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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Culture Watch

The Mighty Pen of New Phnom Penh

April 26, 1998|JANET WISCOMBE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the compact Cambodian literary giant sips an espresso at a cafe in Long Beach, he merrily expounds on subjects ranging from roller-blading and child rearing to political assassinations and sinister plots. But don't be fooled by the soft eyes and the lovable smile. Here in New Phnom Penh, home to the largest number of Cambodians in the free world, he is variously venerated and despised.

"He is vicious," declares one leader in the Cambodian community who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of igniting a word war. "People are scared of him."

"He is a great writer. He is building bridges in the community," offers Chenda Bourng, a businessman. "He is the most important Cambodian writer and political historian in the world."

Polin Soth ponders the mixed reviews. "People think I'm crazy," he says. "I think they are crazy. My only enemy is the corrupt personality."

Then he laughs--mischievously, wholeheartedly.

In January, Soth and Bourng began publishing a 52-page general interest weekly newspaper out of the rear of a copy and print shop in Long Beach, home to about 50,000 Cambodians. It is called Nokor Thom (Big Country) News, a name with special meaning to Cambodians throughout the world. Soth is the editor, and Bourng is the owner and publisher.

In July 1974, less than a year before the collapse of Cambodia, Soth was a well-known young writer and editor of Nokor Thom, then the largest daily in Phnom Penh. But as the country began hemorrhaging, his job became more and more perilous. At one point, he and his uncle narrowly escaped a death squad.

"I was an actor in a tragedy," he says.

On the day before Nokor Thom was permanently silenced, Soth had written an incendiary story, "Le Roi Est Nu" ("The Emperor Is Naked") sharply critical of the government. "It was like a bomb in the streets," he recalls.

By the time the edition was delivered to newsstands, he, his wife and the elder of his two sons were already at the airport. When police stormed the newsroom, the young family was in an airplane en route to Paris.

Many of his relatives--including his father and two brothers--didn't escape the killing fields. Still, Soth takes no comfort in the reported death last week of Pol Pot, the notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.

"It was a hoax," he says. "Pol Pot is a good actor."

The body of the former guerrilla dictator, which was shown on televised reports worldwide, didn't even resemble Pol Pot, Soth says. "The body was too thick, the face was too round, the hair was too dark. The dark hair was a message to his followers that he's still alive. It was all choreographed."

With the rebirth of Nokor Thom, which Soth unsuccessfully tried to resurrect in 1987, there are now four Cambodian newspapers published in the Los Angeles area. Soth has been the primary writer for two of the longest surviving, Ankor Borei, which is published in Anaheim and concentrates on political issues in Cambodia, and Serey Pheap, a Signal Hill-based tabloid that focuses on social issues in the refugee community, and is noted for personal attacks and racy cartoons about community leaders and monks.

A few years ago while Soth was working at Serey Pheap, someone in the community apparently was so angered by his editorials that a fire was lighted in a fuel can in the grocery story below the newsroom. No one was injured. On another occasion, gunshots were fired into the front windows.

(That's why Bourng, a survivor of the killing fields, says his business cards read only Chenda B. and identify him as "National Account Executive" instead of publisher. It's not so much that he fears for his physical safety. Rather, he says, he prefers being "a hidden man" because he doesn't want to kindle any pen wars.)

"The political factions in Cambodia are mirrored in Long Beach," Soth says. "What hurts people is the truth--like Monica Lewinsky."

*

At 52, Soth is a free spirit, an intellectual who studied at the Sorbonne, a writer and linguist who has published books in Cambodian and French, a father who's driven a cab and hawked French makeup to support his family, a lover of motorcycles, roller-blading and baccarat, a philosopher who quotes Nietzsche and Kant, Sartre and Kierkegaard.

"Now I'm not so much of a lover of Nietzsche," be corrects with a thick accent. "I am not a rebel anymore. I prefer Kierkegaard. I am ambivalent like Kierkegaard."

Above all, he is a Cambodian novelist who has spent most of his adult life trying to figure out how his country convulsed into a killing field. Later this month, he'll send his new book, "The Apocalypse Road," to a publisher in Paris. Excerpts already have appeared in Nokor Thom in English, as translated by his son, Bora.

Still, he says the complexity of translation prevents him from publishing in English. Written in French, the new book is part memoir, part political analysis, "the story of a defeat, the one of my country inextricably linked to my own."

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