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A Fresh Look at a Seventies Nightmare

November 03, 2017

Recently, The Economist 1843 had a cover story entitled “Filming in the Killing Fields,” the Cambodian drama made by Angelina Jolie. It is a beautiful movie about a gruesome chapter of the Vietnam War era when the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia. Although the author has never met Angelina Jolie, we have a common Sak Yant master in Bangkok, Achan Noo. He has blessed us both with Buddhist sacred tattoos in Pali Sanskrit. Moreover, we once spent an afternoon at Chateau Miraval in Provence which is a getaway spot of hers. Recognizing that is no connection, we do share a love and reverence for Cambodia and the people who survived.

So, what happened to create this horrible chapter in modern day history? In February 1970, the CIA orchestrated a coup whereby a Cambodia General by the name of Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk, the “non-aligned” leader of Cambodia, so as to provide a base of support for the U.S. war activities in Vietnam. The author happened to be in Cambodia the day following the coup which was a quiet, unusual day though it was the beginning of the end of law and order in that country’s history for many years. The previous status quo of order, given the reverence of the Cambodians for Prince Sihanouk and his position of neutrality, went down the drain following the installation of a military dictatorship supported by the United States. Lon Nol is shown below with U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1970. Interestingly, both individuals had ignominious departures from office.

Beginning in 1968, a guerilla organization named Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmers,” allied themselves with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and the Pathet Lao in the fight against the U.S. in the Vietnam War. They referred to themselves as “Angkar” or the “Organization” which sounds like something out of an Orwell novel. When the Lon Nol government ran out of bullets following the total U.S. withdrawal of support, the Khmer Rouge took control and began a reign of terror from 1975-1979 known as the “Killing Fields.” Lon Nol fled to California and passed away in 1985 while some two million or one-fourth of his fellow Cambodians died during the short five-year span following his flight.

The Khmer Rouge were equally ruthless to westerners as well as their own people. In the swash-buckling manner of his father, Errol Flynn, photojournalist Sean Flynn at age 28 and a friend, Dana Stone, are shown below embarking on an adventure. Unfortunately, they were never seen again as they rode their motorcycles into Khmer Rouge territory on April 6, 1970 down Highway One, Cambodia.

Moreover, the subsequent illegal invasion of Cambodia by the U.S. steeled the spirit of the Khmer Rouge sympathizers and led to the overthrow of the weak Lon Nol government five years after he came to power. The red and white scarves worn by the Khmer Rouge children portrayed in the film struck fear in the hearts of the strongest.

The author happened to be in Siem Reap on the day the Khmer Rouge formally surrendered some twenty years following their move into power. It was an uneasy experience to see truckloads of youngsters wearing the red and white scarves and carrying AK-47’s in route to the ceremonial surrender location. One would have thought we were in a dangerous time warp rather than a surrender until we saw the hordes of film crews. In fact, many of the Khmer Rouge weapons eventually wound up in the market for sale. All of this experience preceded Jolie’s involvement by many years.

While filming Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Jolie bought a copy of Loung Ung’s pirated book of her memoirs entitled First They Killed My Father which formed the basis for the movie by the same name. Loung Ung escaped from the Khmer Rouge, wrote of her experiences, and happened to be travelling in Cambodia at the same time as Tomb Raider was being filmed when the two ladies met. Years before, Loung Ung had successfully made her way into the refugee camps in Thailand with others fleeing the Khmer Rouge reign. However, many of the people seeking refuge suffered the hazards of the land mines the Khmer Rouge planted on the border which still impact the few elephants remaining in the area. Another connection to this story is with the refugee camp personnel on the Thai side which included the college roommate of our oldest daughter, Lisa. Both of them were in Thailand together as Lisa was teaching English in the Thai Royal school, Chitralada, following their graduation.

Loung Ung settled in Cleveland, Ohio where she and her husband own a restaurant and brewery. We will go there on the next of our frequent trips to Cleveland.

The tragedy of this chapter in the history of the world is that everyone turned a blind eye to what was going on. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge was the recognized government of Cambodia for many years as the U.S. could not consider any other government. Eventually, the supposedly democratic government of Hun Sen was formally recognized despite the fact that he was a former Khmer Rouge, who drove the Khmer Rouge into the jungle with the support of the Vietnamese. Nonetheless, it took us a long time to let go of the debacle of Vietnam.

Reportedly, when Jolie was trying to make the film, she told Hun Sen’s government officials that “This isn’t a film about politics. We don’t want to bring up the horrors of the past. We want to help move the country forward: it’s just a story about a Cambodian family.” Go to Netflix and check it out as it is fabulous, capturing the beautiful countryside of Cambodia along with such a poignant story. It is a wonderful piece of work by a wonderful lady for which we should all be grateful.

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