasn’t great, so Radha often handled negotiations with Khmer clients and customers. He had longish hair and usually wore elephant ear pants and a shirt tailor-made from some of the fine fabric his father imported and distributed. His shirts tended to be silk and designed with bright colors—royal blue, yellow, sometimes cream, but never orange. If you wore orange, people called you a monk.
Radha’s crew of friends was well off and maybe a little arrogant but, like him, seldom openly rebellious. Above all, they respected family. Some were Khmer, Cambodia’s majority ethnic group, but others were from Cambodia’s minority populations of Chinese and Vietnamese. Minorities in Cambodia tended to be merchants and professionals and were better off than the average Khmer in Phnom Penh and way better off than the legions of Cambodian farmers. Radha and his friends just thought of themselves as Cambodian.
Radha never went out to bars, and his relations with girls stayed at the level of casual flirting. The closest he came to dishonoring his parents was when he and some buddies in the Republican Army thought a restaurant was charging too much for their dinner. They stuffed some of the dishes into their pockets so the waiter couldn’t find the plates and charge for the dish. They got away with it. Another time he went up to a fruit stall and began to argue loudly with the owner. “This fruit is rotten!” he declared just for the fun of watching the owner get angry as customers stared curiously.
It was an odd way to have fun amid a war, but Radha, like many residents of Phnom Penh, was trying to ignore the possibility that the Khmer Rouge might win. They had limited faith in Republican troops but were convinced that the United States, having spilled American blood for about a decade battling Communism in Vietnam, would never allow the Communists to take over the country right next door. The Americans had been propping up the Lon Nol regime for years; surely they wouldn’t just throw all that away. Moreover, all the aid that ended up in private pockets meant some people had money to spend—lots of it. For much of the civil war, right up until mid-1973, clubs were filled, restaurants were booked, and luxury car lots were dealing. For the Manickams, business continued as much as reasonably possible; Appa kept the Suzukis and the Sanyos coming into the country.
Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt.
BY THE TIME NEAK LUONG WAS DESTROYED in August 1973, Phnom Penh was in desperate straits. The civil war had become a brutal and bloody stalemate. The notoriously incompetent and corrupt Republican forces barely held the major cities despite a massive influx of American arms and aid, while fanatical Khmer Rouge troops controlled most of the bombed-out countryside. They had gradually gained enough strength to take over the war in Cambodia from the Vietnamese. What had been essentially a Vietnamese invasion had morphed into a civil war: Khmer vs. Khmer.5
The stalemate couldn’t continue. Phnom Penh’s population had more than tripled to two million as refugees streamed in, some fleeing the American bombs and others the Khmer Rouge’s expanding reign of terror. Refugees found a city on the verge of starvation, bombarded by Communist rockets, and crowded with the sick and wounded. Slapdash ghettos of tarp-roofed shelters and palm-branch huts filled and spread. The destitute newcomers flooded into the markets and loitered on the streets, mixing with the thousands of Republican Army veterans who had been wounded and discharged and then left to fend for themselves. Many who had lost limbs or were otherwise disabled hung out at the markets begging for food or a few riels to buy some potent rice wine. But the shopkeepers and citizens became less generous as they felt more overwhelmed. Returning veterans, some drunk and on crutches, were known to threaten shopkeepers with grenades if they didn’t offer a suitable handout.
Food had to come through an American airlift into Phnom Penh’s airport or via ship up the mine-infested Mekong River, and there wasn’t nearly enough. Khmer Rouge rockets pounded the city, and Khmer Rouge saboteurs slipped through Republican lines to lob grenades into crowded theaters and markets. The task of caring for the refugees fell to private charities, mostly American, that were well intentioned but couldn’t keep up. For those with money, life continued but always with smoke and the echo of explosions in the background.
The United States had withdrawn its forces from Vietnam following the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, and that freed up American airplanes for sorties into Cambodia. By August 1973, historians later discovered, the United States had dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, making it the most heavily bombed country in history (the Allies dropped two million tons of bombs in all of World War II).6 While the carpet-bombing rattled the Communists, it certainly didn’t stop them.
When the B-52 campaign into Cambodia became public in America, incensed anti-war activists charged that Nixon had been telling the public he was trying to end the war in Vietnam even as he extended it into a neutral country. Even today, nobody knows how many Cambodian civilians died in the attacks, although it was likely in the tens of thousands despite the efforts of American airmen to avoid Cambodian settlements.7
Critics later charged that the American bombing itself destabilized the countryside and drove furious, grief-stricken peasants who had lost family members in the attacks into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.8 In later interviews, Khmer Rouge officers described what they saw when they would visit the farmers after bombings. “Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. … Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”9
In short, critics said, American policy made possible the rise of the Khmer Rouge.10
However, American officials have pointed out that the United States needed to protect its troops in Vietnam.11 The North Vietnamese, not the Americans, extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia by using the Ho Chi Minh Trail and then handled the heavy fighting for the first year of the war in Cambodia. Without support from Vietnam (itself a Soviet client state), the Khmer Republic might well have been able to keep the Khmer Rouge a jungle-bound and mostly impotent guerrilla movement.
Moreover, at the urging of the Chinese, soon after an enraged Sihanouk was ousted in 1970, he agreed to become the public face of the National United Front of Kampuchea. It really was just a front for the Khmer Rouge; Sihanouk legitimized the same Communist guerrillas he had chased into the forests a few years earlier. Thousands of farmers joined the Khmer Rouge at Sihanouk’s urging when he spoke to them over the radio from Peking. Had Sihanouk retired quietly to France after the coup, the Khmer Rouge may never have gotten off the ground. The Chinese, for their part, supported the Cambodian Communists not only during the civil war but also during the Khmer Rouge regime. There was lots of blame to go around.
And then came Neak Luong.
Under pressure to keep his campaign promises, Nixon had reluctantly announced an August end to the Cambodian bombing. As late as July 1973, Nixon was still warning of dire consequences in the region if the B-52 attacks ended. On August 15, Congress took the decision out of his hands, declining to reauthorize more funds for the bombing, although US aid to the Cambodian government continued. Without American air support, however, the future of the Khmer Republic looked very, very dim. The Khmer Rouge prepared for a final assault on the capital.
It was about to get ugly.
1. Democratic Kampuchea Is Moving Forward, Phnom Penh, August 1977, 10.
2. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia,” Walrus magazine (October 2006), 68.
3. Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). 464. He wrote. “Despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history.”
4. François Ponchaud, “Social Change in the Vortex of Revolution,” in Cambodia 1975–1978: Rendezvous with Death, ed. Karl D. Jackson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 161.
Chapter 1 Civil War
1. “US Planes Bomb Cambodia Town in Error,” New York Times, August 7. 1973; William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia (New York: Touchstone, 1987), 294–95.
2. David Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008). 224–27.
3. Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 207.
4. Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution (New York: PublicAffairs, 1986), 125.
5. Timothy Carney, “Unexpected Victory,” in Jackson, Cambodia 1975–1978, 25.
6. Owen and Kiernan. “Bombs Over Cambodia,” 67.
7. David Chandler, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999). 96.
8. Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, 16–23.
9. Owen and Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia,” 67–68.
10. Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, 16. The bombing was “probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise.”
11. Kevin Ponniah, “US Bombing Defended,” Phnom Penh Post, September 9, 2014, http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/us-bombing-defended. The article is a summary of Henry Kissinger’s interview with NPR in which he defended the decisions to bomb Cambodia with responses from noted historians.