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Revolution in a Distant Village: The Tea Banh Story

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An intimate look at the General's life. Photograph: supplied

General Tea Banh’s official duties over the last decade must seem mundane to the man himself, given his storied history. Aside from the border flare-up at Preah Vihear and his role in de-escalating the conflict with his Thai counterpart, the Defence Minister and Hun Sen confidante hasn’t had a great deal on his plate recently.

At the senior echelons of military and political command for more than 30 years, perhaps it’s a relief for him. Decades of fighting the Khmer Rouge, reining in the truculent leadership of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces after the 1993 elections and the tumult of the Funcinpec purge in 1997 saddled him with nominal responsibility for some of the biggest challenges the country has faced since independence.

Warfare is the common thread of Tea Banh’s life, a tale expertly woven by party functionary and Council of Ministers director Nem Sowath. Although the author’s narrative stops, disappointingly, with the subject’s summons to the capital after the Vietnamese incursion in 1979 and cursory hints of the good graces to come, Nem Sowath tells an arguably more interesting story in retracing the steps of the General’s youth, based on candid and revealing interviews.

A Koh Kong native born during the dying days of the Japanese occupation, Tea Banh joined a guerrilla cadre in his twenties, fighting an insurrectionary battle against the poverty and police abuses during Sihanouk’s administration, a government often recalled wistfully by those who didn’t suffer the misfortunes of living under its sclerotic and regressive economic policies.

To wage war against the King in a rural area, where affection for Sihanouk was nearly universal, was an uphill battle to say the least. Proving the old Marxist dialectic, the guerrillas’ ranks swelled after the Lon Nol coup, and in the years to come Tea Banh watched countless friends die at the hands of utterly brutal encounters with the army. Sensing the threat of the ascendant Khmer Rouge, he spent four years battling them in Koh Kong before being called upon to serve the CPP.

Nem Sowath’s portrait is an intelligent rendering both of the province and the wider social movements that underpinned armed rebellion against three successive Cambodian governments.

By capturing the nature of these movements – inherently fractious, held together by fluid and poorly grasped ideologies, often socialist or communist in name only – the author has avoided the usual traps of biography and produced a compelling political history, both of Koh Kong and the country at large.

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