As the Vietnam War dragged on, and international goodwill towards the United States dissolved, US embassies around the western world became the sites of iconic clashes between police forces and anti-war protestors.
Back in 1968, what started as a peaceful march in London’s Trafalgar Square became a chaotic battle out the front of the embassy in Grosvenor Square, where repeated attempts by as many as 8,000 student protestors to surge onto the premises were beaten back with truncheons over four hours.
In Australia that July, a group of university students from a small pro-China communist party teamed up with militant trade unionists to stage an Independence Day protest outside the American consulate in Melbourne.
After throwing a firebomb through a second floor window and nearly razing the building, the crowd deflected a charge from the mounted division of the police by scattering marbles on the ground, tripping the horses and allowing time for a frenzied getaway.
Several years before, at the same time as the Johnson Administration was planning a massive increase in military operations in Vietnam, Phnom Penh played host to a similar commotion.
With the assassination of the South Vietnamese President in 1963, Prince Sihanouk believed that a communist takeover of Saigon was around the corner, and had attempted to court China, the Soviet Union and the States into a conference aimed at guaranteeing his country’s sovereignty.
When the US rebuffed the invitation, 10,000 protestors surrounded the embassy in Phnom Penh in March 1964, throwing stones, breaking windows and plastering the walls with anti-American slogans.
At this point begins the narrative of Dam Pheng, reputed to be a resistance fighter who joined the youth wing of the communist party in the early sixties. The earliest historical mention of Dam, a 1973 edition of the Khmer Rouge’s magazine Revolutionary Youth, has recently been catalogued by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam). A lengthy commentary profiling Dam’s life, embellished with the usual lexicon of communist propaganda, shows how totemic the leadership of the party considered this embassy protest to be.
“Cambodia was facing the danger of a military coup staged by the Imperialist US dogs with Lon Nol and his cronies as permanent leaders,” reads the article. “A mass demonstration… under the leadership of the Angkar was held in the middle of Phnom Penh, destroying the embassy of the Imperialist US. This was our great victory, which became famous all across Cambodia and the world, while the Imperialist US and its entourage were badly embarrassed.”
That the embassy protest has been all but forgotten in the tumult of the years that followed demonstrates the exaggerated nature of its importance, to say nothing of the exaggerated role of the Khmer Rouge in organising the protest.
Nonetheless, the story of Dam Pheng, who is said to have spent the subsequent years recruiting fellow youths and carrying out acts of subterfuge on behalf of the Angkar, became a seminal organising myth for the party.
Youk Chhang, DC-Cam’s director, recalls Dam’s story being used to recruit young soldiers to the cause in the months after the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country.
“It was a performance I saw on stage in Takeo in late ‘75,” says Youk. “I still remember the setting, it was very effective. Back then, everyone wore black, so in the middle of the dark night, the only light we see was on stage. Afterwards, everyone cheered and clapped their hands, and everyone wanted to become Khmer Rouge soldiers.
“Back then people, had no music, no social entertainment and no colour, so when Dam Pheng was performed with colour and songs, it became everything to everyone.”
According to the Revolutionary Youth article, Dam was eventually captured by authorities in 1968. After days of torture aimed at extracting details about other members of the secret network, Dam woke up in his cell, coughing up blood and realising he was about to die. His last act – and this is where the article begins to stretch credulity – was to write a poem on the cell wall in this blood:
“Red heart, I care for you and educate you every day for the valuable revolution, the poor, and the peasants. This time, Cambodians need my heart urgently to deal with heavy suffering, which I, a Cambodian child, happily sacrifice.”
There is contention as to whether Dam Pheng actually existed or was merely a fabrication constructed to serve the party’s ideological ends. Professor Alex Hinton of Rutgers University contends that Dam is a Khmer Rouge invention, created to stress the importance of fidelity to the cause. Indeed, much is made in the article of Dam’s steadfast refusal to succumb to his torture and his venerated status as a result – a tragic irony given the fate of many Khmer Rouge cadres during the latter days of the S-21 prison.
Youk Chhang believes otherwise, recalling Dam’s name being invoked during testimony for the trial of S-21 commander Comrade Duch, although this could be testament to the pervasiveness of the myth within the party’s senior leadership, rather than evidence of the man’s existence.
More revealing than conjecture over whether Dam Pheng existed are the similarities between the party’s rhetoric around Dam’s life story and that of communist parties in western countries, who often formed the backbone of protests against European colonialism and US military actions during the era.
In a notorious anecdote from The Gate, François Bizot recalls a pair of French Marxist academics from the Royal University who, during the takeover of Phnom Penh, decided to don black clothes and red kramas to offer their services to the new regime. (They were summarily dumped back at the French Embassy two days later.)
The idea of the Khmer Rouge as liberators from the yoke of foreign imperialists had obvious currency to the Cambodian people, after a devastating bombing campaign and a military coup which thrust the country firmly into the proxy war being fought inside its eastern neighbour.
More intriguing are the questions of why so many people overseas welcomed the advance of the Khmer Rouge despite numerous indications of what was about to happen, and why others continued to defend the regime long after it was rendered indefensible.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at email@example.com