Over the last decade the fate of Cambodia has come to symbolize some of the most extreme and controversial aspects of twentieth-century history: mass bombing, by the United States in 1973 especially; mass terror, as exercised by the Pol Pot regime from 1975 to 1979; neighbouring invasion, by the Vietnamese in January 1979, itself the culmination of the first full scale war between states describing themselves as socialist. Arguments over the last two developments have been of particular importance on the left, but have been relatively uninformed. Perhaps the issue which has caused sharpest dissent has been the Vietnamese intervention itself. The experience of central Europe, where unilateral Soviet invasions into Hungary and Czechoslovakia crushed popular movements towards a freer socialism, has led many to make by extension a blanket condemnation of the Vietnamese. Such a judgement confuses events of different orders: war being a two-sided conflict whereas the Russian invasions were unprovoked impositions. Equally important, the weight of evidence in Indochina points to the conclusion that the bulk of the Cambodian people welcomed the Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot. Whatever Hanoi’s responsibility for the debacle of 1975–1979, whatever its motives or the fate of the administration it has tried to established in Phnom Penh, to condemn the actual Vietnamese invasion of 1979 conflicts with what appears to be the reaction of most Cambodians themselves. One of the many merits of the text which follows is that, through its detailed report of living conditions in Cambodia today, it helps to illuminate why the late Pol Pot regime was so disliked.
Chanthou Boua is a Cambodian (she would say a Kampuchean) who grew up in Phnom Penh and in her mother’s village, which is by the Mekong in Kompong Cham province. Her father came from Stung Treng, in the north, and took advantage of the expansion of education under Sihanouk to become a teacher, then a headmaster in the capital. He sent his eldest daughter to the English language school, from there Chanthou Boua went to Australia for university training. She was thus out of the country when the Lon Nol dicatorship was finally toppled in 1975. At the time she welcomed the revolution and worked with a patriotic support journal. In 1979 she went to Thailand for several months where she was an interpretor for Cambodian refugees—poor peasants, city people and Pol Pot cadre. She also sought to learn the fate of her own family. Eventually it was established that they had been evacuated to her mother’s village. In 1977 her father and uncle fled in an attempt to escape arrest. In the year that followed her mother, two sisters and six brothers were taken away systematically for ‘education’. This was the term used for imprisonment or (usually) elimination, by a regime that had virtually abolished formal learning. None have been heard of since. Perhaps as a warning to the village, the local ‘Khmer Rouge’ destroyed her family house as well and today only the smashed remnants of its foundations can be seen amongst the vegetation.
In the summer of 1980, Chanthou Boua was allowed to visit Cambodia, and she stayed for eight months, to work with an international aid agency and travelled extensively. During that time she completed a draft of the report which follows. She returned for a brief visit in September 1981, after which the text was completed.