The conflict over the temple of Preah Vihear and its surrounding 1.6-1.8 sq. miles of land continues, like a constantly recurring nightmare. It’s Nietzschean in its aspect of banal and violent repetition, but not nearly as inspiring or enlightening.
The United Nations’ Security Council had agreed to hear Cambodia’s complaint against Thailand’s incursion into the territory, couched as the abrogation of national sovereignty. In countries as touchy about lost territory and national sovereignty as Thailand and Cambodia, bringing such a complaint to an international body is big stuff. But then, at Cambodia’s request, they canceled the meeting, and are currently, reportedly, involved in a second round of talks.
Whether this has something to do with yesterday’s CPP-claimed massive win in Cambodia’s national elections is anybody’s guess – and lots of people are doing just that, including comparisons to 2003’s election. Was Hun Sen merely waiting until after the elections? Will he now settle quickly, having used nationalist sentiment to buoy his party’s big win? Or is he as genuinely interested in this issue as the majority of Khmer people seem to be (I make no personal declarations of support or detraction here – just noting the preference).
Of course, Thailand’s national sovereignty is important to national pride for reasons different from Cambodia’s. Thailand builds much of its self-image on the idea that they were ‘not colonized,’ and in fact are exceptional in this regard among their neighbors. This gives them the sense that they are exceptional not merely as a matter of historical accident, but as a matter of national destiny, national character, and relative national worth.
Cambodia, on the other hand, finds itself deeply invested in its territory and national sovereignty precisely because of it’s self-image as a once-great former empire, ruling “all of mainland Southeast Asia,” whose territory, national self-respect, and former greatness has been slowly and repeatedly eroded through the immoral, and duplicitous actions of its neighbors and its european predators. This leads to the connection between the recovery of lost territory and lost national pride.
And this raises the specter – again – of the “Former Khmer Rouge.” I’ve been blogging about this topic for awhile now. In 2006 I noted that
The question of ‘former khmer rouge’ constantly recurrs, like acid after a bad meal. Many people were Khmer Rouge, and are therefore ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ but in an example of social common sense, it seems that the appelation “Former Khmer Rouge” is most often applied to those who use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral, often regardless of whether or not the people in question are actually former cadre or not.
This has been noticed by others in the metonymic use of the word “Pol Pot” to signify simply “Khmer Rouge Soldiers,” though in both cases it needs to be carefully noted that these are post-experiential uses, since the Khmer Rouge never referred to themselves as Khmer Rouge (They were the minions of Democratic Kampuchea, or more universally, simply “Angkar,” the ‘organization’), and Pol Pot was not widely known inside of Cambodia until after 1979, and became famous largely through the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. But people are still referred to as ‘Pol Pots’ or as ‘Former Khmer Rouge,’ in a way that acts as political shorthand for a shared, constructed historical consciousness.
After a recent spate of articles referencing, again, the “Former Khmer Rouge,” this time their involvement with the Preah Vihear conflict, I feel obliged to revisit this idea, and also to reformulate it. When the international press refers to ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ they tend to signify only the aspect I pointed to in my earlier post – the idea that the Khmer Rouge use force in ways deemed oppressive and amoral. This is the major implication in current reportage on this – ‘isn’t it horrifying, or amusing, or ironic, or <whatever>,’ the articles seem to imply, ‘that these former Khmer Rouge fighters are now fighting on behalf of the current government?’
These uses miss the fact that while this image of the Khmer Rouge is very strong within Cambodia as well, there is another, equally potent image of the Khmer Rouge fighter within Cambodia, one that is not shared without Cambodia’s borders: the Khmer Rouge as powerful nationalist – those who will defend the country at any cost. This image was constructed primarily after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were forced to the Thai border. The Thai took in a few refugees, whom they housed in horrific camps, and also began re-arming the ‘former Khmer Rouge,’ this time to fight against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge would almost certainly have disappeared as a plausible fighting force without this rearming.
One of the upshots of this was the continuation – for nearly 20 full years – of the civil war in Cambodia. During the forced conscription of the K5 program in Cambodia, young people were drafted to go plant landmines and cut down trees on the Northwest Frontier, and where they died in proportions similar to the period of 1975-1979, under Democratic Kampuchea. During this period, the Khmer Rouge progressively shed their communist ideology and practices. Never practitioners of anything resembling a ‘mature’ communism, it was perhaps particularly easy to shed. What remained was the rabid nationalism of the groups – a nationalism which predated 1979, but which was now their sole rationale.
With this in mind, let’s read again some of the recent quotes in which “Former Khmer Rouge” fighters talk about Preah Vihear. For instance, when they say, “I am read to fight the Thais.” What are they saying? And how? Here’s a lengthy quote from a recent article on the issue from Bronwyn Sloan:
Former fighters say they would be at war already if Prime Minister Hun Sen had just said the word, but instead he and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), expected to be handsomely returned to office after the elections, have urged restraint. Some are frustrated.
“I only have one leg, and I am old, but my former troops are still in Preah Vihear, and I am willing to give military advice or any other assistance I can to protect Cambodian sovereignty,” said former Khmer Rouge fighter Try Nin, 56.
“We are former Khmer Rouge. We are not scared of foreign aggressors. We respect the government’s decision to meet the Thais with diplomacy, but if that fails, everyone here is ready to fight.”
Former photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous Toul Sleng torture centre turned CPP commune leader, Nhem En, 47, who claims Anlong Veng’s several thousand voters are 99 percent CPP, agreed.
“I am ready to fight the Thais. All we wait for is an order from Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said. “We don’t want war – we want peace and development. But we need tourists, and while the Thais do this, the tourists do not come.
“Thais already have their own problems in their south,” he said, referring to Muslim insurgency. “Why do they want an extra problem?”
Note the repeated assertions of loyalty to Hun Sen (though, given the source – a CPP commune leader – the reality might be somewhat different). But note also the tone of impatience and readiness to fight: There is no stated preference for diplomatic solutions, merely a willingness to abide by the Cambodian government’s decision to meet the Thais. Nope – the stated preference is for fighting, dying, and protecting the nation.
It will be interesting to see how these fighters feel about the government if it quickly settles with the Thai after the election win.