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Exposition of revolutionary terror
The Gate, by Francois Bizot

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

For a long time during the Cold War, Cambodia remained in the shadow of Vietnam. To the outside world it was a "sideshow" (journalist William Shawcross). Yet the monumental devastation and human loss that ideological hatred foisted on the home of the Khmers in the 1970s was unparalleled in all of Asia. Francois Bizot, a French historian of Buddhism, was the only Westerner to live through the time of Cambodia's obscurity by surviving and escaping a Khmer Rouge prison camp. From such a rare species comes a rare testimony of the proverbial lull before the storm, the prelude to genocide and the spine-chilling "killing fields". Spy novelist John le Carre, who fictionalized Bizot's experiences in The Secret Pilgrim, writes in the foreword: "He is the authentic version of what the rest of us can only imagine."

Bizot's earliest memories of mid-'60s Cambodia are rose-tinted. "The land was rich and beautiful, enameled with paddy fields, dotted with temples. This was a country of peace and simplicity." (p 3) Compared with the later wave of terror and irreparable damage, the pristine image sits uncomfortably in Bizot's mind. "This constant split vision pulled me apart like some schizophrenic illness." (p 6) From the painful side of the vision, Bizot sees the gate of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, a piece of fragile mesh that resisted so many strong hopes and opened itself to so many heavy wrongs in 1975. The harrowing consciousness of this gate forms the theme of the book.

In 1970, Bizot was in Angkor doing field research on local Buddhist traditions when the US-backed military dictatorship of Lon Nol was installed in Cambodia. Resistance, aided by the North Vietnamese, was engaging the pro-US government in bloody guerrilla warfare. To rural Cambodians, "this war was totally foreign" (p 15). Villagers who wished only to preserve their centuries-old Buddhist ways of life did not know what to think of the communists or of the government, both of whom were harassing them endlessly for conscripts and grain. Stuck in stereotypes of Vietnam, European intelligentsia took commando raids on the government army to be a spontaneous and independent popular rebellion. The truth, as Bizot witnessed it, was that ordinary Khmers feared the Vietnamese invaders as much as Lon Nol.

Around 1971, Bizot detected a new "hidden organization" that was making life hell for peasants - the Khmer Rouge. "In contrast to the North Vietnamese, whose mission was to fight the republican army, their role was to sow terror, under the cover of the forests." (p 26) On a trip to a monastery in Oudong, Bizot and his co-researchers were ambushed by a Khmer Rouge convoy and dragged on foot to an unknown destination. Charged with ideological fervor, his interrogators took him to be an American spy spreading "imperialism". Bizot heard his captors discuss a solution to this French-Khmer-speaking Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent. "Undress him and shoot him! What are you waiting for comrades?" (p 37) The Khmer Rouge's trademark style was to strip victims before shooting them so that the garments could be reused.

Miraculously spared through the intervention of higher-ups, Bizot was chained under a chhlik tree in a forest glade camp and barely kept alive. "The first few days last a lifetime ... the voice of revolt, little by little, dies away." (p 43) Since there was no spare container for Bizot, he was denied the morning meal. The miserly rice morsel of the evening was all Bizot's camp commander Ta Douch allowed.

Gradually, Bizot developed a strange attachment and respect for Douch despite the fact that he was his tormentor (a la the "Stockholm Syndrome", where the kidnapped undergo affection for their captors). In conversations with Douch to prove his innocence, Bizot gleaned a touch of brutality and cold robotic terror that was to become the hallmark of the man who would go on to supervise the Tuol Sleng torture prison in Phnom Penh. References to "cleansing the sins", "ridding our country of vermin", driving sense into those "benumbed by Buddhism", and the total disdain with which Douch and his subordinates treated crops, gardens, trees, pathways and other sacred symbols were signs of the apocalypse to come. Douch's superiors included the who's who of Khmer Rouge butchers - Ta Mok, Von Veth, Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot). In the tradition of the leaders, Douch proclaimed, "the only way is to terrorize enemies, isolate them and starve them ... it's better to have a sparsely populated Cambodia than a country full of incompetents". (p 116)

Oddly, the same automaton who carried out beatings and shootings remorselessly, Douch, was somewhat sympathetic to Bizot and started believing in his blamelessness. "This terrible man was not duplicitous: all he had were principles and convictions." (p 77) He yearned to project a pure, upright image of the Khmer Rouge and was known to punish indiscipline, theft or other crimes among his subalterns. So taken was Bizot by the romantic image of the upright revolutionary that he played mind games putting himself in Douch's shoes: "It occurred to me that in his place, I, too, would have had what it takes to be a good torturer." (p 98) Douch petitioned his bosses and overcame obstinate refusals finally to secure Bizot's release months after his incarceration. "My freedom had become a sort of personal success for him." (p 127)

In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge rode triumphantly into Phnom Penh, Bizot was in the capital and noticed the same naivete clouded by Vietnam among French diplomats. They still believed the Khmer Rouge to be a popular uprising against US intervention in Cambodia. They would be eating their words in days. Spreading deliberate lies that "American bombardments" would start, Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Phnom Penh at gunpoint. Displaced persons were allowed no more than one piece of luggage and herded into long queues for slave labor in foreordained collective farms and factories.

Bizot's linguistic abilities and the crowding of the French Embassy with stranded foreigners and fleeing Khmers suddenly turned him into the official interpreter in an extended drama of negotiations between international citizens and Khmer Rouge soldiers. Virtually under house arrest, thousands of trapped inmates used Bizot to express their fears, views and requests to the new authorities. High figures of the Lon Nol regime such as Sirik Matak and other counter-revolutionaries took shelter inside the embassy, inviting repeated armed raids by Khmer Rouge into the compound.

Beyond the embassy gate, Bizot observed "a violence so terrible and so explosive that I felt totally disheartened". Khmer Rouge forces were indulging in a spree of looting and mass murder unknown to Cambodian history. Petrified civilians ran pell-mell to protect themselves from bullets and commandeering troops. "They sank the hole of their black pupils into our eyes, bequeathing us a fragment of their fear." (p 174) Caught in a surreal tragedy of epic proportions, Bizot found the fragile balance of his sanity often tipping. In disturbing trances, he would see mangled bodies of his Khmer colleagues imprisoned by Douch sticking out of a mass grave. As the embassy compound wilted from dwindling supplies, space and indefinite confinement, well-behaved human beings unexpectedly forked out baser instincts - theft, jealousy, selfishness and aggression.

The most shocking aspect of the reign of terror was that there were Parisian intellectuals who approved of everything that was occurring. Fraternizing genocidaires as "liberators" was a most repulsive business that encouraged Pol Pot's sadistic blueprint for extermination. The Khmer Rouge grew concerned that news of the death squads was leaking out through radio broadcasts from the French Embassy and demanded immediate closure of all telecommunications, an order Bizot reluctantly conveyed to the journalists and embassy staff who were relaying commentaries on the situation in Phnom Penh. Witness accounts of the atrocities were filtering through, a loophole that had to be instantly plugged by sealing Cambodia.

At the end of May 1975, the Khmer Rouge decided to organize a repatriation of all marooned foreign nationals to Thailand while "internal stability" was restored in Cambodia. On the troublesome truck journey out of the country, Bizot passed through areas of "liberated" territory that seemed to have grown poorer and more exhausted since the "people's revolution". Fields were hoed, villages razed, skulls smashed, pagodas burned and bridges blown up. Bizot realized then that in the storm he was leaving behind, dark powers would crush under their feet "in blood-drenched soil, victim upon victim ... the dangers of war were slight in comparison to the dangers of revolution". (p 260)

The Gate suffers from incongruously verbose passages describing landscapes, animals and characters in the manner of a literary novel. But as a blow-by-blow narrative of Cambodia's descent into chaos, it is a valuable primary source for Cold War history. Years after George Orwell exposed the dark underbelly of Stalinist totalitarianism, Bizot has given us another bare-knuckles exposition of revolutionary terror.

The Gate, by Francois Bizot, Alfred A Knopf Publishers, New York, 2003. ISBN: 0-375-41293-X. Price: US$24. 276 pages.

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Jul 4, 2003

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