Cambodia's Curse

Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley Read Free Book Online

Book: Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley Read Free Book Online
Authors: Joel Brinkley
passive-aggressive tactic that would remain commonplace, even into the modern era. He signed orders for all of these reforms—but then declined to enforce them.

    This didn’t escape French notice. Over the following decades the French grew ever more frustrated with the Cambodian people. Just as the Thai and Vietnamese before them, the French viewed the populace as ignorant and torpid. As for the government bureaucracy, one French administrator described it as “worm-eaten debris,” historian John Tully wrote. As ever, the government’s legal and administrative officials were dedicated only to enriching themselves. The French calculated that they pocketed about 40 percent of the nation’s revenue.
    King Norodom was another problem altogether. The French complained frequently about his vast harem, which included four to five hundred women plus another thousand relatives and children. Tully wrote that a French report in 1894 caustically noted that the king’s concubine city cost the government 160,000 francs a year—a very considerable sum one hundred years ago. The French also chafed at his addiction to opium and deep affection for alcohol.
    When Norodom died in 1904, his successor, King Sisowath, worked with the French to at last evict the Thai from western Cambodia. Otherwise, he was a compliant king. Soon after he took office he really did abolish slavery, as Norodom had promised forty years earlier. He realized he had to give up something if he wanted the French to free his state from his hated enemy.
    Having secured Cambodia’s territorial integrity, through the midtwentieth century the French imposed onerous taxes and fees, but they offered little in return. Only in 1935 did they build the nation’s first high school, in Phnom Penh. Even so, they used it primarily to educate members of the royal family and train mandarin children to work in the French administration.
    In midcentury the French began sending a few dozen talented students to Paris to study, hoping they could educate a few of them to do serious work in the colonial government. These were young people, generally in their early twenties, who had no experience with the world outside their villages or perhaps Phnom Penh. They had never seen a
television and perhaps not even a radio. Cambodia had little in the way of newspapers, and so they knew almost nothing of the world outside.
    These young students arrived in Paris and found a society they had no idea existed. Most shocking for them were the French people, quite wealthy by Cambodian standards, who were free to do pretty much what they wanted. For many Cambodians this was transformative. Suddenly they questioned every founding principle of the Khmer state. Who said they could not aspire to more—to a life like these Frenchmen lived? Why should they be satisfied with the stunted lives Cambodians were indoctrinated to accept without question?
    One of these students made this view plain in an article published in a Khmer student magazine. The author wrote, “The King is absolute. He attempts to destroy the people’s interest when the people are in a position of weakness.” The “absolute king uses nice words, but his heart remains wicked.” The author of these words was a twenty-seven-year-old student named Saloth Sar. The world would know him later by his nom de guerre, Pol Pot.
    Communism was fashionable in Europe at the time. Saloth Sar and some of the other Cambodians embraced it and then brought the movement home. After returning to Cambodia they would find common cause with Vietnamese rebels who were fighting the French for their own freedom.
    Yet at a young age Saloth Sar was by no means ideologically pure. His older sister, Saloth Roeung, was the favorite concubine of the next king, Sisowath Monivong. As a young boy Saloth Sar liked to visit her at the palace—probably because giggling concubines would gather around him and, with their hands, offer sexual favors.
    When King Sisowath

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