22 October 2002

Book review: Voices of S-21 (1999) by David Chandler, ****


The horrific torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge during the 1970s is one of the century's major human disasters. David Chandler, a world-renowned historian of Cambodia, examines the Khmer Rouge phenomenon by focusing on one of its key institutions, the secret prison outside Phnom Penh known by the code name "S-21." The facility was an interrogation center where more than 14,000 "enemies" were questioned, tortured, and made to confess to counterrevolutionary crimes. Fewer than a dozen prisoners left S-21 alive.

During the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) era, the existence of S-21 was known only to those inside it and a few high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. When invading Vietnamese troops discovered the prison in 1979, murdered bodies lay strewn about and instruments of torture were still in place. An extensive archive containing photographs of victims, cadre notebooks, and DK publications was also found. Chandler utilizes evidence from the S-21 archive as well as materials that have surfaced elsewhere in Phnom Penh. He also interviews survivors of S-21 and former workers from the prison.

Documenting the violence and terror that took place within S-21 is only part of Chandler's story. Equally important is his attempt to understand what happened there in terms that might be useful to survivors, historians, and the rest of us. Chandler discusses the "culture of obedience" and its attendant dehumanization, citing parallels between the Khmer Rouge executions and the Moscow Show Trails of the 1930s, Nazi genocide, Indonesian massacres in 1965-66, the Argentine military's use of torture in the 1970s, and the recent mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda. In each of these instances, Chandler shows how turning victims into "others" in a manner that was systematically devaluing and racialist made it easier to mistreat and kill them. More than a chronicle of Khmer Rouge barbarism, Voices from S-21 is also a judicious examination of the psychological dimensions of state-sponsored terrorism that conditions human beings to commit acts of unspeakable brutality.


This book is a useful reference for raw data from some of the protagonists. It is not easy or pleasant reading, but it does constitute a useful addition to the library of anyone researching the Khmer Rouge.

20 October 2002

Recensione libro: Il Sorriso di Pol Pot (2006) by Peter Fröberg Idling, ****


Nell'estate del '78 un Boeing 747 cinese atterra nella Kampuchea Democratica con a bordo una delegazione dell'Associazione Svezia-Cambogia, guidata da Jan Myrdal. I quattro svedesi sono tra i pochissimi stranieri a cui è stato consentito l'ingresso nel paese dove si è verificata la rivoluzione comunista più radicale a cui il mondo abbia mai assistito. Sei mesi dopo la loro visita si scopre che, nel corso dei tre anni e mezzo nei quali Pol Pot è stato al potere, quasi due milioni di persone, corrispondenti a un quarto della popolazione, sono stati giustiziati o sono morti di fame, malattie e schiavitù. 

Ma durante il viaggio di mille chilometri attraverso il paese, i quattro delegati non hanno visto né morte né terrore, descrivendo anzi la rivoluzione dei Khmer Rossi come pienamente riuscita, un modello da seguire.

Com'è possibile che quattro studiosi specializzati nel Sudest asiatico, abbiano compiuto un viaggio nel pieno di uno dei più imponenti eccidi del Novecento senza vedere nulla? Nella sua ricerca della verità, Idling ha ripreso contatto coi protagonisti della vicenda, intervistandoli e indagando su quell'esperienza. Tutti mostrano di avere opinioni contrastanti sulla rivoluzione dei Khmer Rossi ma la loro memoria ci aiuta a ricordare un importante capitolo della storia contemporanea.


Durante il periodo in cui i Khmer rossi di Pol Pot erano al potere e sterminavano i cambogiani, un gruppo di svedesi simpatizzanti del socialismo fu ammesso, caso unico per intellettuali occidentali, a visitare il paese. Tornò a casa cantando le lodi dell'esperimento comunista. Non videro o non gli fecero vedere l'orrore che si consumava nel paese? Forse un po’ di entrambe le cose, conclude l'autore, che ricostruisce qui quella bizzarra vicenda. Interessante per capire la Cambogia di quel periodo ma anche e soprattutto le distorsioni mentali, la superficialità e e la malafede di chi elogiava Pol Pot solo perché era socialista e anti-americano.

Puoi leggere in questo blog le mie altre recensioni di libri su Cambogia e Laos.

14 October 2002

Book Review: One Foot in Laos (1999), by Dervla Murphy, ***


Dervla Murphy had planned to trek through the high mountains of Laos, far from the country's few motor roads, but she soon encountered complications. In Laos, however, the people compensated for all that went wrong. Murphy presents her glimpse of a unique culture in this account of her journey.

01 October 2002

Why travel: country collectors, eternal romantics and modernizers

I believe that a journey, like a work of art, should ideally be either enjoyable or interesting – and preferably both. But if traveling is neither enjoyable nor interesting, why bother? Better stay home, unless one is forced to travel unwillingly by some sort of force majeure, like business, natural calamities or war.

If a work of art neither appeals to aesthetic taste, nor conveys any message, the viewer probably will not remember it for long, and will not make an effort to go see it again. On the other hand, if a work of art is considered by a viewer to be beautiful, he or she might wish to buy it if that is an option, or to see it again in a museum, even if it does not carry any particular message with it. Likewise, if a work of art is not really beautiful, but does convey a philosophical, religious, political or any other type of message, it will be worthwhile to study it, maybe buy it, and anyway retain it in our memory and go back to it for future reference.

Much in the same way, travel makes sense if it gives pleasure to the traveler (or explorer, or tourist, I will not get into what is the difference between them here) even if one does not learn much – say a trip to Disneyland. However, travel might be just as worthwhile, and arguably more so, if one learns from it, even if it means going to places which are not especially beautiful or enjoyable to visit – say a tour of a war zone.

In an ideal journey, in my view, one would both enjoy beauty and find interest. My journey to Cambodia and Laos, which constitutes the object of this book, definitely falls into this third category of travel. These countries host absolute natural splendors and sophisticated cultural and artistic traditions. But they also reveal many patterns and problems of modern development, some of which are unique, while others might be applicable to other developing countries around the world.

There are three categories of people who choose to travel to distant, exotic, and often poor places like Cambodia and Laos. Each has perfectly legitimate reasons to travel and it is not my intention to criticize any of them. It might be useful, however, to describe these different approaches.

The first group I would call the country collectors. Though they may not admit it, they go to these countries with the same mental attitude they have when visiting an exhibit, a zoo, or Disneyland. The are curious, but not really interested. They hear the sounds of a country, but do not listen; the see the sights, but do not really look carefully at much.They like ticking countries off their checklist, one year in Laos, the next in Guatemala, then on to in Central Africa. They enjoy travelling but have no real drive to even begin to understand. At most, they will go on some shopping spree, to bring home the modern equivalent of the trophies of old, such as some fine cloth or funny clothes, a cute artifact or possibly some piece of antiquity which is often all the more exciting as it is usually forbidden to take it out of the country.

There is nothing wrong per se with this group. However, people belonging to it are unlikely to be interested in this book, and while as the author I hope some will buy it anyway I think there is little hope they would get much out of it. I would love nothing more, of course, than to be proven wrong here! Well, perhaps they can pass it on to some of their friends who belong to one of the two other groups!

The second group is made up of what I would call the eternal romantics. They like distant, mysterious places almost by definition, before even setting foot on their soil. This is especially true of poor countries where subsistence agriculture is a major component of the economy. When they get there, they fall in love with almost everything they see, and tend to blame any obvious problem they witness (poverty, illiteracy, disease, etc.) either on past colonial rule or on current World Bank driven and inevitably ill-conceived development projects, ruthless Western big-business greed, male-dominated globalizing influences – or on all of the above.

Ah! if only these people had been left alone to mind their own business and live life at their own pace, they way they had always done it, how much better off they would be, the romantics think. When they see an illiterate child playing in the mud, or an open sewer in a malaria infested jungle village, they think it is sooooo beautiful, take a picture, perhaps dispense a pen or a candy here and there, try to establish some sort of communication to prove the happiness of their interlocutors and move on. When they see an ox-driven plow their eyes brighten, it is something they instinctively think is good, genuine, authentic, traditional and that should be preserved. By contrast, when they see a tractor, their shoulders drop in resignation, this is the local culture and civilization being spoilt by careless Western interference, and being lost forever.

The eternal romantics tend to see the glass always half empty, and fear that, as history keeps drinking at it, it will soon be completely empty. They are at heart conservatives (though few would accept to characterize themselves as such, except perhaps in the strictly environmental sense of conserving nature), their main desire being to slow down the pace of change, to preserve tous cours what is old and traditional. They would rather see a developing country sealed off to foreign trade, investment, advise and tourism than being influenced – they would say "spoiled" – by any of them. They always regret that after opening to the outside world the country in question will never be the same again. In this, of course, they are right, it won’t. The question is: will it be better off or worse off? The eternal romantics assume the latter, but they do not always have a strong case.

In reality, idealizing the past and hoping it will come back is just not good enough, especially in developing countries. In the history of western civilizations, romantics have produced great literature and art, but rarely useful policy-oriented ideas, and I fear the same applies when present day romantic travelers. Again, there is nothing wrong with romantics except for the fact that they are much better at nostalgically regretting or recriminating than they can ever be at proposing better alternatives to the reality they do not approve of. Because of this attitude, eternal romantics are often unable to enjoy travel, as they more often than not suffer at seeing the places they visit losing their old “true” nature and acquiring new, foreign traits.

I would call the third group of travelers the modernizers. They see the glass as half full and think history is always pouring more water to fill it up but are never satisfied that it does so fast enough. Modernizers are usually critical of the status quo they witness in the countries they visit – as well as what they leave behind in their own. They see international contacs, be they scientific, economic, political, or at the personal level, as a way to exchange experiences and improve everyone's lot. They see international tourism playing an important role in these exchanges as one of several ways in which countries can benefit from knowing each other a bit better.

The problem with the modernizers is that, as they work for their ultimate goal of open international communication, they often pay too little attention to where each individual countries is starting from and what specific circumstances might require their balanced development not to emulate the experience of others but to acquire tailor-made approaches of their own. Like the eternal romantics, but for opposite reasons, the modernizers are rarely pleased with the half-full glass, and as a result suffer during their travel at what they perceive to be an endless string of missed opportunities for improvement.

The aim of this book is to tell the story of that journey through my eyes of eclectic traveller, critical political scientist and avid photographer. I will try to convey both what was beautiful and what was interesting.

I hope this book will appeal to the eternal romantics as well as to the modernizers. Both groups might find stimulus for further developing their own thoughts. I do not expect these readers to agree with all of my impressions and assessments. Indeed, I would be worried to hear that anyone does. I will have been successful if during this virtual trip through to the last page the reader is stimulated to share some of my enjoyment, to think through some of the issues I raise, to do some additional reading and, most importantly, to travel to Cambodia and Laos.

As a political scientist, I have learned to beware of situations in which everyone agrees. Free thinking, the basis for democracy (which Winston Churchill brilliantly characterized as the worst political system except all the others) needs civilized polemical confrontation like fish need water. Just so the reader knows where I am coming from – it is only fair – I tend to fall among the modernizers myself, though on occasion I find myself in agreement with the eternal romantics. I do not think I really fit the profile of the country collector, though I must concede that sometimes they seem to be the ones who seem to have the best time traveling, and that is also a lesson to be learned.