Beyond the Killing Fields

Posted by: | Posted on: January 31, 2013

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Op-Ed: The Economist: Intelligent Life

Nearly 50 years ago, Nicholas Shakespeare’s family was forced to flee Cambodia. Now he and his father return for the first time since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and find ordinary Cambodians enduring a new kind of agony

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013


Excited, my father starts climbing it. We are in the air-conditioned residence of America’s ambassador to Phnom Penh, formerly the British embassy. On a humid day in 1964—in an incident unreported at the time because Western journalists were banned—my father walked down this staircase to confront about 1,000 angry students who had come to trash the building. They were acting on instructions from Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

The British ambassador, Peter Murray, was away that morning and had left my father, John Shakespeare, the first secretary, in charge. Three days later, Murray sent a confidential despatch back to the foreign secretary, Rab Butler. This year, on the eve of our first visit to Cambodia since our abrupt departure nearly half a century ago, my father found a copy of Murray’s message in a damp cardboard box in his Wiltshire garage, along with letters, receipts, maps and photographs. Murray’s despatch begins: “I regret to report that the official premises of Her Majesty’s Embassy in Phnom Penh were attacked and badly damaged by a mob on the morning of the 11th of March 1964…As for what happened in my absence, I have the honour—and this for once is no formal phrase—to refer you, Sir, to Mr Shakespeare’s account.”

My father, now 82, reaches the top step. He has rarely spoken about his part in Sihanouk’s sacking of our embassy. The details come back as he looks down the staircase.

He remembers crowds of people assembling in the street out of a clear blue sky. “I saw somebody painting on the wall outside the embassy ‘US go home’ and I went and told him, ‘Look, you’ve got the wrong place. The American embassy is down there.’” More people turned up with placards bearing the words “Perfide Albion”, and in one case “Perfide Albino”. The shouts grew louder. My father instructed all the embassy staff, about 20 of them, to go up these stairs, to a safe area where secret papers were kept in a strong room. Then the crowd surged into the grounds.

“We heard the most appalling thumping coming from the garden, and realised they were attacking our cars. They had started a bonfire with our spare wheel and petrol can. Rocks and bricks came smashing through the windows and, most terrifying of all, deep-frozen legs of lamb. They had opened the giant freezer on the ground floor.”

Upstairs, everyone was frightened—the women cowering and in tears, and one or two of the men hiding away in a corner. “Then I realised it’s now or never, I’ve really got to go and establish human contact with these people, so I went out onto the landing and, feeling rather like General Gordon at Khartoum, I sort of walked up to the crowd and spoke to two men in suits who were clearly the leaders.”

My father said this had gone on long enough, and would they please now let the staff leave the building: “Il y a des jeunes filles ici dedans qui ont très, très peur.” The two men looked at each other. He felt a sign pass between them, and then they turned round and indicated to the crowd, who started grumblingly to go back downstairs. “It was the most relieved moment of my life.”

The wrecking of the British embassy was, in hindsight, a pivotal moment in Cambodia’s history. It had been ordered by Sihanouk, the petulant head of state, after Britain obstructed his long-held desire for an international conference to guarantee Cambodia’s neutrality. In his project to keep out of the war next door in Vietnam, Sihanouk had pressed for Britain and Russia, the two co-chairmen, to reconvene the Geneva Conference which had endorsed Cambodia’s independence in 1954. To this end, only six weeks before the attack, in a dotty and ultimately futile gesture, Sihanouk had invited my father to join him on a sudden “peace mission” to Malaysia and Indonesia. Sihanouk hoped that if he used his influence in the region to diffuse Indonesia’s hostility towards newly independent Malaysia, then a grateful Britain would accede to his request.

What my father’s papers reveal is that for a tantalising moment it looked as though Britain would comply, and the conference was set to take place in Geneva in April 1964. My father, the go-between, wrote on February 3rd at the end of Sihanouk’s mission: “Largely because of our agreement to his conference on the neutralisation of Cambodia, and partly I suspect because of my own presence in his party, Sihanouk went out of his way to make glowing references to the British.” But days after Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh, Britain caved in under pressure from America and refused to go ahead. My father expressed his disappointment in a private letter: “Our government continues to behave abominably, not daring to take any step without first getting permission from Washington, and as a result we are now being even more bitterly attacked by Sihanouk than the Americans for doing the Americans’ dirty work for them.” The sacking of the embassy was the upshot.

My father goes down the staircase, and as we step outside into the heat another memory assails him. He points to the spot, grassed over now, where he was ruefully going through the wreckage, looking at his upturned Ford Zephyr, when a large black limousine from the palace appeared, and a smartly dressed man climbed out carrying a parcel.

“I am looking for Mr Shakespeare.”

“I am Mr Shakespeare.”

“I have this package from Monseigneur [as Sihanouk was known].”

Elaborately wrapped inside a gift of Cambodian silverware was a deliberately pre-dated letter from Sihanouk expressing his appreciation of my father’s “valuable assistance” on his recent peace mission, and his pleasure at welcoming to Phnom Penh “a young diplomat of an obvious capacity to approach complex Asian problems with an open mind, and animated by a sincere desire to understand them”.

In a series of staccato images, I remember my father, a non-smoker, unpacking the silver smoking-set in our modern French-style house (rented off Sihanouk’s deputy and soon-to-be-usurper, General Lon Nol; my mother gave English lessons there to Sihanouk’s mother, a dumpy woman in a diamond pendant who was said to own the best brothel in town). I remember my father saying that the head of the British Council’s home had been destroyed, and we would have to leave Phnom Penh. I remember waving goodbye to our gardener, Hem, and climbing into the back of a Land Rover with a suitcase, on which I perched for the journey to the Thai border, and catching a last sight of Phnom Penh, receding through the canvas flap like a stage set.

On our return, my father was hoping to see Sihanouk, but we were told that he was having medical treatment in Beijing, where he had lived since abdicating in 2004. After seeing his old office, my father is compelled to reflect. Had Sihanouk’s cherished peace conference taken place and guaranteed Cambodia’s neutrality, the history of the region might have unravelled less murderously. Henry Kissinger might have balked at secretly bombing it—an action that killed up to half a million Cambodians and drove a traumatised population into the arms of Pol Pot, who went on to kill a further 2.2m, including five of Sihanouk’s 14 children—and Hem.

We were not the only ones to leave Phnom Penh in response to Sihanouk’s rabble-rousing. In a last-ditch bid to retain his failing neutrality, he lashed out at his enemies on the left as well as the right. Fleeing to the jungles from 1963 onwards were a marginalised group of mainly Paris-educated communists whom Sihanouk later dubbed “the Khmer Rouge”.

Picture: Growing up outside Phnom Penh. In 2006 Cambodia’s government uprooted 1,300 families from Phnom Penh and dumped them in an open field—to make way for a shopping mall, which has yet to be built


When we arrived in 1963, Phnom Penh was a sleepy French-speaking provincial town, not unlike Celesteville. Sihanouk was its absolute monarch, a podgy saxophone-player who spoke of Cambodians as “mes enfants“, while they knew him as “Samdech Euv!” (Prince-Daddy). The myth prevailed, as with King Babar, that “Sihanouk is Cambodia”. A film-maker who starred in his own productions, also writing the screenplays and music, the “Pioneer Prince” had a passionate vision of his country, and twisted with every wind to preserve it.

If I open my six-year-old eyes, I see orange-stuccoed French villas strung out along frangipani-lined streets of beaten red earth, down which I travelled to school in a squeaking rickshaw, the cyclo-pousse. The town even had elephants—my mother scraped our white Ford Zephyr while swerving to avoid one outside the royal palace. “We were there in the last year of what was regarded as a golden age,” my father tells me. “I’d never been in a country where people were as happy.”

Stuck in a jam on the way in from the airport, he stares at the bumper-to-bumper Toyotas, the huge garment factories and half-completed skyscrapers, bewildered. “This is another city. This is like Dubai on the Mekong.” Fifty years ago, the airport was a small building out in the rice fields. The town had few cars and a single petrol station. The most dramatic change is the disappearance of French—”then, you couldn’t speak anything else.” Cambodia had been a French protectorate for nearly a century until Sihanouk secured its independence in 1953. Today the signs advertising “Factories for rent” or “Changing steering wheel from right to left side” are in English. All that the French appear to have left behind is their bread.

In 1963, about the only building higher than two storeys was the Hotel Royal, where we stayed before moving into a house in Rue Nhiek Tioulong. “Yes, yes, yes,” my father exclaims as we draw up outside, relieved to recognise a landmark.

With its creaking teak staircase and black-and-white tiled corridors, the Hotel Royal is the seat of some of my earliest memories. We came here from Saigon, driving non-stop all morning to avoid the Vietcong (who only resumed their shelling at midday). I would swim in the pool after attending the Petit Lycée Descartes opposite. The hotel later became a refuge for Western reporters in the days before the Khmer Rouge entered the city, on April 17th 1975, turning Phnom Penh’s swollen population of 2m into “April 17th people”—urban enemies to be “re-educated” in the countryside.

The receptionist who runs down the steps to fetch my father’s bag is a man in his mid-30s whose parents and four siblings were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Ya Kanhol’s personal history could be that of any Cambodian of his age. His father was a soldier for General Lon Nol, who in 1970 led an American-supported coup against Sihanouk, and that is all he knows. He was one year old at the time. He has no photograph of his father, no idea what he looked like, and no one to tell him.

From his bag, my father plucks the receipt from our stay at the Royal in December 1963, with the price in Riels. Ya Kanhol looks at my father, an emissary from an unimaginable time of charmed peace, and smiles. “Welcome back.”

The manager takes the receipt away to frame it. He says it is the only document relating to the hotel that has survived the Khmer Rouge era. In an action that mimicked Sihanouk’s attack on the embassy, most archives in the city were piled into the streets—along with telephones, fridges, cars and any evidence of Western culture—and torched.

Picture: (top) the Shakespeares’ family album, filled with snaps taken on their Kodak Brownie. The photos show John Shakespeare’s trashed office and Ford Zephyr after a mob stormed the British embassy in March 1964. (Bottom) The Shakespeares’ bill from the Hotel Royal, now framed there


MY FIRST HISTORY lessons took place at the Lycée Descartes across the road. The school is still there, and the two trees in the courtyard, but the wooden desks have gone, and the cross-legged old ladies on the pavement outside who sold sweets wrapped in a banana leaf with a thorn stuck through. On our first morning back, I addressed a class of seven-year-olds in the same bad French that I had learned then.

I asked what they wanted to be when they were my age. Hands flew up. Sorcerer, prince, safari leader, toy-seller, president, fighter pilot. None of them said a teacher. One boy was the son of a novelist. “I go up to him and go NAH! and then he’s sad all the time and then I drink his coffee.”

Several Khmer Rouge leaders were teachers. Some had even been pupils at the Lycée Descartes. And yet everything that they and I had learned in this classroom was a reason to be “re-educated”. The cadres would come at night and take away anyone who spoke French, read, had a qualification, soft hands, coloured clothes, or wore glasses. “Angkar [the Organisation] has chosen you to study. We’re leaving. Immediately.” You would go in silence and be found in the morning with your skull smashed in. The only people allowed to wear glasses in Democratic Kampuchea (sic) were the Khmer Rouge leaders.

Another former pupil tells me that he was sitting in class one morning in 1974 when two Khmer artillery shells plummeted through the roof, killing ten children. Afterwards, the Lycée Descartes served as a dormitory for the Khmer army’s “artist troupe” of dancers, singers and musicians. They reared chickens and pigs in the yard where, on my seventh birthday, I had ripped open a present from a shy French girl who occupied the next desk.

Lycées became prisons and torture centres. Interrogators wearing black pyjamas sat in the teacher’s chair and gave monotonous lessons about the revolutionary new order: no schools, no private property, no money, no religion, no family. Education disappeared into slogans, all meaning and curiosity smoothed into lacquered nonsense derived from a lethal homemade cocktail of Saint-Just (“A nation regenerates itself only upon heaps of corpses”) and Mao (“The shovel is your pen”). Books were banned. The National Library had pigs running through it too. “The pigs replaced the books,” wrote the Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh, who was 12 at the time. “And we replaced the pigs.” When I met him in France in June 2012, he warned that my father would not find anyone he had known in Phnom Penh still alive.

Not only was the French protectorate erased from folk memory. Even today, school history texts devote only six lines in 79 pages to the Khmer Rouge era (1975-79). The ongoing UN-backed trial of five Khmer Rouge leaders—for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity—has brought some awareness at last. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirls, invited to the court as part of a campaign to promote the trial, gasped aloud to hear the charges that were read out to a giggling mathematics teacher called Duch. But even though the trial has produced a mountain of evidence for everyone to see, many in Cambodia see the Cambodian judges as puppets of the ruling government, the proceedings as a war-crimes bandwagon—a “dripping roast” which has cost $170m already, yet so far delivered a justice popularly regarded as risible. Some argue that to focus on the Khmer Rouge years is to read one page from a history book and to tear out the others—why wasn’t Sihanouk in the dock, or Kissinger? Others find it hard to accept that the accused have access to first-world medical treatment and a legal system that they denied their people. Saint-Just: “Is this not the last act of a tyrant, to demand to be judged by the laws that he destroyed?” Then there are those who point out that America and Britain, both donors to the tribunal, supported and armed the Khmer Rouge following North Vietnam’s invasion in 1979, and the SAS even gave covert training.

No one better illustrates the surreal nature of the trial and of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most bizarre political phenomena in history, than the bespectacled figure of Ieng Thirith, the 80-year-old former minister of social affairs and sister-in-law of Pol Pot. In the early 1950s, when my father was a lecturer at the Ecole Normale in Paris, Thirith was studying Shakespeare at the Sorbonne, once making a pilgrimage to Stratford. She returned to Cambodia knowing nothing about agriculture and with unfortunate ideas about medicine. At no time in Paris had she or her husband Ieng Sary, who became foreign minister, or Khieu Samphan, who became president, or Pol Pot, who became Brother Number One, gathered any meaningful political experience involving human beings, only texts. By the time they went home, it was too late: human beings were in their way.

Ieng Thirith denies knowledge of any killing, although she is alleged to have closed down Cambodia’s hospitals. In September 2012, a week before we flew back to Phnom Penh, she was released from detention and returned to her house on 21st Street—on the grounds of suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her English lawyer told me that the tribunal’s Cambodian judges had initially had some difficulty with the word “Alzheimer’s”. “They didn’t understand it, because my theory is that Cambodians didn’t live long enough.”

The paradox is exquisite, resonant of the Shakespeare plays that Ieng Thirith was the first to translate into Khmer: this Khmer Rouge leader was among the few people in her country who had grown old enough to be in the fortunate position of not remembering what she had done.

Picture: at Tuol Sleng, a former high school, 12,380 Cambodians were interrogated, tortured and executed. Khmer Rouge leaders used lycées to re-educate—ie, kill—perceived enemies


MEMORY LOSS WOULD be a blessing for most Cambodians, who have not processed their trauma.

One morning, we drive out in a van along the straight, flat road that we took when we fled Phnom Penh. Unlike the city, the landscape is unchanged. I could be sitting on my childhood suitcase looking out at the same rice fields dotted with tall sugar palms. It was down this road that the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh’s population, including our cook as well as Hem the gardener. They were ordered to labour in the countryside under the authority of local peasants in a wholly agrarian economy. Families were broken up, their place taken by the anonymous Angkar. Men were separated from women, mothers from their children.

In Phnom Penh I meet a woman of 72, Nget Khun, who instinctively grabs her hair as she recalls her four children running towards her every time she came home from the rice field. “The Khmer Rouge women pulled their hair and beat them. I felt so shocked. I could not do anything, or I would be killed.” One night her children ran away from their co-operative and spent the night in her bed. “In the morning, they came and took my children, pulling their hair like this.” In 1978, one of her sons disappeared. Probably the Khmer Rouge “solved” him. He was 15. She prayed for him at the pagoda every day. “Ek.” After saying his name, she releases her fistful of grey hair and weeps.

A similar tide of emotion overwhelms a 55-year-old woman in the back of the van, Sor Sat. She is explaining how the Khmer Rouge killed their victims. They would hang loudspeakers on the trees and play a song in four directions, very loud, to prevent prisoners from speaking or shouting. Whenever she heard this song, she knew it was time for executions.

“What was the song?” I ask.


I look round. Sor Sat has stretched her green silk scarf tight across her face like a blindfold, and her shoulders shake.

I assume that she does not want to continue. She has already told me that in order to survive she kept her mouth shut, never spoke to anyone. I turn back and look at the road.

After a while, I feel a nudge. She hands me a piece of paper. Unable to say the words, Sor Sat has written them down, the last words you heard before a farm tool slammed into the back of your neck.

“O children, gather round, I would like to tell you how valuable the revolution is, how much we have sacrificed to achieve what we have.”

She wipes her eyes: “It’s not true. It didn’t achieve anything. The suffering was beyond belief.” Her voice has picked up, irrigated by her tears. Staring at the road ahead, she starts a flow of memories that goes on and on, incantatory, in a quiet melodic tone, for the rest of the journey. Her forced marriage to an illiterate Khmer by whom she has three children. (“As a student I used to dream of marrying a very good, well-educated man who understood my feelings.”) The armed villagers who hid under the hut to listen. The insects and roots she gulped down to stave off starvation. The ditches she had to dig, the impossible quotas of rice she had to harvest. The beatings with a baton which left her coughing blood. The lady who pretended to be blind so she would not have to work. The man who pretended to be crazy. The woman who tried to escape, but was caught. “I peeped and saw. They dragged her out from the detention centre and kicked her head for ten minutes till she was unconscious. Then they threw water over her till she revived. Then they used a screw to take her fingernails out and then they used the screw to squeeze her nipples and then they went further down and squeezed everything until she died.” She looks at me. “It was everything we cannot imagine.”

And this took place in colour, beside ponds with pink-flowering lilies. I think of the glass casket that I saw on display in the “killing field” of Choeung Ek, full of mauve rags and bones and teeth, some belonging to children; bones which still churn to the surface every rainy season, as if the spirits of the dead refuse to settle. A third of Cambodia’s population were killed, no one knows how or where—turning the survivors into a nation of Antigones who cannot bury their past.

Stress-related illness has proliferated. The American Journal of Affective Disorders recently diagnosed Prolonged Grief Disorder, prevalent among survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. At a health centre near Siem Reap on our last day, I go through the list of patients who presented themselves over the nine days we have been in Cambodia. Out of 31 patients, seven are women over 40 who suffer from “mental health problems”. Nearly a quarter.

The absence of relics helps to explain the enthusiasm with which my father’s mundane mementoes are pored over at Rithy Panh’s audiovisual archive, the Bophana Centre. The archivist has never seen our town map showing the street names, as most of Phnom Penh’s streets retain their bald numbering from the 1980s; nor the map of the country which the Royal Cambodian Army gave my father, with Cambodia’s 1963 boundaries. Our old Brownie snaps of the Independence Monument in a traffic-free Phnom Penh, even of myself in a deserted Angkor Wat, turn out to be small bricks in Cambodia’s reconstruction. My father keeps shaking his head: “We have come to a country without a past, without a history.”

Picture: rice fields in Krang Lahong. Over half of Cambodia’s arable land has been sold to private companies, dispossessing about 700,000 people. But farmers in Krang Lahong have learned to fight land-grabbers and squeeze a profit from their fields, by changing the habits of a millennium—planting single shoots of rice, not clumps of ten


THIS COLLECTIVE AMNESIA is most convenient for the 60-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier who succeeded Sihanouk as Cambodia’s ruler in 1985 and proudly bills himself the world’s longest-serving prime minister. Hun Sen, who has a glass eye, often calls on his people to “dig a hole and bury the past”. And yet into that hole have gone the title deeds which establish the rights of women like Nget Khun and Sor Sat to their land. Because what is most shocking to discover is that the forced exodus of Cambodians by Cambodians continues. Since 1998, when the Khmer Rouge laid down their arms, an estimated 700,000 people have been evicted from their homes, and 63% of all arable land handed out to private companies by a government saturated with ex-Khmer Rouge. Someone who has known Hun Sen for 30 years reels them off: “The prime minister was Khmer Rouge. The president of the senate was Khmer Rouge. The president of the national assembly was Khmer Rouge. The chief of the armed forces was Khmer Rouge. The minister of finance was Khmer Rouge. So don’t be surprised that the tribunal of the Khmer Rouge does not work well.”

It takes a while to absorb. The people who on pain of death abolished money, family and private property in order to impose a rural-based economy, are the same ones now living in blingy urban palaces, driving Lexuses and operating extensive patronage networks. In Cambodia, it is not against the law for politicians to own businesses and accept gifts. The wealth of the senior leaders is astronomical. A forestry expert who since 1996 has monitored the government’s involvement in illegal logging observes that Hun Sen routinely turns his blind eye to the law: “Hun Sen is running a textbook example of an organised-crime syndicate. You can’t find a person in uniform implementing the law of the country. Everyone says, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you have to give me 10%.’ No one works for the ministry. They work for the minister, and the minister is signing illegal deals.”

A week before our arrival, in a story impossible to verify but passed on to me by someone with access to the family, thieves broke into the home of one of Hun Sen’s ministers (average monthly salary $2,000) who employed his wife, son and daughter in his office: $15m was stolen—in cash. Without a murmur, the ideology of massive profiteering has replaced Mao and Saint-Just, and those who formerly presided over the suicide of a nation are now selling it to the highest bidder.

CAMBODIA’S BURNING ISSUE is land rights, over which the government will fall to pieces unless it is very careful. Nget Khun lives with her daughter on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. They were among 4,252 families ordered to leave their homes when this historic lake was bought by a construction company headed by a Cambodian senator, Lao Meng Khin. Details of the transaction are unavailable, but the government’s crackdown was for all to see. In May 2012, Nget Khun and 12 other women dared to protest: they were beaten and imprisoned, and released only after an international furore. Seated on the floor, in sight of the filled-in lake, Nget Khun condemns Hun Sen’s government. “During the Khmer Rouge time, we would never have dared say anything. We knew nothing about rights. The NGOs have told us our rights.”

After describing the loss of her son Ek, she goes on. “This is worse than Pol Pot because they use indirect means to kill us. Then, everyone ate the same small amount of rice, worked together, all poor. But now they exploit us to be rich.”

One afternoon, I visit Andong, where in June 2006 a community of 1,367 families was uprooted from central Phnom Penh and dumped in a field 22km away. Chounkim, now 82, hunchbacked and bald, had lived in her house for 26 years. “They just burned it down and evicted us. All I had was a bottle of fish paste and the clothes on me.”

Her finger jabs at the grassy swamp where she slept for months, today an open latrine for some 5,000 people. “I had no compensation, not a single grain of rice.” Six years on, the government has yet to provide electricity, running water, medical facilities or land titles. In a mud lane behind Chounkim’s rudimentary hut, a pregnant woman stands in black ankle-deep sewage and washes her hair. Dysentery is rife. Chounkim says: “It’s beyond human beings to tolerate.”

In Pol Pot’s time, Chounkim lost four of her nephews, sent away for re-education.
Should the present government be re-educated?

She compresses her lips. “Some should.”

I talk to a group of men. “What would you like to ask Hun Sen?”

They laugh, before one replies: “The question should be, ‘How much do I need to pay to ask him a question?’”

Almost every conversation leaves the impression of a corrupt government that ignores its people and rules by crackdown. At a meeting in Phnom Penh’s Imperial Garden Hotel on our second day, the minister of land management scolded his critics: “Don’t shoot us down—or we’ll shoot you.”

The phrase was unfortunate, given the unsolved shooting by government forces in May of a 14-year-old girl who was demonstrating against land grabs; the unsolved shooting of a prominent forestry activist, Chut Wutty, in April; and the unsolved murder of Hang Seri Oudom, a journalist whose bludgeoned body was found in a car on September 11th after he exposed illegal logging.

The day after the minister’s remark, I mingle with stunned protesters outside the municipal court. Mam Sonando, the owner of a radio station, has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for “inciting rebellion”. A human-rights activist who was in court tells me despairingly that it was a show-trial, like “the mickey-mouse Khmer Rouge tribunal”. Sonando’s “crime” was to broadcast the perfectly accurate news that Hun Sen had been reported to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in his dealing with land disputes.

Picture: Sor Sat, whose son disappeared aged 15. She now campaigns against land grabs


THE KHMER ROUGE had a slogan to justify killing children: “When you dig up the grass, you must remove even the roots.”

The village of Taing Trepaing where we are heading in the van with Sor Sat is proof that Cambodia’s grass roots are stirring. Sor Sat is one of a growing number of women who have nothing left to lose because they have lost everything, including faith in the justice system, and are taking the law into their own hands. In 2001, with help from NGOs such as Oxfam, Sor Sat registered a small organisation to fight land grabs and teach local farmers their rights.

Seated at a child’s desk under a stilted hut, I listen to Sor Sat and 20 other women tell how they have successfully fought against Pheapimex (a company also fronted by Senator Lao Meng Khin), which out of the blue claimed possession of 315,028 hectares—the area of an English county. “They showed no paper. They came in a car with a Chinese person, got out, unrolled a map and didn’t speak to any villagers.”

In Sor Sat’s area, 700 families were affected. On November 13th 2004, Sor Sat led 150 women to protest at Pheapimex’s office in Pursat. A grenade exploded, injuring nine of them. But, to the government’s evident surprise, the women were undaunted. “We’d prefer to die protecting our land,” Sor Sat says, “because to lose our land is to die.” Pheapimex has since backed off, as has a quarrying company which tried to bulldoze a forest belonging to the people of Krang Lahong.

If the diseased squalor of Andong is what happens when people do not have land, then the communities of Taing Trepaing and Krang Lahong show what rural Cambodians can achieve when allowed to be masters of their native soil. Krang Lahong’s village chief, Nhann Kong has discovered that if he plants rice shoots singly instead of in clumps of ten—the practice in Cambodia for a thousand years—then his yield increases twofold, his family does not go hungry for three months a year, and he can sell the surplus. His success has persuaded six other villages to follow suit.

I ask what he has spent the money on in the three years since he came into profit. He bends back his fingers. “A motorbike. Concrete for my house. Education for my children.”

MY MOST VIVID memory of Cambodia is a smell: a mixture of tree roots and bat droppings that I breathed in as I clambered alone through the ruins of Angkor.

The Rice Road, as the road north is called, leads past the enigmatic network of temples and man-made canals that proved such a baleful inspiration to both Sihanouk and Pol Pot. “If our people can build Angkor,” Pol Pot said in 1976, “they can do anything.”

In 1964, I saw no one as I climbed the Terrace of the Leper King, where elephants were carved into stone and the roots grew thicker than Babar’s trunk. What had been remote and lost in the jungle is now a theme park. This year, 3m visitors are expected, mainly from Vietnam and China, the countries that benefit most from Hun Sen’s policies. In another of his government’s impenetrable deals, the company which stands guard over Cambodia’s national heritage, charging foreign tourists $20 a day, is said to be owned by a Vietnamese—while the new “National” museum in Siem Reap is owned by the Thais. Its first director: Hun Sen’s (untrained) daughter.

“For me,” my father says, “the final irony is that the national symbol might virtually be in the hands of Cambodia’s traditional enemies, who are making lots of money out of it, while the wretched peasants go about their business in muddy fields having been dispossessed by the government.”

On a sweltering morning, we walk across the crowded causeway to Angkor Wat. The place is vast, never-ending, unnerving. As I reach the top of one near-vertical stone staircase, I have a congested memory of climbing steep steps to steeper temples, along narrowing corridors which fail to resolve into any awe-inspiring space, and of a sensation—long stowed away—of being oppressed, even frightened.

Two days after we leave Cambodia, we hear that Sihanouk has died in Beijing.

Picture: road-menders at one of the mysterious 12th-century jungle temples at Angkor Wat which inspired Sihanouk and Pol Pot

Cambodia: A Timeline
800s-1400s The Khmer empire, based at Angkor
1432-1863 The so-called Dark Ages of Cambodia
1863-1953 French protectorate
1953 King (later Prince) Sihanouk secures independence
1970 Military coup leads to Khmer Republic
1970-75 Civil war
1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule; Pol Pot becomes PM; millions killed
1979-93 People’s Republic of Kampuchea
1993 Sihanouk back on throne
2004 Sihanouk abdicates in favour of his son

Nicholas Shakespeare grew up in the Far East and South America before joining the BBC, where he made films on Graham Greene and Dirk Bogarde. He is now a critic and the author of 11 books, most recently “Inheritance”

Photographs Emma Hardy

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