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PRK unfairly remembered

PRK unfairly remembered

C ambodian scholar Michael Vickery witnessed the crippling pressures under

which the Cambodian government had to operate after 1979. Here is his frank

reply to the critics of the PRK regime.

"I feel compelled to

write," as Soizick Crochet began her scolding of Chantou Boua, whose article I

missed, but with whose views of PRK Cambodia I have been familiar (and which I

largely share) since traveling with her and three others on my first post-DK

trip to Cambodia in 1981.

Crochet's comments follow very closely the

themes of Le Mur de Bambou, by Esmeralda Luciolli, a book which I thought had

been deservedly forgotten, but about which Phnom Penh Post readers should now be


Le Mur de Bambou is a peculiarly vicious book purveying a certain

number of lies about the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), many apocryphal

anecdotes which might be true but unacceptable without more precision of time

and place, some truths which, apparently unknown to the author, represent

continuity from the pre-1975 Cambodia which she professed to wish restored, and

some less trivial accurate information about the present which, however, has

been torn dramatically out of context in order to suggest situations which are

not true.

Luciolli, a doctor who worked in Cambodia for 15 months in

1984-1985, like her colleague Crochet, blamed the PRK exclusively for all the

difficulties of life in Cambodia, especially for Western NGO egos, as though

there were no economic blockade by major Western powers, no hostility by

Southeast Asian neighbors, no danger of attack from rival Cambodian enemy forces

armed and supported by those Western and neighboring Asian states, and no

foreign aid workers already converted to the line of FUNCINPEC and the KPNLF.

Implicitly, for Luciolli and Crochet, the only thing preventing a normal happy

bourgeois life-style for all Cambodians and their NGO counselors was the

malevolence and mischievousness of the PRK leadership.

So eager was

Luciolli to undermine the PRK on any grounds that she even charged them with

exaggerating the damage done by the Pol Pot regime. The "new regime attributes

all responsibility to the person of Pol Pot, crystallizing around this name the

very idea of evil". That was true, but the author showed her ignorance in

falling victim to the same misapprehension of DK destruction in her (false)

charge that the National Museum, "it seems", possesses a "limited number of art

objects since 1975 because of destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge" (in this

connection note George Smith's accurate letter about the National Library in the

Phnom Penh Post, 24 Feb-9 March, p8); or in her repetition of the canard that

"forced marriages were frequent, in particular between Khmer Rouge soldiers,

sometimes invalids, and young women of the 'new people'.'' In fact the exhibits

on view in the museum in 1981 were virtually unchanged from before 1975, with

only very few minor pieces missing; and marriages between Pol Pot soldiers and

'new people' were explicitly forbidden by DK policy, and extremely


Luciolli's ideology implied approval of private business and a free

market; but while acknowledging that considerable market freedom prevailed, she

charged the state with complicity in the economic inequalities which inevitably

developed. The PRK was by definition wrong whatever it did, even if the measures

concerned would have been considered normal anywhere else in the world. The

state insisted on doing such horrible things as collect taxes from merchants and

shopkeepers, and conscripting young men to defend the country after the

Vietnamese troops left.

Similarly she denounces inequalities between

cadres and ordinary citizens and the privileges of the former, an unjustified

criticism, for PRK policy, and practice, successfully minimized the social

distances which had been part of the old Cambodian culture, and which are now

encouraged again under the impact of UNTAC and the FUNCINPEC returnees.

Nevertheless, and defying consistency, Luciolli and Crochet, like true children

of the petty bourgeoisie, were unable to bear the sight of cadres, that is

intellectuals, professionals, or white-collar workers, being obliged to spend

weeks or months at a time working at the grass roots, dressed like the citizens

among whom they worked and in whom they were supposed to imbue new ideals. They

abuse the PRK for the rough health conditions in which civilians drafted for

defense work had to live, which was factually accurate, but they are equally

critical of sending medical teams to the work sites to attempt to cope with the

health problem. Luciolli and Crochet, unlike Chantou Boua, are totally

unresponsive to the positive social policy of the PRK toward women, who could

aspire to responsible positions quite out of their reach before 1975, and again

since UNTAC.

Having observed that traditional music was popular, with

tapes recopied from those circulating in border camps openly on sale, Luciolli

opined that "the authorities close their eyes". It seemed inconceivable to her

that the PRK would desire the preservation of traditional music. She was forced

into this position because of the border-camp lie that the traditional classical

ballet had been terminated, and that in the Beaux-Arts School traditional art

had to give way to "production of works which conform to the party line...

especially paintings illustrating the liberation of Kampuchea by the

Vietnamese". Here Luciolli added one of her clever little truths which projects

a lie - "the only vestiges of tradition [are] paintings of Angkor Wat or

apsaras, and some landscapes of the Cambodian countryside." What did she think

Beaux-Arts students traditionally produced before 1975? Precisely paintings of

Angkor Wat, legendary celestial maidens, and idealized rural landscapes; and

throughout the PRK period, including in 1984 when Luciolli visited the place,

the Beaux-Arts sales room was stuffed with such traditional work to the extent

that party-line illustrations were hard to find.

There was some truth in

"parties and dancing are considered inappropriate" in the PRK, which contrasted

with the refugee camps where there is often "dancing all night long for

marriages and festivals", and she heard somewhere the lament, "you know, before

we danced a lot in Cambodia, but now...'." In the non-Pol Pot refugee camps

where Luciolli took lessons in Cambodian politics and culture, few had to get up

and go to work the next day, and in Phnom Penh there was a 9pm curfew imposed

because of danger of attack or sabotage by enemies supported by the refugee camp

organization. Otherwise even the most casual visitor to Phnom Penh who was not

totally blind could see that marriage festivals at least were not at all

'inappropriate' and were celebrated in the same way as before 1975. As for

dancing, there was a lot of it in the good old days (pre-1975), but not husbands

with wives or young men and women of the same social stratum. Men went to night

clubs where they danced with 'taxi girls', and at private functions where girls

from the nearest brothel might be brought in to dance with male guests, while

wives observed decorously from the sidelines. It was perhaps such pre-socialist

habits of the 'traditional culture' which made the PRK uneasy about dancing,

whereas in Luciolli's favorite border camps the first institutions of the old

society to be established after 1979 were officers' clubs and


It was impossible to ignore the valiant efforts to rebuild an

educational system after 1979, and Luciolli set out the facts accurately enough,

but for her it was only because "the Heng Samrin government recognized the

revolutionary usefulness of schools". If "in principle schooling is free...

parents are constantly asked for contributions" for registration, exams, books,

and equipment. Well, if so, this was just like the Sihanouk days for which

Esmeralda yearned (and which I saw); and indeed it was overt policy, quite

reasonable in prevailing circumstances, that local communities contributed

toward construction and equipment of schools.

According to Luciolli,

"reading texts are 'adapted' to socialism, the vocabulary of the old regimes of

Lon Nol and Sihanouk is banned in favor of revolutionary language, and teachers

must use the official terms, the same as under the Khmer Rouge". Luciolli

provided no illustrations, and her statements, which must have been fed to her

by border-camp friends, can be dismissed as the most arrant nonsense (I also

heard such things in the refugee camps in 1980, but then took the trouble to

check them out). The Ministry of Education after 1979 was firmly in the hands of

pre-1975 professional pedagogues, the school syllabus was very traditional and

nationalist, reading texts were in general the same as in the old days, and to

the extent that there were linguistic innovations they were along lines

developed before 1975 by a group of Khmerizing nationalist educationalists (the

Khemarayeanakam movement), most of whom perished under Pol Pot. But Luciolli's

intentions were made transparent by her complaint that the high moral standards

demanded of school teachers represented oppression by the regime.


a key to Luciolli's assault on PRK education, and to her attitude in general,

was "[f]ormerly classes were organized as in France, from twelfth [lowest] to

[... third, second, first, and] terminal [end of lycee]... [t]oday it is the

school system of Vietnam which serves as model and primary school has four

levels [numbered 1 to 4]". What horrors! The French system turned upside down;

and this was presented seriously as an example of 'silent ethnocide'. Was

Esmeralda's problem a rage that Cambodians wished to be Khmer (for the final

product differed significantly from Vietnam as from France), not brown


There was less factual accuracy in her, and Crochet's,

treatment of foreign language instruction, and again the facts which survive are

reconstructed to support a false impression. Language instruction "is generally

limited to... Vietnamese, taught in secondary and higher [levels]", an

inaccurate rendering, but made a bit truer with the additional remark, "but...

not always... for lack of teachers", a statement true in itself. Still further

on Luciolli said, "study of other languages is limited to Russian, German, and

Spanish". The true situation in 1984-1985 when Luciolli was in Cambodia was that

no foreign languages were yet taught in secondary schools, although Russian,

German, Vietnamese, and Spanish, in that order, were formally in the curriculum,

and the reason given for absence of instruction in all of them was lack of

teachers. At a higher level, all four languages were taught in the Language

School which trained interpreters and prepared students for university studies


It was true until 1985, as she wrote, that no history courses as

such were taught, but the reason was not that Vietnamese advisers refused to

allow the use of French and English sources. The new textbooks put into

circulation in 1986 treated Cambodian history in a very traditionalist manner.

Members of the history textbook preparation committee told me in November 1988

that they had relied mainly on George Coedes, Adhemard Leclere, and Madelaine

Giteau, just as pre-revolutionary school books did. There was a difference,

however, in the lesser emphasis on the accomplishments of royalty and in

attention to examples of inter-Indochina friendship, rather than the Royalist

sycophancy and chauvinist prejudice which permeated pre-1975


According to Crochet and Luciolli, French and English were

'forbidden' until 1985, and it is true that they were not included in the

secondary school curriculum, although private instruction was widespread, and as

Luciolli acknowledged in another context, by 1984 at least, tacitly encouraged

by the state. Her description of the use of French in the Medical School,

however, was the opposite of the truth. In 1985, she wrote French was finally

authorized but only for first-year medical students, a concession obtained after

years of negotiations in which the Vietnamese advisers tried to insist on their

language for teaching. Although all medical books in Cambodia were in French,

she remarked, "up to 1985 beginning students did not speak a word of that

language", a typical Luciollian quasi-truth.

The Medical School was the

first tertiary institution to reopen, almost immediately after the formation of

the PRK in 1979. While hypothetical, beginning students without any previous

medical study might not have known French, the first medical students who

resumed study again were survivors of the last pre-1975 classes, all of whom had

the experience of studying medicine in French and who were familiar with the

French textbooks which had also survived. Because of this, the medical teachers

sent from Vietnam were also chosen from among the older generation for their

knowledge of French, or where insufficient Francophones were available,

French-speaking interpreters were provided for communication with the Kampuchean


Luciolli preferred to blame the low level of health care on PRK

malevolence rather than objective conditions. As so often her perversity started

with a truth, at least sort of. When medical training was revived in 1979 the

surviving doctors and administrators tried to "reproduce the only model they

knew, medical care modeled on that of France thirty years ago", that is the

"training of numerous doctors rather than basic health care personnel, following

the practice of occidental countries", whereas what was needed in Cambodia was

to "develop basic health care, hygiene, and preventive medicine". What she did

not tell the reader was that to the extent the practices she approved were

finally adopted, it was due to the Vietnamese influence in the medical school,

which she had castigated, and which was resisted at first by Cambodian personnel

simply because it was Vietnamese.

Or, because it reminded the former

urban bourgeoisie of DK medical theory. When I was working in the Khao-I-Dang

refugee camp in 1980, where health care was dominated by western aid

organizations who emphasized prevention, hygiene and simple basic remedies over

exotic medicines and complex treatments for conditions which should have been

prevented, their efforts were often little appreciated by former Phnom Penhites

addicted to "medical care modeled on that of France thirty years


Crochet and Luciolli condemn the time lost to political

indoctrination of medical personnel, apparently without realizing, or refusing

to recognize, that the changes in outlook which Luciolli acknowledged as

necessary were not strictly medical, but social and political, requiring

ideological re-indoctrination to make the medical re-indoctrination


Luciolli even managed to condemn the PRK policy to fully

integrate the Islamic Cham minority into Cambodian society after the abuse

directed at them by DK and the prejudice against them in earlier times, because

PRK policy demonstrated "in fact that the present government has chosen to

encourage ethnic particularism, and moreover by means of it, divisiveness and

resentment by certain groups against the Khmer majority." Why the PRK

government, a group of Khmers, should want to encourage ethnic hostility against

themselves is beyond comprehension; but perhaps Luciolli was trying to encourage

an impression that the PRK was not Khmer, something she dared not say, for it

would so obviously have been a lie.

Both Crochet and Luciolli speak as

neo-colonialists in denying Cambodia the right to decide on admission of foreign

organizations and to define the scope of their activities, and in their horror

that the PRK did not allow foreign NGOs to take over Cambodia's educational and

health services, at least. In this they seem to have been encouraged by

border-camp Francophile FUNCINPEC-ists, from whom much of Luciolli's, at least,

information was derived.


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