When I first visited Cambodia in 1995, I arrived at Phnom Penh’s airport on a brutally sunny day. My sunglasses offered little protection against the glare and I stumbled toward the terminal seeking relief from the heat, then stopped upon seeing a small bus deboarding its young passengers. Every child was dressed in their best clothes. A flight attendant for Bangkok Air informed me that these children were flying to Thailand to be fitted with prosthetic limbs. Hopeful smiles disguised their the agony of missing arms and legs as well as the nervous anticipation of a long journey away from family and friends.
Amputees were everywhere in Cambodia and the mines laid during that long conflict reaped new victims without a vacation. People don’t express anger about Pol Pot, the mines, or the long war, almost as if it had happened to someone else or talking about the horror might bring back those years.
Not me, I’d be out for revenge and my #1 target would be Henry Kissinger, who was portrayed in William Shawcross’ book, SIDESHOW as the principal architect of Cambodia’s descent from a neutral monarchy to the Pentagon’s secret front of the Viet-Nam War.
Prince Sihanouk had kept his country out of the neighboring conflict by skillfully waltzing between the USA and Vietnamese combatants to maintain his dynasty's reign over Cambodia. By 1970 this non-combatant status was unacceptable to the Nixon regime and Kissinger condoned the secret bombing of suspected NVA bases in what was known as the Parrot’s Beak.
Armed incursions followed in 1970 as well as an invasion. Sihanouk was deposed and supported the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol dictatorship. This country of rice paddies and flood plains joined Laos and Vietnam in the holocaust. As usual civilians paid the heaviest toll and the Nobel Institute disgraced itself forever by awarding Kissinger with the Peace Prize.
A little know fact is that Senator McCain’s father was the admiral directing the unauthorized bombing of Cambodia. He was offered his son’s release if the bombing stopped. It never did, because the USA doesn’t speak with terrorists, but worst than the bombs was what the Cambodian suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and as of yet none of them have gone on trial.
The Khmer Rouge numbered in the thousands. They lived amongst the people like fish in water as suggested by Mao. Calls for justice are muted by the quiet resignation that righting a wrong was for big people and not poor peasants. No one was asking Kissinger to appear before a judge or the Chinese or the Vietnamese. The frontiers of guilt died at a country’s borders.
Back in 1982 I was working in Hamburg, Germany. A reporter friend took me to the trial of a Nazi. The accused must have been 80 and my friend said, “The Polizei found him hiding in a nursing home.”
Despite the horrors portrayed in SIDESHOW, the Cambodians are a much more forgiving people than others who have suffered through a holocaust, mostly because they have to live with the perpetrators. They love Americans and only a few older people have any idea about what Kissinger or Nixon did to them. The rest live life as best they can without any help from the bombers of 1970.
Along the path to Angkot Wat’s Bayon Temple a quintet of amputees plays traditional music. A tourist stopped to take a photo and the leader of the troupe asked the visitor’s nationality. When the middle-aged voyager replied Texas, the band struck up YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS.
The tourist left a dollar and I left two.
Small reward for such forgiveness.
Forgetting is another matter saved for another time.