Visitors to Cambodia Unveil Misconceptions

For many Harvard students Natural Sciences 118, "Human Populations and Natural Resources," is just one more step toward completion of the General Education requirement. For Nicholas N. Eberstadt '76, however, the course prompted him to pursue the subject further. Much further.

Eberstadt, a visiting fellow at the Center for Population Studies, recently returned from a month-and-a-half visit to Thailand and Cambodia. He and his interpreter, Kim Gooi, a Malaysian journalist for a Thai English-speaking daily, spent most of September and October on the Thai-Cambodian border, making illegal border crossings into Cambodia whenever they could.

Eberstadt and Good developed a close friendship during the past few months although they disagree on some questions concerning the Cambodian situation.

Eberstadt is convinced the United States is not directly at fault for the creation of the Khmer Rouge, but Gooi says the U.S. played a "large role" in demoralizing the Cambodian people and consequently in causing the radical takeover.

Eberstadt's theory is that all demographic catastrophes are political in nature, not overpopulation problems.

"We tend to think of them as Malthusian disasters," Eberstadt says, but he adds that "all you have to do is look at Soviet collectivization or the Biafran disaster or Uganda." You cannot divorce the two, he maintains, and his recent experiences in Thailand and Cambodia reinforce his belief.

He also learned that the West adheres to certain perceptions of Cambodia, which a first-hand viewpoint contradict.

The West views Prince Sihanouk as "a wronged man tormented by circumstances around him," he says, adding that "I see him as sort of a Caligula figure, manipulative, weak, somewhat crazy." Sihanouk accepted all proposals, and thus will remain a "false hope as long as he's alive."

The West is still searching for someone to restore order in the area according to Eberstadt.

Their hope now is the Khmer Serie--a nominal military force which is viewed here as "an alternate force for liberation." Eberstadt sees them as just a big "hoax.