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'Killing Fields' Reporter Remembers Cambodian King


Few stories in the 20th century are more tragic than the fate of Cambodia, a small, peaceful country on the sidelines of the war in Vietnam. Cambodia would be invaded by both sides, carpet-bombed by the United States, taken over by murderous Maoists, invaded again by the Vietnamese and left to wither for a decade by a grotesque, international impasse.

Norodom Sihanouk played a part in it all. He took Cambodia's throne in 1941 at the age of 18 and saw his country transition from a colony to a monarchy to a pawn of greater of powers. He was overthrown in an American-backed coup in 1970 and fled to exile in Beijing where he joined forces with the then-obscure Khmer Rouge rebels, who would themselves seize power in 1975 and conduct genocide. Norodom Sihanouk died today in Beijing at the age of 89.

Commentator Ted Koppel stays with us, but we begin with Sydney Schanberg who won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1976 for his coverage of Cambodia for The New York Times. His work provided the source material for the movie "The Killing Fields," and he joins us from his home in New Paltz, New York. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: Hi. Are you with us?

SCHANBERG: Yes, I'm with you.

CONAN: Does Prince Sihanouk bare complicity for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge?

SCHANBERG: I don't think so. But we'll never know because we weren't there to see his relationship - what his relationship with the Chinese was. I'm only - I can only guess that he was trying to stay alive and do something positive and save a lot of members of his family, extended family, some of whom were killed by the Khmer Rouge, who were trained and aided at all times by China. So I never saw a piece of paper or saw anything that he said to indicate that he was going along with their rather genocidal activities, which was to really either retrain or re-educate everybody that they didn't like anybody who had any education or was part of anything that resembled an opposition to communism or any relation to the United States. And I don't - I have never seen anything that suggested that - I don't know that he was trying to talk them out of it. I think that's less likely because they were determined to eliminate anybody who wouldn't follow any of their orders.

CONAN: He did return to Phnom Penh with them in 1975 but was held in house arrest. Five of his family members, as you mentioned, were killed, and it's reported that only the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai of China prevented his execution.

SCHANBERG: Yes, and I think that's quite possible because the people who the Chinese taught about communism were not friends of Sihanouk, and they didn't want a monarchy and he was really the last standing symbol of Cambodia before the Vietnam War.

CONAN: Ted Koppel is also with us. And I want to - Ted, you spent some time in that part of the world in those days. Tell us a little bit about Cambodia.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Well, let me tell you a little bit about Prince Sihanouk. He was known in the '60s and, really, almost until the time that he left Phnom Penh as the playboy prince. I'm holding on my lap right now a framed movie poster, Khemara Pictures present - and it's in French - (speaking in foreign language) de Norodom Sihanouk, a super production of Norodom Sihanouk, and it's "Shadow Over Angkor." He was the writer. He was the director. He was the producer. He was the star. His wife, Monique, was the co-star in the movie. It was a movie about CIA perfidy, and he was the Cambodian patriot who stopped the CIA from practicing some of their nefarious schemes.

It was - it's too easy, though, as I think those who knew him will agree, it's too easy to dismiss him as this kind of minor figure. Sihanouk was a man who made the most of the tiny country that he had, and he had these bellicose, gigantic neighbors and intruders. And he was trying to save his country. And for a while, he succeeded, but it ended up just being too much for him.

CONAN: Sydney Schanberg, is that a more accurate portrayal of Norodom Sihanouk?

SCHANBERG: Well, more accurate than what?

CONAN: Than the playboy prince?

SCHANBERG: Oh, I think he was both. I think he loved to do those things as far as I know, but not - I never met him. And lots of people who did can tell you story after story about he loved to entertain, to talk, to play. I don't know what instrument he played, but he had - he thought he was a great musician. And he threw big parties. And some people will tell you about the unusual foods. In one occasion, a French person told me that they had monkey brains, and the monkeys' heads were placed in bowl with the top of the heads cut off. And you use your utensils to eat the brains. And I don't really know - I mean, I don't really know if anybody ever - any outsider, any Westerner ever did it. But it was all - maybe they were just too tipsy to eat monkey brains.

But the - yeah. I mean, I think that - I think he was the playboy and he was a person who cared about his country. I mean, he was pushed and pushed and pushed. He cut off negotiations - relations with the United States because we were using some of their territory to bomb and to try to disturb communists units from Vietnam, try to disturb them from using Cambodia and - for bases. And he was - and he - the Vietnamese and the Chinese leaned on him to help the communists, and so he said yes to allowing them to bring in their supplies through the only seaport that Cambodia has.

CONAN: Modestly, Sihanoukville at that time.

SCHANBERG: It was at some times. The - and he - and then he - the Americans pushed him, leaned on him to let them bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was the supply trail from Vietnam down to the south and where the machine - the weapons and ammunition and such and other supplies could be given to troops they had stationed there. And then, of course, came the coup that Ted talked about, and a man named Lon Nol - a general named Lon Nol took over, and he was pro-West, as where the other members of the group that got rid of Sihanouk. And the coup was always - it was always whispered that the Americans were involved. And, no, I've never seen something that's definitive, but they certainly - the Americans didn't interfere. And they were certainly, in a sense, happy that it happened, 'cause now they could come in and do what they wanted to do.

And what happened then is that everybody that we sent troops in for six months, and they called it an incursion. And the result of the incursion - I don't think it was necessarily intended. But the result of the incursion was to push the war all over Cambodia, whereas it was only on its edges at that time; on the Ho Chi Minh trail and in those sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, right across the border from Vietnam.

And so there, you have a full war. And now, the Americans are not just bombing the Ho Chin Minh trail, but they're bombing to look for the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal Khmer Rouge. And the Khmer Rouge grew from that, because in war, you get - it's an issue. You can bring in a lot of young, angry people who lived in distant places in the country and felt exploited, and he would point - the Khmer Rouge would say, well, you're being bombed by these people. Come join us. And they joined them. And so from 3,000 to 70,000 in five years, and all they were were nuisances before the American incursion.

And, of course, the Chinese were supplying the Khmer Rouge through all this. And it was - I just think out of - as Ted said, it was too much. He - there was no - I mean, he didn't have the power, Sihanouk, whatever he wanted to do to stop what was happening. And he didn't have that when he was in the palace, and he didn't have it when he was with the Chinese. So it's a sad story even though there was, you know, it's a sad story of how a small country can be temporarily destroyed or ruined or take a long time to recover, and they still haven't.

CONAN: Sydney Schanberg received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on coverage of Cambodia in 1976. The movie, "The Killing Fields," you may remember, based on his work. Also with us is Ted Koppel, a commentator for NPR News. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ted Koppel, as you think back on the Cambodia that you visited when Prince Sihanouk was in the palace and what it became, and we saw the brilliant reporting of Sydney Schanberg on "The Killing Fields," it's - tragedy is not too strong a word.

KOPPEL: It really is not. And, unfortunately, these days, the only memory that most people have of Cambodia during those years is the nation that was sort of seized and these homicidal convulsions. And the greatest paradox, the greatest irony of all is that the Cambodians were among - and I'll be interested in hearing what Sydney has to say - but I think among the kindest, gentlest people in the world for whom that kind of violence seemed absolutely unthinkable. I couldn't believe what I saw coming out of Cambodia because the Cambodian people are - if I've been asked back in 1969 to use one word to describe Cambodians, it would have been sweet.

And the word I would use about Prince Sihanouk was more than one word. He was a man who tried as best he could to keep the great powers at bay and the great powers in his case were the United States, China and Vietnam - and tragically, he failed.

SCHANBERG: You know, and I think I agree with that. And also, there are - the - they were very passive nation. But if, you know, step back a little bit, we didn't know a great deal, we, the Westerners, who came in. We didn't know what went on in the deeper jungle-like edges of this country. And, yes, there was a rural group of the population that were exploited by other merchants and merchants who made money, but the farmers didn't.

And so the Khmer Rouge had a colony to recruit from. And how they got - how they found their sort of - I don't know what you call it - their rules of life and punishments and so forth once they took over the country in 1975. And the punishments that were given out if you ate a tomato from somebody - from one of the government's gardens or something, and you could be killed for that. And so, people were being killed.

In fact, in one instance that I know of, they moved people from eastern Cambodia to western because the people in the west, the Khmer Rouge thought, were getting too close to the Vietnamese. This is during the Khmer Rouge's rule. So they took them to western - I mean, to western Cambodia. But they gave them new scarves and - kramas, they're called - and they wore those scarves. And the scarves were dyed with colors rarely used - blue, and I think the other color was green. And what was that for? Well, I guess, they read about Hitler or something like that because every time they wanted to make a point, a punishment, they would simply go into the fields and pick out all the people who had the blue kramas around their necks or over their heads or against the sun.

CONAN: And, Ted Koppel...

SCHANBERG: And so they - I mean, we - these are things we may never know, where they found the ideas for killing 2,000 - I mean, 2 million of their people.

CONAN: And, Ted Koppel, the Khmer Rouge eventually ousted by the Vietnamese, who mounted an invasion. And then there was this period of about 10 years where there was this international impasse. The United States could not back the Vietnamese and the Chinese, and it was frozen. Nothing could happen.

SCHANBERG: Well, we were there.

KOPPEL: Yeah, well, go.

SCHANBERG: We were - when you say, you could - they could not do anything, their mindset was that Vietnam was still a huge threat and the domino theory was still a reality for them when it was time, really, to let go of it.


KOPPEL: Well, I just want to bring us back to the man we're remembering here after all, Neal, and that's Norodom Sihanouk, who, you know, tragically was, I think, seen by most Americans as a bit of a clown. And I just like to remember him in a kinder fashion as someone who, I think, genuinely was a Cambodian patriot and genuinely tried to keep his people out of the war and to avoid the terrible tragedies that befell Cambodia later. But it was just too much for any one person. And I guess, it's kind of a sad footnote to a man's life, but the two words are: he tried.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, thanks as always for your time today.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And, Sydney Schanberg, good to speak with you.

SCHANBERG: It was good to be here. Thanks.

CONAN: Sydney Schanberg joined us from his home in New Paltz, New York. And, of course, Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Maryland. Sydney Schanberg's latest book is "Beyond the Killing Fields." I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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