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Cambodia and Crimson Politics


By Nick Lemann

ONE DAY in early May there was a long article in The New York Times about Cambodia, unusual because it told an amazing story of suffering inflicted on peasants there by Communists and because it contained some suprisingly personal observations by Sydney Schanberg, a reporter.

Everyone in Cambodia, Schanberg wrote, "looked ahead with hopeful relief to the collapse of the city [Phnom Penh], for they felt that when the Communists came and the war finally ended, at least the suffering would largely be over. All of us were wrong. That view of the future of Cambodia--as a possibly flexible place even under Communism, where changes would not be extreme and ordinary folk would be left alone--turned out to be a myth."

Schanberg was rightfully a little contrite, since he had painted a fairly glowing picture of the KhmerRouge as a nationalist, humane group fighting for its country's independence. It all seemed to fit together perfectly--the United States had been destroying Cambodia for five years for little apparent reason other than the support of an unpopular government that was now being over-thrown by one well aware of its national identity and interested in establishing freedom for its people. The stories from American-occupied Phnom Penh were horrible ones, full of corrupt war profiteers, and the Khmer Rouge always seemed simple, proud, dignified.

What was happening in Vietnam and Cambodia meant a lot to us at The Crimson; for us it seemed to be the first good news from Indochina in years. Since late in the 60s we had editorially supported the Khmer Rouge and National Liberation Front in Vietnam, both nationalist groups affiliated with foreign Communist parties, and both of those characteristics--the independence and the socialist egalitarianism--appealed to us. When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, a Crimson editorial said, "The capture of Phnom Penh last week by the Khmer Rouge is a victory for the Cambodian people over the corrupt Lon Nol regime and the imperialist American policies that supported it."

After Schanberg's report of the Khmer Rouge government came out, you'd think The Crimson would have had another editorial, since we had commented on practically every major development in Indochina for five years; generations of Crimson writers had written reams of copy about Vietnam and Indochina, all of it angry and heartfelt and sympathetic to the people there. But we didn't say anything, and we haven't said anything about Indochina since. What could we say? After five years of editorial sweat and toil, how could we turn our backs on the Cambodians? And how could we praise them for policies that bordered, or seemed to border, on mass murder?

It's easier to step back a little, and try to understand why the Khmer Rouge was worth supporting, before figuring out whether it still is. A few general principles seem to apply: a state of peace is better than one of war; a state of independence is better than one of control from outside; a state of complete social and economic equality for a nation's citizens is better than one of inequality. The United States monstrously violated this value system in Indochina, lining up squarely and brutally on the wrong side of all three criteria. All the Indochinese liberation movements seemed to uphold and sustain these same values; they were firmly in the right. Although information about the NLF and especially the Khmer Rouge has always been sketchy, there has been a lot to know--years of daily horror stories, broad ones of policy and small ones of people--about the American presence. One could only assume that it was worth fighting against and that whoever was doing the fighting, under the banner of liberation, must be strong and admirable. At first The Crimson was against the war because it was a bad and wasteful thing for America to do; supporting the liberation movements, a step most of the anti-war movement didn't take, was for us a logical next step.

I don't know what we all expected the Khmer Rouge to do when it came to power. It is impossible, of course, to change a nation from decayed urban capitalism to peasant socialism (the Khmer Rouge's program all along) immediately and quietly. I know when I first read Schanberg's story of a communist-imposed march what surprised me was not so much what had happened but how many prejudices I had accumulated about the situation. My immediate reaction was that this couldn't be true, that it had to be exaggerated, that the Khmer Rouge wouldn't do this sort of thing.

OUR PROBLEM in considering Cambodia is the problem of people who in their early years at Harvard were strongly influenced by older people who were part of a dimly-remembered time when students were more radical than they are now. The Crimson's sympathies were passed on to us in a way that seems now more felt than understood; we continued with a legacy tied not only to values but to an emotional climate. And we attempted to express the same sympathies in a time when every situation--Cambodia is only the clearest example--seems infinitely complex, full of competing values and lacking the wave of emotionalism in the community that would override those conflicts.

With Cambodia it's an old dilemma--do we look at events in Indochina as Americans with liberal values or as the Indochinese must look at them? The Khmer Rouge can certainly no longer meet with our approval on our own terms, because they violate our feeling that anything worthy need not be accomplished through violence and cruelty. On their own terms they continue to be most of what we supported them for--staunch nationalists, socialists, remakers of their own society. It is a conflict that I am not ready to resolve. Although The Crimson has yet to commit itself, I continue to support the Khmer Rouge in its principles and goals but I have to admit that I deplore the way they are going about it.

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