The Proconsuls

excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979

The Proconsuls


The period of the war that followed is, in some senses, the most depressing of all. The military and social decay of the country ... continued now, without optimism in Phnom Penh, without concern in Washington.

... the economy was in ruin. Inflation ran at about 250 percent a year, industrial and agricultural production was permanently declining, exports were almost nonexistent. The government and the population it controlled were now on American welfare-about 95 percent of all income came from the United States-and the welfare officer was Tom Enders. It was he, together with the U.S. AID officials in the embassy, who determined what the exchange rate should be, how far electricity prices should be raised, how slumps in production might be slowed. The government was often reluctant to accept his orders; frequent harrowing meetings with ministers were necessary ...

Those who could count themselves a part of the government's establishment continued to live well. Lon Non, Lon Nol's younger brother, was reported to have raised $90 million by arms trafficking and extortion. Lesser men had built lesser but still substantial fortunes, and for them conditions were tolerable. During 1974 there were frequent power cuts in Phnom Penh under the government's austerity program. But they almost all occurred in the poor parts of the city. In the villas the air conditioners and refrigerators usually had power, and at the Cercle Sportif, the city's smartest club, the floodlights were normally working for evening tennis. One journalist noted that "for the few privileged elite the good life of tennis, nightclubs, expensive French meals, and opulent, brandy-drenched dinner parties went on almost to the very end, while the vast majority of the city's swollen population sank into deeper and deeper misery. "

For ordinary people the more urgent problem now was always food. Eighty percent of the country's prewar paddy fields had been abandoned, and the government's own figures showed that in 1974 rice production was only 655,000 metric tons-as opposed to 3.8 million tons in the last year before the war. The shortfall was not nearly met by imports. To deflect growing Congressional criticism of the amount of rice being shipped to Indochina, the embassy still requested only the minimum necessary to avert a repetition of the food riots that had already flickered through Phnom Penh. Even at the very reduced rations allocated per head, there was never now more than a two- or three-week supply on hand, and at one stage in 1974 there was only three days' rice left in the capital. None of the rice from the United States was provided free, and food prices were rising catastrophically high-from a base of 100 in May 1971, they were 1,604 in 1973 and 4,454 in 1974. A bowl of soup which had cost 4 riels in 1970 now cost 300, a bread roll had risen from 2 to 100 riels. Real wages had dropped, and U.S. AID's draft termination report acknowledges that the vast majority of the population of Phnom Penh could afford to buy little more than one day's subsistence of rice in any l week. Through the last eighteen months of the war most people in the cities were slowly starving...

Refugees continued to press into the capital. By the end of 1973 they had swollen the population of Phnom Penh to over two million and, according to U.S. AID's Termination Report, their plight then "was desperate, serious health problems became evident, and thousands . . . were without housing, without work and completely dependent upon outside assistance for their very survival."

This was almost all being provided by charities like Catholic Relief Services (the most effective) and World Vision. The embassy itself was still only indirectly associated with the refugee-crisis. The U.S. AID final report noted that Washington "assumed no responsibility for the generation of refugees in Cambodia."

By early 1974 the United States government had provided humanitarian aid of $2.5 million for Cambodia. It can be compared with $3.4 million provided by other countries, and by the voluntary relief agencies in the period January 1972-May 1973, alone-and with the $516.5 million in military aid and $216.6 million in economic aid that had flowed from Washington since the war began.

For the most part, the voluntary agencies coped well, though interdenominational arguments were sometimes squalid, and on occasion food was offered in exchange for religious conversion. But they had neither the manpower nor the money really to relieve the suffering of the refugees, and throughout 1974 conditions in and out of the camps grew ever more inadequate. By now lean-tos and shacks were propped against walls all over Phnom Penh, and thousands of people slept in the doorways of houses. Thousands and thousands of orphan children roamed the streets in rags. One twelve-year-old boy, Chum Pal, whose father was killed in battle and whose mother had been driven mad by the war, lived by begging. "Sometimes I go into shops. Some people give me five or ten riels. Some give me nothing, but they do not say bad things to me. They just say they have no small change." Chuon Yan, a thirteen-year-old village girl whose father had been badly burned in a shelling attack, also begged in order to supplement the 50 cents a day her mother made picking through garbage for plastic bags to sell.

Until August 1973 the refugees tended to cite American bombing as the main reason for flight. Through 1974 they spoke of the increasing violence of the Khmer Rouge. In March 1974, a government offensive into the province of Kompong Thom opened an escape route for the people living there. Around 35,000 stumbled with their bundles and their oxcarts over to the Lon Nol side. Altogether that year at least another 100,000 people pressed desperately into the government's shrinking, decaying enclaves. Many brought with them tales of alarming harshness.


"Out there" the Khmer Rouge were reorganizing. At the end of 1973 the Party finally asserted full control of the Front's military command structure. Political commissars were now assigned to assist and instruct officers down to company level throughout most of the country. Main forces were reorganized, like Lon Nol's, into divisions. But unlike in Lon Nol's army, Khmer Rouge officers were promoted for their performance. When they launched their annual dry-season offensive against Phnom Penh in January 1974, they used dispersed patrols and stand-off attacks by fire, and they seeded areas with mines as they left. At night they pinned Lon Nol's troops down by fire and then mounted ground assaults through the darkness. By dawn they had often consolidated their positions and dug themselves into well-camouflaged protective emplacements that would withstand both 105-millimeter artillery fire and T-28 bombing attacks.

Once within range they demonstrated their attitude toward the people of Phnom Penh by showering rockets and artillery shells over the heads of the defenders into the city. Day after day, night after night the missiles fell haphazardly into the streets, smashing a group of children here, a family there, a rickshaw driver pedaling home after work, houses and schools. The principal line of fire was directly into an area in which thousands of refugees squatted, and so it was the most wretched of the city who suffered worst from this, as from every other, desolation of the war. On one day in February 1974 alone, Khmer Rouge gunners killed 139 people and blew to smithereens the houses and shacks that gave meager shelter to some ten thousand people. More than one thousand people died in this one series of attacks before Lon Nol's troops were finally able to push the guns and rocket launchers out of range of the town.

That 1974 dry-season assault failed because the Khmer Rouge command and control machinery was still inadequate; because the attackers committed units in an uncoordinated piecemeal fashion; because they were unable to replace casualties fast enough; and because they were still short of ammunition. Through the course of the year, as they maintained pressure on the government by cutting the roads, these deficiencies were largely repaired.

At the same time they were developing into an increasingly formidable political organization. As their relationship with Hanoi became more and more bitter and as their growing strength allowed them more and more independence, they started to eradicate among the people they controlled the three traditional elements of Cambodian life: respect for the monarchy, attachment to the village, and devotion to Buddha. Throughout 1974, reports reached Saigon, Phnom Penh and Washington that in areas where their military situation was relatively secure-such as the southeast-the Communists were accelerating their transformation of society. As well as the Sihanoukists, cadres who were known to be pro-Vietnamese were purged and replaced by militant officials who had never been seen before. According to one contemporary State Department study, the Communists embarked on intense programs of "psychological reorientation, mass relocation, total collectivization of agriculture, the elimination of religion and restructuring social customs."

All Khmer Rouge policies, and in particular the relocation of villages, were obviously intended to effect a total and dramatic break with the past. When peasants were moved they were ordered to leave behind any private property; in the new villages, refugees reported, about two hundred people lived in a single shelter, all land was owned and worked communally, all day was spent in the fields, long indoctrination sessions followed at night, no religion could be practiced, monks were defrocked, all old songs were banned, traditional sexual and marital habits forsworn.

Younger and younger cadres began to appear; the Party used its Youth Organization as the cutting edge of social change. One party document of the time declared that the Party "educated, watched, nourished and built youth as the central force in the revolutionary movement of each area and as the central force for future national construction." The education seems to have had dramatic effects. In the southeast, teen-agers were removed from their families for two or three weeks of intensive indoctrination; according to refugees, this was enough to engender in them a passionately fierce commitment to the destruction of the old society and a total rejection of religion and all family ties. Throughout 1974 Cambodians who fled from the southeast of their country into Vietnam, and from other areas into the government's enclaves, spoke with awe of the fanaticism of these youths, who would allow no dissent nor any questioning of their directives.

It was now that the gruesome accounts of rule by terror, which after 1975 became commonplace, began to filter out of the "liberated" zones. Refugees repeated that those who questioned the orders of the young cadres were led away never to reappear. According to the State Department study, "some refugees said that the climate of fear was so great that even within the confines of their own home a husband and wife did not dare discuss Khmer Rouge policies for fear of being overheard." Its author, Kenneth Quinn, concluded that the exploitation of terror was the main way in which the Khmer Rouge enforced their will.

This analysis, based on reports of refugees in the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam, was supplemented by newspaper reports of Khmer Rouge conduct elsewhere in Cambodia. In March 1974, for example, the Baltimore Sun correspondent remarked on the "incomprehensible brutality of the Khmer Communists." He recalled that the conventional wisdom had always been that Khmer did not wish to fight Khmer and that once the North Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia good sense would prevail; in fact, however, the Khmer Rouge seemed to have indulged in "sheer brutality for brutality's sake." The Washington Post reported that the Khmer Rouge were "reconstructing" the people and often punished infringements of their regulations by death. The New York Times correspondent, Sydney S. Schanberg, described the joy with which the refugees from Kompong Thom escaped Khmer Rouge control. All of this information-and much more-was available to the State Department and the National Security Council. It does not appear to have created any sense of urgency.

Most journalists who were based in, or who visited, Cambodia felt troubling ambiguity about the country. Phnom Penh still had enormous, poignant charm; it was an easy place to love-with sadness. The corruption of the regime was depressing, but the people, including officials, were invariably friendly, even warm. In the countryside small boys smiled as they walked toward the war, and incompetent officers would patiently explain their tactics to reporters. But most journalists were sickened by the killing, and their dispatches tended to reflect the war-weariness of the country. Sydney Schanberg filled The New York Times with powerful accounts of the effect of Washington's policies; H. D. S. Greenway, who had covered the whole length of the war, wrote moving descriptions of the people's suffering for the Washington Post.


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