CAMBODIA: YEAR ZERO by Francois Ponchaud
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Cambodia, 1975- ? : ""A fascinating revolution for all who aspire to a new social order. A terrifying one for all who have any respect for human beings."" After ten years (1965-75) as a Catholic missionary in Cambodia, Francois Ponchaud was not disposed to regret the 1975 Khmer Rouge victory, so corrupt and exploitative had he found the previous regimes to be; and it is his sympathetic puzzlement at the aftermath--combined with his thorough knowledge of Cambodian affairs and his scrupulosity--that makes his report invaluable and virtually irrefutable. He divides it, usefully, into three major parts. The first treats of the exodus, on foot, of the entire population of Phnom Penh--2.5 million docile, uncomprehending people--and the wholesale emptying of cities and towns that he witnessed before his own evacuation: a totally regimented operation which, he concludes, ""reflects a new concept of society [with] no place for even the idea of a city."" And indeed (he learned from refugees) all the deportees, regarded as prisoners of war, were literally sent into the forest--except for the former cadres, who were summarily shot. The Khmer Rouge, unlike their Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts, had no use for reeducation: the tainted ""must be physically eliminated from the body of the pure."" In the second section, Radio Phnom Penh bulletins, interpreted by Ponchaud, provide a picture of the new regime's practices and aims--its stress on ""independence-sovereignty"" (including ""mastery"" of the water system), all-encompassing organization, offensive struggle, and total renunciation. (Buddhism was proscribed as passive and, in stock Western terms, parasitic.) ""How did those mild and peaceable Khmers transform the land of soft and gentle living into one enormous gulag?"" In response, Ponchaud takes up anti-libertarian national traits and then--in the book's third section--the complex 30-year history of the Cambodian revolutionary movement. That it has failed to bring the promised happiness, the enormous flow of refugees ""from every class of society"" attests; that Western radicals would tolerate its absolute denial of human rights, Ponchaud sharply questions. He is the ideal commentator: forceful, fair, and unsparing.

Pub Date: July 17th, 1978
Publisher: Rinehart & Winston