From 1975 to 1979, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime of dictator Pol Pot was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. And according to some historians, the American destabilization of Cambodia was probably the main cause of Pol Pot's ascent. War can create, as well as eliminate, murderous dictators.
Not all victims were Cambodians. Indeed, some were Americans, and some foreigners suffered a fate worse than death. Before 1975, Frenchman Francois Bizot was arrested by the Communists, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. Though a scholar of Buddhism and a friend to Cambodia, Bizot was suspected of being a CIA spy. He would ultimately be acquitted of this absurd charge and released. But he would remain in Cambodia to witness the eerie and epochal evacuation of Phnom Penh. His record of this time, The Gate, is a nightmarish indictment of the Pol Pot regime and all false utopias.
Bizot's prison warden is a man named Douch, who would later oversee the extermination of 16,000 prisoners at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. Surprisingly, Bizot is sympathetic toward his captor. He records their numerous conversations, in which Douch is portrayed as a wily patriot whose main faults are his fanatical pursuit of justice and his extreme faith in an alien (indeed French) interpretation of revolutionary Marxism. Douch lobbies for Bizot's freedom, and the two communicate long after the regime's demise. The book also relates the frantic efforts by the French embassy in Phnom Penh to protect foreign citizens from the Communists' severe vengeance. Fluent in Khmer, Bizot becomes the embassy's liaison, and thus is required to make unbearable life-and-death decisions. Even now, Bizot is plagued with remorse over his actions and omissions.
The tale concludes at the Thai-Cambodian border where he and other refugees have been trucked to seek asylum. Here a married Frenchman coldly abandons his Cambodian mistress to her doomed country and, despite Bizot's pleading, a Eurasian girl is also rebuffed. The ensuing scenes are a heart-wrenching condemnation of the Khmer Rouge and its curiously ostrich-like supporters, among them France and the United States.
Bizot indulges the often unthinking French hatred of Americans and "their irresponsibility, their colossal tactlessness, their inexcusable and false naivetÅ½, even their cynicism." But as these words might suggest, the anger expressed in The Gate is universal and its prose masterful. May it finally bring the Cambodian "sideshow" to center stage. Kenneth Champeon, a Thailand-based writer, is a regular contributor to www.thingsasian.com.