"Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land," by Henry Kamm. Arcade publishing. 251 pages. $24.95.
One of the saddest tales of the 20th century is surely the rape and unraveling of modern Cambodia. An essentially peaceful, self-contained backwater of Southeast Asia - a place best known for enigmatic smiles, working elephants, elegant ruins and mercurial monarchs before the devastation began - Cambodia has been transformed in a quarter-century of warfare into a traumatized stump of a nation. Henry Kamm, a longtime New York Times correspondent, was there for much of the descent.
He was there when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops took eastern Cambodia as a staging area for their war against South )) Vietnam and the United States. He was there when Cambodian generals ousted the neutralist King Norodom Sihanouk and sought (laughably) to push the Vietnamese out. He was there when American saturation bombing helped break Cambodia apart.
He was nearby when the conquering Khmer Rouge communists took over 1975, and he helped chronicle the enormity of their four-year reign of terror. And then, after Vietnamese troops routed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, he returned to describe the pitiful country and its brutalized people. He has continued to visit ever since, and has witnessed the bloody, expensive, maddeningly failed international effort to make Cambodia whole again.
Given this plotline, it's hardly surprising that "Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land" is not a light read. In traditional New York Times fashion, Kamm concentrates his report on the leaders whose decisions doomed Cambodia (as opposed to the individual Cambodians who suffered the consequences).
He is unsparing in his skewering of these American, Cambodian, Vietnamese and other decision-makers, and some of the scenes he witnessed do indeed speak of an almost criminal folly. And this is even before he reaches the days of the Khmer Rouge.
Kamm is at his strongest when he is most journalistic - describing, for instance, the motives and personality of Sirik Matak, Sihanouk's cousin and one of the key plotters against Cambodia's ruler in 1970. Kamm became a confidant to Sirik Matak and other Cambodian leaders, and the conversations that he describes are remarkable.
But Kamm can't keep from lashing out at the many people he believes let Cambodia down, and the book suffers as a result. "The incompetence and venality of most of Cambodia's political class has been an unfortunate constant since the country
regained its independence from French colonialism in 1953," he writes. "It was typical of the American disregard for Cambodians that the final helicopter evacuation included only 159 Cambodians." And, "Oddly many of the writers on Cambodia who since the downfall of the Khmers Rouges have become the leading recorders of their crimes were also among their most uncritical defenders until their regime fell."
Kamm's urge to condemn leads him to a most peculiar conclusion. Cambodia is now so misled, he writes, that the fate of the nation must be taken out of Cambodian hands. "I see no other way but to place Cambodia's people into caring and disinterested hands for one generation, administer it for its own sake, and gradually hand it back to a new generation of Cambodians, who will have matured with respect for their own people and are ready to take responsibility for them."
In other words, he advocates something awfully close to precisely what has destroyed Cambodia over the past 30 years - rule for foreigners. As Kamm convincingly describes, America, Vietnam, Thailand, China, France, the United Nations and so many others have interfered in Cambodia with uniformly ruinous results. Why would Cambodians possibly look outside their borders now for salvation, when the outside has brought little but grief for years and years.
Marc Kaufman is deputy foreign editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was stationed in New Delhi for the Inquirer between 1986 and 1990, and last visited Cambodia in 1996.
Pub Date: 7/19/98