Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Powerful Warning

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Powerful Warning

Article excerpt


THE GATE by Francois Bizot translated by Euan Cameron (Harvill Press, u16.99)

ONE cloudless afternoon in June 1970 I was bowling along in a minibus crowded with farmers and their families near the small town of Svay Rieng in eastern Cambodia, headed for the capital, Phnom Penh, not long after it had been taken over by the pro-American general Lon Nol.

The peaceful road, green-enamelled ricefields, small boys riding mud-caked water buffaloes made, I noted, a refreshing change from the sandbags, barbed wire and watchtowers I had temporarily left behind in Vietnam.

War reporting, I thought, has its peaceful moments.

Suddenly two young men in black pyjamas, sandals and straw hats waved the bus down with businesslike AK47 assault rifles, peered inside and said to me in barely intelligible French: "The commandant wants to talk to you."

"I'd love to talk to him, too, but I have to be in Phnom Penh before dark," I said, as nonchalantly as I could manage. A young guerilla waved his gun impatiently. I got out and followed him to a nearby house on stilts, under which the commandant, perhaps 25, was waiting with more black-clad young men, all with guns.

Once over the idea that I would be shot on the spot - 16 journalists went missing in Cambodia about that time - the talk became more relaxed.

I explained that I was British (actually I'm Australian, but Britain had no troops in Indochina) unarmed, and a reporter eager to get their viewpoint out to the world.

The commandant said they belonged to the Khmer Serei ("Free Cambodians") fighting the foreigners of all kinds, Americans, Vietnamese or Thais invading their country.

I said I could understand, and the commandant gave me a business card identifying him as a teacher of French in Svay Rieng. "Well, I have to be getting along now," I said, after a twitchy interval. "Been nice meeting you and your fine lads."

Back on the road I grabbed the blessed first bus and made it back to war-torn Vietnam. I have often recalled the encounter with a quiet shudder.

What happened to the commandant, I wondered?

Could he and his smiling, polite boys be among those who had tortured and murdered a million or more of their own people, a good fifth of Cambodia's population, one of the worst war crimes of the blood-soaked 20th century?

Now, 30 years on, I know.

Yes, indeed, they could, and probably did. In their place, admits FranAois Bizot, perhaps he might have been a good torturer, too.

Bizot is something of a Cambodian paradox himself.

His lifelong interest is not war or politics, but religion (he is professor of Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne in Paris).

Soon after I was picked up he was out scouting temples for ancient manuscripts near Oudong, on the other side of Phnom Penh, when he was stopped on the road by an armed group of Khmer Rouge, the derisory nickname given to the military wing of the Cambodian Communist Party which later absorbed my own friends the Khmer Serei. …

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