Elizabeth Becker first started covering Cambodia for the Washington Post in 1973, at a time when the escalating crisis in that country was viewed as a “footnote to the Vietnam war”. After two years reporting on the civil war between the American-backed Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, she left Cambodia along with the rest of the foreign press when Phnom Penh eventually fell to the Communist guerrillas in 1975. During the Democratic Kampuchean period (1975-1979), she continued to write about Cambodia from Washington, piecing together second-hand accounts of the atrocities committed by the incumbent Khmer Rouge regime, until in 1978 she was one of a party of three Westerners invited back to Phnom Penh to be given a tour of the country under Khmer Rouge supervision. The other two invited with her were Malcolm Caldwell, a Scottish academic and Marxist activist, and Richard Dudman, also an American journalist. Their visit to Cambodia, which occurred days before the Vietnamese invasion at the end of December 1978, gained international notoriety as a result of Caldwell’s murder at the hands of an anonymous gunman, an incident that has never been satisfactorily explained, although Becker suggests that it was probably engineered by Pol Pot as part of an internal purge (the last recorded confessions from the security centre at Tuol Sleng contained references to Caldwell’s murder).
“It is as a witness that I came to write this book.”
Becker’s ill-fated visit to Cambodia is recounted in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Return to Phnom Penh”, and is notable as the one section of the book in which the author allows first person subjectivity to take over. This is understandable, given that she was one of only two Western journalists to visit Cambodia under Pol Pot and make it out alive. Not only that, but Becker was granted an audience by both Pol Pot and Ieng Sary during her time in Phnom Penh, thus putting her in a fairly unique position as a witness to life under the Khmer Rouge (in fact, she is due to give expert witness testimony at the trial of two of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders at some stage in the coming months).
However, Becker’s visit to Cambodia in the dying days of the Khmer Rouge is more important for what she didn’t witness than for what she did. The version of the country she experienced was a heavily stage-managed illusion, and by the sounds of it not a very convincing one. As a result, it sits in stark juxtaposition to the myriad accounts that Becker assembles as the basis for the rest of the book. Indeed, Becker constructs her history of the period around the stories of a select handful of individuals, each giving an insight of the horror of that time from a slightly different perspective. Mey Komphot, for example, who had formerly worked as a banker in Phnom Penh, tells how he survived the regime by playing dumb and hiding his middle class upbringing during the three years he was forced to work as a manual labourer in the Cambodian fields.
It is this willingness to embrace multiple perspectives that ultimately makes the book one of the foremost accounts of that dark period of South East Asian history. If it is anything to go by, Becker will be an invaluable witness at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
You can buy the book here.