Among the many influenced by the thoughts and practices of Chairman Mao Tse-tung was Pol Pot, the architect of the revolution that swept aside the US-backed Cambodian government of Marshal Lon Nol in early 1975, bringing to power in its stead the Khmer Rouge, a regime hell-bent on transforming the nation into a completely agrarian society modeled on Maoist ideals. So began Year Zero, the new country of Kampuchea and protracted genocide on a scale not witnessed since the time of Stalin.
The Khmer Rouge gained ascendancy just weeks before the inevitable, long foreseen fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong in neighbouring Vietnam. The fate of the two countries had been intertwined since 1968 when B-52 bombing raids, which would eventually number in the thousands, began on Cambodian territory. They were an attempt on the part of the Americans to dislodge Viet Cong troops who had established bases in the Cambodian jungle as a vantage point from which to strike at Saigon.
Tragically, the unprecedented bombing inspired the full-scale emergence of the once disorganised Khmer Rouge. Despite the blanket pounding, the Cambodian communists, assisted by the Viet Cong, made gradual headway in their advance on Pnomh Penh. The Khmer Rouge was mostly comprised of uneducated peasants easily imbued with a rabid hatred of the West and Western values and of any among their own countrymen who may have, in any way, been sympathetic to Lon Nol’s government and what it represented.
In the context of the broader American war in Vietnam and internal upheaval in the United States (the Watergate scandal had the nation enthralled), the situation in Cambodia was tantamount to a sideshow, to borrow the title of William Shawcross’s book on the subject. Still, some newsmen present in Cambodia throughout this period did their best to recount events as they happened. Among them was Sydney Schanberg, the local bureau chief of the New York Times. His local assistant, or stringer, was a Cambodian from near Siem Reap by the name of Dith Pran.
Christopher Hudson’s novel The Killing Fields (1984) recounts the work and friendship ties of the two men. Essentially, the book serves as a tie-in with the Roland Jaffe film of the same name and released the same year. The New York Times magazine went on to publish a piece Schanberg wrote, which he called ‘a story of war and friendship, of the anguish of a ruined country and of one man’s will to live.’ Hudson based his book upon Schanberg’s document and also the film’s screenplay.
The story commences in August 1973. The final Khmer Rouge takeover is still a year and a half away but Cambodia has already become an incredibly dangerous place. The novel then focuses on the definitive collapse of the Lon Nol government and the American decision to cut their losses and run. Schanberg does not join this general exodus. The self-effacing, ever polite Pran elects to stay with his mentor – I understand his heart, he acknowledges more than once – though this entails separating from his wife and children; at the last moment they are whisked away by chopper to an uncertain future in the USA. Pran realises that his irascible colleague and friend will not stand a chance of surviving on his own in the Khmer Rouge-ruled nation and intercedes on Schanberg’s behalf at a crucial moment.
The pair split up decisively a short time after this when a ruse designed to enable Pran and Schanberg to seek a safe haven together before it is too late does not succeed. The last section of the novel begins by recounting Pran’s experiences at the mercy of the conscienceless Khmer Rouge.
Hudson’s novel, told in a mixture of past and present tense, is a riveting read. The prose is simple but vividly evokes the cruelty and brutality of the events. In his ability to deal with suffering, Pran is typical of his compatriots and an archetypical Buddhist. But though ‘the smiles return quickly, the pain is carried within a long time’. How true this rings. On my one and (to date) only visit to the gentle land in 2008, I noticed an unmistakable sadness beneath the surface.
Devout Pran knows that karma is not just an individual phenomenon. There is national, or collective, karma as well. He feels that enormous sin must have been committed for his country to be going through such unmitigated horror. Of course the other side of the coin is that suffering is the route to expiation. One would sincerely hope this is so, not only for Cambodia but for all the inhabitants of gentle, mistreated lands awash in blood and tears.
Author’s note: photos by Apel Woo.