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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

A Country Caught in the Crossfire

CAMBODIA Report From a Stricken Land by Henry Kamm. Arcade $24.95, 288 pages

October 01, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The story of Cambodia, from 1970 to the present, has been a tragic tale of grotesque disregard by other nations and cruelty, corruption and incompetence by Cambodians.

Henry Kamm, a veteran New York Times correspondent who won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his accounts of the refugees who fled the 1970s wars in Indochina, tells the story with steadiness and thoroughness in "Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land." He also illuminates it with telling personal experiences.

His book is what once was called a "cautionary tale." It is a work of great moral authority that teaches severe lessons to leaders of the developed world, especially the United States and France. It holds up a mirror to a particular piece of United Nations folly.

Kamm exposes alike the terrible consequences of an idealized Marxism and an unrestrained rapacious capitalism. He captures the ridiculous and frightful aspects of human nature at its extremes.

Above all, his book is a work of deep sadness and great affection, sadness at the fate of this poor little country and its people, and affection for them as they are buffeted by forces they can neither comprehend nor control.

Cambodia is the "Indo" of Indochina, more influenced by Indian civilization than by Chinese. After the fall of the great Khmer Empire of a thousand years ago, Cambodia was squeezed by Vietnam on the east and Siam (Thailand) on the west, losing territory and becoming a landlocked country. Today, Cambodia is a fraction of its former size, the great temples of the Angkor plain now shrouded in jungle.

As the European imperialists lapped at Asia, Cambodia fell to the French. They did very little with it, except to exploit it and to give its small elite a new language. In Cambodia, the French were shockingly negligent colonial masters.

After the departure of the World War II, Japanese conquerors in 1945, the French enthroned 18-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk to guard their interests. As it turned out, he succeeded admirably in maneuvering between the French and the insurgent Indochinese communists, Kamm believes, to give the country a measure of peace and security on a war-torn peninsula. Then in 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by the sinister, incompetent Lon Nol. Kamm finds no evidence of CIA complicity in the coup, as some have thought.

But the Americans were quick to take advantage of it. Nixon had already undertaken a secret--to the American people, that is--bombing of Cambodia in an effort to hit North Vietnamese hiding places. The U.S. and South Vietnam also struck at them on the ground. Cambodia's own communists, derisively named the Khmer Rouge ("the Red Cambodians") by Sihanouk, joined the struggle.

Kamm's judgment on the U.S. action that ensued is devastating: "With the callous disregard of the interests of the Cambodian people that marked all of America's wartime involvement in that country, and in full knowledge that Cambodia's demented and corrupt regime could only prolong their people's suffering, America did all that it could to drag out senselessly the life of a hated government and a war that Washington knew was lost."

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 under the infamous leadership of Pol Pot, there began the unspeakable slaughter that brought the shuddering phrase "killing fields" into the English language. After untold deaths and suffering, the hapless Cambodians were rescued, after a fashion, by a Vietnamese invasion.

Kamm mordantly records the rest of the story: How the U.N. poured $2 billion and thousands of people into Cambodia in a farcical, failed attempt to bring it into the modern age. The recent election, which put the usual factions in contention for control of the country, again reflects Cambodia's sad, entangled history.

Kamm concludes that Cambodia cannot save itself; it has been too devastated by its recent past. The country's only chance, he writes, is the most unlikely one: Outsiders must take over and keep it until a new generation of Cambodians, better-prepared and not haunted by their history, comes of age.

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