Cambodia is one of those small, faraway countries about which little is heard, except when something dreadful happens. Much has been heard from Cambodia in the last 20 years. In 1970, the country's neutralist government was overthrown in a coup, and Cambodia began lurching from one violent extreme to the next. First a corrupt, right-wing regime backed by the United States fought a civil war with Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who were backed by the North Vietnamese. Then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over, emptied the cities, and turned the countryside into a vast concentration camp. The Khmer Rouge were dimwitted enough to attack their former mentors, the Vietnamese Communists; and in 1978-79 the Vietnamese invaded, setting up a client regime, and taking over what was left of Cambodia, which wasn't much. Flattened by war and revolution--its infrastructure in ruins, over a quarter of its people killed--Cambodia might as well have been the target of atomic bombs. Such was the scale of its destruction.
In recent months, however, the news from Cambodia has been atypically hopeful. Vietnam is withdrawing its troops, at last; and there is a tantalizing chance that a coalition government, not yet formed, can prevent another round of major civil war. Westerners who know Cambodia are keeping their fingers crossed.
But while many eyes are on Cambodia's future, this is also a good time to look at its past, including the country's suffering under Khmer Rouge rule from 1975 to 1979. "Beyond the Horizon" is a Frenchwoman's autobiographical account of moving to Cambodia to be with her husband, who worked for the Khmer Rouge's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the emptied capital, Phnom Penh. Her situation was dramatic: She was one of the few, and possibly the only Westerner allowed to live among the Khmer Rouge leaders, a racist lot who despised non-Cambodians. It was a bit like being an American Jew whose husband worked for Hitler.
Laurence Pi seems to have been a sort of a Khmer Rouge hanger-on, a political groupie who believed in the idea of radical revolution and who wanted to be accepted. Most of all, she wanted to be accepted by her husband, Sikoeun, whom she had met back in France and by whom she had had two small daughters. Married bliss was not to be. "Reasons of state ranked higher than affairs of the heart," she writes, which was putting it mildly--Sikoeun coldly and pointedly ignored her. To him, a foreign wife was a liability, and the only way to prove his revolutionary purity was to renounce his old emotional attachments, even his mother. "Sikoeun had not seen his mother in twenty years," the author writes. "He once told me that, while leaving an underground camp . . . he had passed by his village but not stopped. He was proud of his demonstration of devotion. It showed that he was a real son of Angkar, not shrinking from any sacrifice." Is it any surprise that such cold-hearted people turned to genocide?
"Angkar" was the Organization, the anonymous entity headed by the man barely even known to his followers, Pol Pot. Everybody "sacrificed" for Angkar. Pi cultivated vegetables in a garden for her unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and translated documents from the Cambodian language into French. She did not complain when her daughters were taken away from her to be reared by Angkar, or when one colleague after another "disappeared" in purges. She did not speak out when she heard about mass deaths in the countryside, or when Sikoeun himself accused her of belonging to a foreign spying ring during an evening group meeting. The most obvious reason for staying silent was practical. People who complained "disappeared" too, never to be seen alive again.
But a more insidious reason for not speaking out was that she continued to be a Khmer Rouge believer. Not on all levels, certainly, because she was well aware of the regime's truth-twisting and its self-destructive cruelty. But it was not necessary for her to be a total believer to believe partially--or rather to live in some sort of dual mental universe that allowed her to believe and disbelieve at the same time.
At the psychic core of the Khmer Rouge was a trademark capacity for denial. "Sacrifice" went way beyond working hard and pretending that personal relationships didn't exist. It meant elevating the never-never land of rhetoric above anything real. It meant denying basic common sense for Angkar. After being given a rare good meal, she writes, "Our bodies could not help but be grateful to Angkar. . . . Its political line was correct and clairvoyant. We had to say it and believe it firmly, and we did." This after some of her best friends had been taken away and killed.