Bizot's 'The Gate': ethics of survival

March 23, 2003|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

The Gate, by Francois Bizot. Knopf. 304 pages, $24.

Cambodia -- the country, the war -- once seemed a moral, sanctified cause. A lot of wars begin that way, as endeavors identified with absolutes, but in the end the rectitude only added to the horrific misfortunes of the Cambodians.

Francois Bizot, a French scholar of Buddhism and Khmer culture, was living in the Cambodian countryside when, at the end of the 1960s, the United States, North Vietnam and the Cambodian revolutionaries known as the Khmer Rouge each assigned themselves the goal of remaking the country. Their ambitions led to genocide. Thirty years after most of the events he miraculously survived, Bizot has written a cool, bleak, yet intensely personal account of moral, human and political catastrophes.

The Cambodian war had no heroes. In 1969 Gen. Lon Nol, with American backing, overthrew Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk, whose unpredictableness had long helped preserve his country's neutrality and independence. The coup against him became the pretext for North Vietnamese troops to infiltrate the country in larger numbers. They backed efforts by the Khmer Rouge to overthrow General Nol's new, American-supported government. Nol and his army served as proxies for the United States; the Khmer Rouge, for a time, served the interests of North Vietnam and China.

Bizot had arrived in 1965, when he was 25, to study Buddhist traditions. He lived near the great temples of Angkor, north of Phnom Penh. The outsiders who began meddling in Cambodia's affairs, he realized, were dangerously ignorant of the country they were seeking to change. The Americans were notable for their naivete, "their clumsy demagogy, their misplaced clear conscience." His fellow Frenchmen were no wiser -- intellectuals so fearful of appearing to support the United States in any way that they blindly regarded the Khmer Rouge as the vanguard of an independent popular rebellion.

Ignoring the evidence, Europeans refused to believe the North Vietnamese were using the Khmer Rouge as their agents. Ignoring evidence no less clear, Americans failed to appreciate that the government they were so extravagantly supporting had little appetite or aptitude for war.

The Khmer Rouge captured Bizot in 1971. They accused him of being an American spy. Marched through the countryside for several days, he was held captive at a camp hidden by a thick grove of bamboo.

His interrogator was a former mathematics teacher named Ta Douch. Douch was prison warden, dedicated servant of the revolution and, by the end of Bizot's chronicle, something almost too terrible to contemplate. Douch too believed he was serving a moral cause; he was a person of dangerous faith. "This terrible man," Bizot writes, "was not duplicitous; all he had were principles and convictions."

Bizot glimpses the worst that people can do to one another, and makes us consider the ethics of survival, the choices people must make -- my life or my friend's? my life or my child's? my life or my honesty? There is Bizot's young daughter, appearing fleetingly in the story, and her mother, their own ordeals just hinted at, for Bizot claims only to be a survivor, not a god.

He survives thanks to long conversations about the revolution with Douch, the interrogator, and Bizot is said to be the only Westerner who emerged from a Khmer Rouge prison. Set free, Bizot lived at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge slowly took control of the capital, and the embassy is nearly as harrowing as his prison, for the French obeyed the Khmer Rouge's demand for all Cambodians inside the compound to be forced out, to face nearly certain death.

Bizot, thanks to John Le Carre, already has a small place in literature, as the haunted character Hansen -- Dutch rather than French in Le Carre's telling in The Secret Pilgrim but, like Bizot, an expert in all things Khmer and the father of a young girl with a Cambodian mother. "We have no business making our wars here, peddling our religious recipes," Hansen / Bizot says. "We have sinned against Asia: the French, the British, the Dutch, now the Americans. We have sinned against the children of Eden. God forgive us."

This country, this war is now a story of forgotten causes, forgotten sacrifices that no one should have to endure. Bravery protected no one. Moral certainty unleashed every base instinct. Absolute belief authorized all crimes -- a war story worth remembering.

Robert Ruby is foreign editor of The Sun and has served as foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe. He is the author of Unknown Shore and Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms.

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