In addition to pride in a unique greatness, most expressions of nationalism contain a fear of extinction. The idea that the national essence might be lost or the national culture swamped is a common one, whether this is perceived as a danger posed by the threat of conquest, racial penetration, the influence of foreign ideas or behaviour, or the economic erosion of independence. Although this notion—that the very identity of the nation itself is under threat—is widespread, it is usually confined to the rallying cries of extremist sentiment. But in the case of Cambodia it is central. There can be few countries where the theme has been accorded such weight both by its inhabitants and by foreigners. In numerable reports it is accepted that Cambodia could soon disappear; that in one way or another it will fail to survive. This long predated Pol Pot. ‘Shrinking Cambodia’ is the first heading of a 1960s essay, the present continuous suggesting that by the time the reader has got to the end of the text, another square centimetre might have gone.footnote1 One of the best early accounts of Cambodia’s independence movement asserts that only its ‘neutralization’, surely a vague concept, will ensure the country’s ‘survival as a nation’.footnote2 The suggestion is extreme—Cambodia’s very existence is at stake—yet it is noted as if it were a matter of fact, despite all the evidence that nations are remarkably durable.

Many essays and articles have repeated the trope. They were not the expression of farsighted judgements that foresaw the war which would scourge Cambodia from 1970–75, the horrors of Pol Pot, the Vietnamese invasion of 1979 and the subsequent famine and blockade. Rather such accounts reproduced the key myth of the country’s nationalist ideology, that Cambodia is on the brink of extinction. Hysterical, paranoid even, like all successful ideologies it contains more than a single grain of truth. But this served to make the ‘falsehood’ all the more effective. The myth contributed directly to Khmer Rouge fanaticism. It helped to create a variant of the catastrophe it prophesied.

It did so in particular through the cult of Angkor. This allowed the French to give Cambodian nationalism an ideological form which in fact oppressed the people it claimed to represent. It was a ‘colonial nationalism’ that anchored modern Cambodia in a false beginning, extolling its magnificence to humiliate all the more the present incumbents of the territory.

When Pol Pot captured Phnom Penh in 1975, its inhabitants, like those of other towns, were driven into the countryside and termed ‘new people’. They were obliged to undertake forced labour and to create a vast chequer-board of fields, to be irrigated by geometric canals. Many of the survivors have told of the futility of their labour, as the supposed irrigation was often useless. But the mobilization was more than just a mechanism for the imposition of control over a hostile population. It was also a bid for a ‘great leap forward’ that would make Pol Pot’s ‘Kampuchea’ a self-sufficient, independent, even rice-exporting nationfootnote3—an effort justified by the belief that in early medieval Angkor massive water-works made possible multiple, season-defying harvests. This notion was propagated by French archaeology. The careful calculations of a Dutchman found it to be as misconceived as the Khmer Rouge canals. The very attempt to throw off ‘dependency’ proved to be in thrall to a foreign ideal. Today, as the accessories of Chinese and American ‘realpolitik’, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge reproduce yet another dependency as they battle for Cambodia’s ‘independence’.

As I finalize this article, the Khmer Rouge, armed and fed through the auspices of Peking, Washington, Bangkok and the un, seek to capture the temples of Angkor. Here, they believe, they can set up their own capital, with the bas-reliefs to shield them from bombardment. Now that their primary patron, Deng Xiaoping, has unveiled his colours in Tiananmen Square as well as Southeast Asia, a diplomatic truce might frustrate them. Yet few things would be more fitting than for the Khmer Rouge to meet their nemesis in a last stand at Angkor Wat.