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Base people, combatants and cadres

Base people, combatants and cadres

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The Documentation Center of Cambodia's latest contribution on the Pol Pot years forsakes academic debate to reveal the lives of people who could never tell their stories in English.

T he Documentation Center of Cambodia's latest contribution on the Pol Pot years forsakes academic

debate to reveal the lives of people who could never tell their stories in English.

Walking among the booksellers on Sisowath Quay in the evening, it would be easy to think that the Cambodian genocide is reasonably well-documented. This book is a reminder of how much more there is still to say.

Most of what has been written about life in Democratic Kampuchea has, inevitably, been written by foreign academics or the members of the small group of survivors from Cambodia's educated class. Stilled Lives is something quite different and a very valuable addition to the existing literature. What we have here is in many respects a report from the other side of the lines, from people who could never have produced an English-language account of their experiences in the DK.

The photographs in this book are intriguing and often extremely moving. Nevertheless, the subtitle doesn't do the book justice. While the content and structure revolve around photographs from the period before or during the Pol Pot regime, the accompanying interviews are of at least equal interest. These are accounts, sometimes from survivors, more often from relatives, of the individual in the photograph. Together, photo and interview produce a total greater than the sum of the parts.

The book presents, in the words of the introduction, "the stories of thirty-five men and sixteen women who joined the Khmer Rouge revolution." But "joining" the KR, as is made clear, had many different meanings in the early 1970s, ranging from enthusiastic acceptance of the KR propaganda, through loyalty to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, to grudging acquiescence in conscription for fear of execution.

The editors help to clarify this reality by dividing the subjects of the stories into "base people", "combatants" and "cadres." Even within those categories, however, a range of motivations and understandings emerge. Frequently, these offer new insights.

For example, while it is not surprising that many whom the KR classified as "base people" found themselves in KR territory more or less by accident, I was struck by the number of KR fighters who had previously been in Lon Nol's forces (usually, but not always, via conscription).

Also noticeable is that significant material privileges for "cadres" were both common and taken for granted, even when most Cambodians did not have enough to eat. This appears to have been the case well before April 17, 1975.

It would, of course, be a mistake to try to draw mathematically precise conclusions from this material, and the editors wisely do not attempt to do so. The data here are necessarily biased in a statistical sense. DC-Cam's researchers had to begin from available records, and most of the surviving records of the KR regime are from prisons, so it was inevitable that the individuals whose stories appear here would mostly be people eventually deemed "hostile" to Democratic Kampuchea by the regime.

But what is striking, reading the interviews, is that the victims of the KR were so often combatants of the revolution or at the least ordinary villagers for whom the KR claimed to fight. Repeatedly, relatives say that KR soldiers, even cadres, warned them not to let other family members "join the revolution." The instructions from even high-ranking cadre were to work hard, ask no questions, and acknowledge no relationships - in case the cadre was arrested and the KR pursued his or her "connections."

I began reading Stilled Lives thinking that the "cadres" section would provide the most interesting information. But while that section was in no sense disappointing, I found the section on "base people" the most helpful in contributing to an understanding of Cambodia's post-independence history. In particular, the arbitrary and frequently changing designation of who was a friend or enemy in Democratic Kampuchea perhaps helps to explain how villagers from both sides seemed to reconcile themselves fairly quickly after January 1979.

This book is also technically well-produced and attractively presented. There is an occasional typo, but that's about all. Among other reader-friendly features, there is a family tree for each subject.

The testimonies in this book come only from Kampong Cham, Kandal, Kampong Thom, and Takeo. Presumably, this has to do with the material available to DC-Cam's researchers. It would be wonderful if DC-Cam were able to produce similar volumes based on other provinces. Buy this book (the real one, not the photocopy), and it may give them the resources to do more.

Book Review

Stilled Lives: Photographs from the Cambodian Genocide Wynne Cougill with Pivoine Pang, Chhayran Ra, and Sopheak Sim; 127 pages, Documentation Center of Cambodia, 2004. Available at Monument Books.

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