Cambodia

There was an extraordinary evening at the Lexi on Tuesday evening, Tuesday the 18th of January 2011 that is. Or perhaps amazing is the right word. Extraordinary implies that nobody else is doing such things.

It was a Cambodia evening. We saw 3 films including the new film Enemies of the People about the Khmer Rouge. The director, Rob Lemkin, gave a very good question & answer session. Sometimes these question & answer sessions aren’t worth paper they are written on but this was very good. Maybe the catchment area of the lovely Lexi cinema in the Kensal Rise gives rise to an intelligent audience. Or maybe there was some other reason. Or maybe it was mainly the director. The cinema was packed out which was encouraging.

Cambodia has come through its period of chaos & genocide but is still a very poor country where between the modern skyscrapers there are people who make a living from scavenging from rubbish dumps & where it appears that peasant farmers are poorer now than they were before the Khmer Rouge period.

On either side of the Enemies of the People film, were little films about the Charity Cambodia Children’s Fund (CCF) which it appears does much good work, notably saving children making a living scavenging on rubbish dumps. In the last decade or two it has been the received opinion that capitalism is necessarily progress because of what is called the trickle down effect. But is this necessarily true? The main film was Rob Lemkin making a film about Thet Sambath making a film about some of the perpetrators of really terrible crimes as members of the Khmer Rouge when literally millions of Cambodians or Kampuchea as it was known as then were slaughtered in one of the worst examples of genocide ever.

It appears that the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with the threat that Vietnam might undermine their revolution even though they, the Khmer Rouge had sprung from the womb of the NLF & Vietcong in the North. In the end they were right, The murderous régime of Pol Pot only came to an end in fact when the Vietnamese invaded. The Vietnam war & the subsequent involvement of Cambodia (or Kampuchea) seems like yesterday to me but to many the events have either been forgotten or they are history.

You go back & back & still don’t really find the origins. The area of the World known as Indo China consisted of Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia but after World War II became separate nations. Before World War II, Vietnam was a French colony, it was occupied by the Japanese during World War. Then, amazingly the French wanted to reclaim it as their colony & this was when the battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought. When the Vietnam dislodged the French from an apparently impregnable position at the top of a hill by physically carting up heavy guns to the top & then laying siege to the French garrison. The French surrendered. Then the American intervened because the leader of the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh was a communist. Thence followed the long & bloody Vietnam War, in which an estimated 2 million Vietnamese died & in which both Cambodia & Laos became involved & communist. The Americans dropped more bombs on Laos than the total amount of bombs dropped by all sides in World War II.

Rob Lemkin went to Cambodia to make a film about a the Kymer Rouge period; Thet Sambath was his fixer but when he realised that Thet Sambath was researching the subject & filming it on his camcorder they pooled their knowledge & skills they made the film together. The film became in effect Rob Lemkin making a film about Thet Sambath. This film took 3 years to make.

Thet Sambath’s project took 10 years. During the week he worked a journalist, at the weekends he collected information about the Khmer Rouge atrocities. He interviewed Nuon Chea about his role in the Khmer Rouge. He was known as Brother no. 2. It took Nuon Chea 3 years to open up & talk about his part in the genocide. It was he, he said who persuaded Pol Pot to take on the leadership of Angkor, the organisation, because Pol Pot was more of an intellectual.  He made all sorts of not very credible claims about not knowing that this or that occurred. And he claimed justification for what he did both as a revolutionary & because of fear of what the Vietnamese might do. The Khmer were more extreme than the communist party in either Vietnam or Laos, let alone the Soviet Union or the Peoples Republic of China wanting to abolish all money & personal possessions. Thet Lambath’s father was executed by the Khmer Rouge because he questioned whether he should give up his few possessions for the party, some land, some livestock, a house & some farming machinery. His mother was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge official but she died soon after.

Thet Sambath did not reveal this information to Nuon Chea until he had known him for some years & he, Nuon Chea, seemed genuinely sorry about it. He came across as a perfectly decent person & seemed to show genuine remorse for what had occurred to Thet’s parents. Such is the nature of evil – maybe.

Thet Sambath has 10 years of tapes containing information with various Khmer Rouge men & women. They killed people wily nilly, at first denying that they had ever killed anybody but gradually opening up & giving many details of barbarities committed. On the whole they seemed to have killed about 250 people each. Khmer Rouge men believed that eating gall bladders contained the cure for many diseases & apparently carried some around with them all the time – for medicinal reasons.

Khieu Sampan who was the president of Kampuchea at that time refused to be interviewed without being paid

Thet Sambath thought he had come to the end of the project & bought some land to grow vegetables & keep livestock & see his family more but discovered that the project goes on & on. Rob Lemkin alone has 60 hours of the interview with Nuon Chea. He plans another film with some more of the footage of this interview & eventually to make the entire body of collected information available to anybody.

In the end a police helicopter landed & took Nuon Chea away. He is still awaiting trial.

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