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Semantics & Solecisms

Semantics & Solecisms

The Editor,

Christine Chaumeau's article [PP Post, Nov 21-Dec 4] clearly shows the quagmire

in which the French (in this instance) have allowed themselves to be sucked. The

corruption of the gendarmerie force is well-known: I was told by a recruit how much

you had to pay to take the classes "supervised" by the French, and how

much to pass the exams. After which you had to pay some more to obtain a useful assignment,

i.e. one where you could recoup your losses (hundreds of dollars)... I am not talking

of salaries, but of "roadblocks" and the like. Needless to say, the French

Embassy were aware of this and other facts.

However, there are two points of history that I would like to nuance slightly. First,

the letter 'A' did not only designate the gangs involved in intimidation and murder

at the time of the elections. "A 3" was in the late 80s the name of the

elite Interior Ministry forces involved in the fight against the Khmer Rouge and

their allies, and more successful at it according to my "informants" than

most regular army units. Second, the use of vehicles donated by aid agencies (or

latterly, bilaterals) for various unofficial purposes, personal or commercial, is

a very old problem (and one not restricted to Cambodia). Donors usually pretend not

to notice, but it was well-known, again in the late 80s, that the largest fleet of

taxis in Cambodia were the PEV (Programme Elargi de Vaccination) cars. I could adduce

many other examples.

I wonder whether Claudia Rizzi ["Royal watchers ponder 'what's the deal?'"]

believes that King Sihanouk and Queen Monique had more than two sons? Prince Sihamoni

is the older of two sons, the younger one being somewhat disaffected from the family...

and the world.

My main "bone of contention" however is with the "Cambodian Fear of

Vietnam" piece. Michael Vickery is exceptionally well able to defend himself,

so I will not address the ad hominem side of the article. I am certainly not averse

to wordplay, and the manipulation of the phrase "anti-Vietnamese chauvinism"

was bound to attract my attention. I know very few Cambodians, and this includes

CPP officials, who are not viscerally anti-Vietnamese. The distinction between "the

Vietnamese" and "those in power in Vietnam at a given time", obvious

to me, and presumably to the authors, is either incomprehensible or merely academic

to them, convinced as they are that all Vietnamese, contrary to them, are true patriots,

therefore agents of their government - just as some older Belgians (or Dutch or French

people, etc) might say that Germans, our (most recent) "historic enemy",

will always be invaders, are by essence a militarist, overly disciplined and humourless

lot: fortunately we are now all part of a not very united European "Union".

(Indeed formerly colonial countries are not the only ones ever to have been invaded

and occupied: most countries in Europe have known what it is like... the US hasn't,

which may go some way towards explaining their - apparent - naivete in international

matters. The category "Western countries", by the way, is hardly more pertinent

than that of "Third World"). The only Cambodian I have heard praise both

the Vietnamese intervention in 1978-79 and the generous behaviour of ethnic Vietnamese

people in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia - but not, of course, the machinations of the

Vietnamese party and its government - is Keng Vannsak whose credentials as a Cambodian

patriot, and knowledge of Khmer culture are I believe second to none. No doubt the

Vietnamese were not pure liberators of Cambodia... neither were the Americans pure

liberators of Europe in WW I and WW II. Strategic and economic concerns, as well

as more individual plundering, are always involved. The "reconstruction"

of Kuwait was also big business for US companies, and oil had been a major consideration

from the start. Governments and the businesses they represent are rarely if ever

driven by even the most rudimentary of morals. But we may nevertheless be glad that

it was to the interest of the US or Vietnam to crush their rivals, Nazism or the

Khmer Rouge.

The phrase "atrocities continuously perpetrated" by the Vietnamese is obviously

a combination of a wild hyperbole and a solecism: no doubt the authors mean "continually",

i.e. frequently. The idea that the name "Indochina" would be demeaning

to all but the Vietnamese is ludicrous: the problem with that word, in addition to

its colonial undertones, is that it implies that those countries, all of them, are

geographically and culturally defined as (solely) an intermediary or mixture between

India and China. As for the reason why others prefer the seemingly innocuous phrase

"South-East Asia", it may have something to do with another, neo-colonial


The reference to Frantz Fanon, one of the greatest anti-colonialist thinkers to be

sure, is a trifle worrying, as his stress on land, to us Europeans at least, evokes

a Nazi ideology which is still alive, not only in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, but

also for instance in Flanders. The full phrase is "Blut und Boden", and

indeed many Cambodians, including some quite eminent ones, boast, or worry, that

there is something unique about their blood. The reference to Sartre is a bit arbitrary

(name-dropping?). It may well be that smaller cultures, including that of Cambodia,

are under increasing threat. But that threat comes I believe from one or two hegemonic

countries and their celluloid, sound-bite "culture", not from poor little


Finally, it may interest the authors of the article to know that the "personalisation"

of the Khmer Rouge, in the form of the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary genocidal clique"

(to which was sometimes added the name of Khieu Samphan, but never, intriguingly,

those of Ta Mok, Nuon Chea or Son Sen) was the result of a decision reached at the

highest levels of the immediate forerunner of the CPP, and therefore, possibly at

the instigation of their Vietnamese advisers.

I realise how hard it is for most people in Cambodia, and often even more so for

exiles, to admit that, however much the Vietnamese, the Thai, the Chinese, the American

government, and other imperialists large and small may have contributed to their

recent misery, it is they themselves, and their power-mad, factionalist, war-mongering,

dollar-hungry elites that have allowed this to happen. Again, I think I am in agreement

with that master of most educated Cambodians, Keng Vannsak.

It is hard to be a survivor of a genocide, as Primo Levi and others have shown: much

harder to be a survivor of what is primarily a self-inflicted carnage. So it is only

"natural" to project. I remember seeing at Site 2 a large notice which

proclaimed that the genocide was the work of the Vietnamese. This may be as convincing

(but certainly no more so) as saying that the Nazi genocides were the work of the

bankers, industrialists, church leaders and "democratic powers" who diversely

paved (in various currencies) the way of Nazism, of those who turned away ships full

of refugees (or incarcerated those dangerous Jewish and/or Red spies in their own

movingly "democratic" concentration camps).

- Philippe Hunt, Brussels.


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