The year is 1979 and Phnom Penh has just issued a warning: Cambodia's elite are blinded
by wealth. Property is collected for their use and the use of their families. Pleasure-seeking
abandonment has led to rape and violations against women. The elite refuse to listen
to the masses and are scornful, preferring to show off their better positions and
The Vietnamese are in charge and Hanoi is not exactly pleased with their Cambodian
charges tasked with rebuilding the country from scratch, after sending 150,000 troops
across the border.
Rarely does a book grace the shelves which unflinchingly challenges accepted thinking
about Cambodia's violent past. But Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge is just such a
It begins in the 1950s with a young Norodom Sihanouk making his mark on Cambodia's
Adored by peasants but blamed for "condoning corruption and political intimidation"
in the cities, Sihanouk was voted out of power by a secret ballot in the National
Assembly in 1970.
He lost, 89 to 3 and Lon Nol's coup was in the making, pleasing the US while heralding
the civil war, eventual victory for the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge and a scale of
genocide not seen since World War II.
As history tells us, Vietnam began liberating Cambodia from Pol Pot's ubiquitous
thugs in late 1978. This is where Gottesman stamps his credentials on a period few
authors have dared to touch.
With the precision of a combat surgeon, he canters through occupation, an era cloaked
by institutionalised secrecy in a country banished to the nether regions of global
One lid after the other is lifted on the inner workings of Hanoi's tutelage, Phnom
Penh's leadership, their rivalries and eventually Hun Sen's rise from a Vietnamese
"experiment" to the power of one.
Along the way there's the first Khmer Rouge trial, conducted while the new regime
was attempting to "co-opt" former leaders of the ultra-Maoists into a new
government. Pol Pot's soldiers were asked to apologise.
Gottesman also notes how the spiritual head of Cambodia's Cham Muslims, the mufti
Mat Ly, was given a prominent role by the Khmer Rouge during their reign.
Importantly, the author also counters arguments of Vietnamese benevolence in the
wake of Pol Pot's barbarity. Mandatory rice exports to Vietnam created starvation
in the Cambodian countryside.
But politically, Cambodia was again a strategic player, this time in fending off
Chinese expansionism - that's what really mattered, and neither master nor apprentice
shied in bullying the local Chinese.
As masters, the Vietnamese edited a new constitution beyond any recognition of its
Cambodian authors. Hanoi controlled the currency, monopolised trade and banned the
teaching of English and French. Cambodians were less than impressed, but Hanoi had
the upper hand.
This became apparent when Prime Minister Pen Sovan, whose independent attitudes had
consistently upset his controllers, was arrested by Vietnamese troops in late 1981.
Hun Sen read the charges.
Hanoi-friendly Chan Si took the reigns but died three years later amid unsubstantiated
rumours of foul play. Hun Sen ascended to the premiership early the following year.
Any reader with a basic knowledge of contemporary Cambodia should also expect to
be lulled into a false sense of time. The 1980s were not always unlike the decade
before or after.
Chronic paranoia, attempts to banish urban populations and forced labour camps at
the K5 Thai-border sites resonate with a familiar contempt to Pol Pot's lunatic concepts
of the 1970s.
And Gottesman's portrayal of a government filled with self-serving, corrupt officials
seeking patronage in a feudal-like state mimics Cambodia of the 1990s and present
The familiar rings with past and present does serve notice on academics, journalists
and government ministers who hold the 1991-93 United Nations Transitional Authority
(UNTAC) responsible for Cambodia's present day ills.
But the days of UNTAC are in the future, and Gottesman's work is solidly crafted
in the 1980s when Cambodia was not immune to illegal logging, graft, drugs, prostitution,
shady businessman and impunity.
This escalated by the mid-1980s as Hanoi's resolve for imposing its communist agenda
over Cambodia began waning as foreign assistance, primarily Russian, started to evaporate.
There was also a growing realisation east of the border that Khmer culture and communism
may not be an ideal fit, despite a helping hand from Pol Pot, who had already removed
all the capitalists.
And, a swift crackdown on pro-democracy advocates by Cambodian authorities amid the
Soviet Union's collapse had all the hallmarks of a dictatorship entrenched - one
that was not always out of step with Hanoi's wishes.
Throughout Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia was a reclusive state that ranked alongside
North Korea, and a lack of any public information on the occupation forced the author
to rely on firsthand accounts and rare internal documents for primary sourcing.
The author argues what the Vietnamese left behind was a system devoid of ideology,
with one political party that had seized state assets and neatly bound them by a
web of well-established personal relations with Hun Sen at the helm.
By the 1990s, in Gottesman's words, this had resulted in powerful patrons with little
incentive to punish their own loyalists. "As long as the money flows, officials
act with impunity - engaging in theft, extortion or worse."
Frustratingly, however, too little attention is given to opposition inside Vietnam
to Hanoi's invasion plans for Cambodia, and the arrival of UNTAC is treated more
as an afterthought. But his account of what happened in between is gripping, and
if you would like to know why in 2004 marijuana costs about the same as exotic computer
software, this book is a good start.
Gottesman has done a very clever job.
Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge: Inside the Politics of Nation Building
Evan R. Gotatesman; 464 pages, Yale University Press, August 2002.
Available from Monument Books