Thursday, December 29, 2011

Histories: Politics and the Khmer Rouge

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is grinding on despite scandal and disappointment. But while the day-to-day revelations are fascinating for people who have been immersed in the subject for years, others find it confusing.

The history of what led up to the Khmer Rouge regime, the horror of the Killing Fields, and the absurd international politicking that followed the Vietnamese invasion are difficult to explain in casual conversation. So, I'd like offer some recommendations for those who are interested in digging deeper.

(A caveat: These are broad histories of the multiple wars and struggles that engulfed Southeast Asia. I hope they can provide some context to what is being discussed in the tribunal. There are many other books written by survivors that share personal, more focused narratives. I intend to mention some of those in other posts.)

Elizabeth Becker's "When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution" is one of the best places to start. That's not just my opinion, as the prosecution has attempted to enter it into evidence in the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Her writing is knowledgeable and encompasses the wider conflict, but she can also drill down and offer moving anecdotes about individuals — including Hout Bophana, whose story is an archetype for all that Cambodians suffered during the 1970s.

Another excellent choice is Henry Kamm's "Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land". While shorter, it offers an honest portrayal of Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's former king and sometimes tyrant. It also offers a brutally frank analysis of the problems the country faces (or faced in 1998 when the book was published). A criticism would be that he doesn't detail Khmer Rouge atrocities as he is focused on the political machinations — but if you've seen "The Killing Fields" or talked to a Cambodian you have an idea of what happened.

If you have any suggestions for other political histories, please leave them in the comments.

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