Who killed Malcolm Caldwell?

Malcolm Caldwell

Malcolm Caldwell

Malcolm Caldwell, left-wing activist and supporter of revolutionary movements everywhere, was murdered in Phnom Penh on 28 December, 1978. To this day nobody knows just who did it, or why.

He was a prize idiot when it came to politics, but he was also a very decent human being. Wikipedia summarises his career:

Malcolm Caldwell was born in Scotland, the son of a coal miner. He obtained degrees from University of Nottingham and University of Edinburgh. He completed two years’ national service in the British army, becoming a sergeant in the Army Education Corps. In 1959 he joined the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London as a Research Fellow. Although he met with conservative opposition within the School, he remained on its faculty throughout his life. As well as being an academic, he was an energetic and committed radical political activist. He was dedicated to criticising Western foreign policy and capitalist economics, paying particular attention to American policy. He was a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a journal concerned with revolutionary movements in Asia.

In late 1978 Pol Pot’s Cambodia was in trouble. The Vietnamese were on the point of invading (provoked, it must be said, by repeated and very bloody border incursions by the Khmer Rouge), and Phnom Penh was virtually alone in the world. What to do? Apparently the KR leadership decided to invite some friendly Westerners to visit, and through them ask the Americans to make common cause with Phnom Penh against the evil Vietnamese. Yes, it sounds crazy, but read on.

EB+exhibition+5Michael Dudman, Elizabeth Becker, Cambodian minder, Malcolm Caldwell

The invitees were Caldwell and two journalists, Elizabeth Becker and Richard Dudman. Caldwell was already a friend of the Khmer Rouge without being asked: a month earlier he’d written a piece in the Guardian rubbishing rumours of the Cambodian genocide; not only had the KR not killed anyone, but if they had it was only “arch-Quislings who well knew what their fate would be were they to linger in Kampuchea”. (Yes, I said he was a decent man, but I meant in his private life; people who met Caldwell generally liked him).

EB+exhibition+2Cambodians at work, December 1978, by Elizabeth Becker

Becker and Dudman were more clear-eyed. Becker wrote a book, When the War was Over, in which she talks about the two weeks they spent in Cambodia as guests of the KR. She describes their situation as house arrest with guided tours, Phnom Penh as Pompeii without the ash, an absence of people and a sense of fear.

EB+exhibition+6Pol Pot, taken by Elizabeth Becker at the interview

She also describes their group interview with Pol Pot, requested earlier but granted only on the last full day. There were in fact two interviews, one for Becker and Dudman, and separate one for Caldwell. (Note: most of the online sources seem to assume that Caldwell was included with Becker and Dudman in the first interview, but in Becker’s book she says “we granted an interview together,” which I take to mean herself and Dudman, and “Caldwell a separate one.”) The Becker/Dudman interview turned out to be more of a royal audience. After some photos they were seated at a respectful distance with their translators while Pol Pot filled them in. Vietnam, he said, intended to invade Cambodia. It would be aided by the Warsaw Pact. The invasion would not stop at Cambodia’s borders, Russian tanks would roll on to Bangkok and Singapore. NATO and Asean must not stand by. World peace was in the balance. You may go now. Caldwell came back delighted from his own interview, slightly later. He and the KR leader had discussed economic theory, and Pol Pot had invited him back next year. All three agreed the trip to Cambodia had been worth it. That night Becker was asleep by 11.00.

EB+exhibition+1Elizabeth Becker – 1973 press card

A few hours later she was awakened by what she took to be dogs knocking over trash-cans. Then she heard gunfire. Leaping out of bed and pulling on some clothes, she went out to the dining room, where she found herself confronting a young man, Khmer, frightened-looking, pointing a pistol at her. Yelling “Don’t shoot!” she jumped back into the bedroom and ran to hide in the bathroom, from where she heard footsteps running upstairs (Dudman and Caldwell’s rooms were upstairs), then shots, then footsteps running back down. And then, for the next hour and a half, silence.

Then sounds: an enormous thud, a crash, broken glass, footsteps in the living room, footsteps going up the stairs, something heavy carried down, then up again. Then footsteps in her bedroom. The bathroom door opening slowly. One of the staff. “Don’t move,” he said, and went out again.

Forty-five minutes later their official minder arrived. He told her Dudman was fine, Caldwell was dead. She and Dudman were taken to see Caldwell’s body. He was lying on the floor in his pyjamas, blood on his chest. In the doorway was the body of a boy who looked like the young man Becker had seen earlier.

EB+exhibition+3Central Market, December 1978, by Elizabeth Becker

Becker and Dudman were taken to another house not far away, where they were questioned about what had happened. Dudman reported that he had woken to gunshots at 12.55. From his window he saw a file of half a dozen men running down the street then scattering between the houses. Going to a balcony off the hall he saw more men running. He knocked on Caldwell’s door and exchanged a few words with him. A man with a gun appeared in the corridor and fired a shot into the floor, Dudman jumped into his room and shut the door, and the man fired two shots through the door. Dudman thought he heard more shots but couldn’t be sure.

They asked the minder what had happened. He said the attackers were still at large, apart from two who had been captured and those (sic) who had been killed. (Dudman and Becker saw only one dead attacker). He also said there had been three armed guards at the guesthouse. Next morning there was a small service for Caldwell at the guesthouse, and Becker and Dudman departed with the coffin for Beijing.

So what happened? The Khmer Rouge blamed it on a Vietnamese plot, or rather a plot by Vietnamese sympathisers within the top circles of the KR. The two captured assassins (two guards from the guesthouse, it seems) made full confessions before their deaths. According to them only Caldwell was targeted, and the aim was to embarrass the leadership. The journalists were to be left alive to report the event to the world.

Becker accepts this, and thinks the aim may have been to discredit Ieng Sary, the KR Foreign Minister and the driving force behind the opening to the West, which was real enough if bizarre – in fact the Vietnamese had already crossed the border in force on 25 December and would arrive in Phnom Penh on 7 January.

Phnom Penh 1979, shortly after liberation

Phnom Penh 1979, shortly after liberation

An article by Andrew Anthony in the Guardian from 2010 gives more details. He tells how journalist Wilfred Burchett claimed to have seen a Cambodian report not long after Caldwell’s death stating that he “was murdered by members of the National Security Force personnel on the instructions of the Pol Pot government.” But scholar David Chandler reports meeting the translator of the meeting between Caldwell and Pol Pot, “who remembered a very pleasant exchange conducted in a spirit of enthusiastic agreement.”

Not, perhaps, that this gives any insight into the state of Pol Pot’s attitude to Caldwell. “Pol Pot, even when he was very angry, you could never tell” (said Ieng Sary years later). “His face… his face was always smooth. He never used bad language. You could not tell from his face what he was feeling. Many people misunderstood that – he would smile his unruffled smile, and then they would be taken away and executed.”

Or as Comrade Deuch, that born-again serial believer, once said, “Any theory or ideology which mentions love for the people in a class-based concept is definitely driving us into endless tragedy and misery.”

The Mansion for sale

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 2.28.24 PM

One of the most-photographed buildings in Phnom Penh is for sale – see the CBRE website. Suitable for boutique hotel, commercial use, or private home. Not mentioned by CBRE is the resident ghost – supposedly he greets passers-by by lifting his severed head from his neck. You’d think a simple “good evening” would suffice.

_DSF5984Architectural detail

Built 1910-1920 for a wealthy Cambodian merchant (I read somewhere that he was Chinese), located next to the Royal Palace and facing the National Museum across the royal cremation grounds. More here.

Current owners are/is the FCC – no idea why they want to sell, as they once had big plans for it. Not mentioned anywhere is its most likely fate: knocked down and a 20-storey condo built on the site.

The converts

Prek Ho is a Methodist church in Krong Svey village, Kandal province, about an hour from Phnom Penh. It was established by missionaries from Singapore in 2000 and has 25 “followers,” meaning regular attendees. At weekends the followers run activities for children – mostly the children of church members, but all children from the village – in classical Cambodian dance, break-dancing, modelling, and in English, Korean and other desirable languages. The church is in three hall-like buildings beside the highway, in an area still rural but touched by the city and its fringe of garment factories. It even has a possibly optimistic gated community for the new Cambodian middle class. In short, Krong Svey is a piece of traditional Cambodia undergoing rapid change.

I arrived with my interpreter when the morning religious service had finished and the children’s activities were about to start. There were lots of boisterous but well-behaved children being loosely supervised by a handful of friendly young adults, keen to ask if the foreigner was a Christian like them, as they don’t get to see many Western Christians. They do get to see the Singaporeans often, as they founders still do a lot of work to support the Cambodian church, including providing a free mobile clinic and scholarships for followers.

I’d been introduced to the church by Bon, whom I’d met the year before. Bon is from the village but now he works in a hotel in Phnom Penh, and spends his one day off a week helping in the village. At the church we collected a girl called Sokheng he wanted to take with us to another nearby village for community activities. These were the most unusual such activities I’ve come across: cutting the fingernails and shampooing the hair of village children. I can’t see that either is really necessary – Cambodian villagers have existed for centuries with their own ways of handling hair and fingernails, and I can’t see that they need help – but the kids, aged between 4 or 5 and 13, obviously enjoyed the experience. Nor was the afternoon pointless, as it had put them in touch with the wider world – the world of the city – and, just possibly, a way out of a trap that was going to close around them in a few years.

Afterwards the children played games, sang some Christian songs, and then went home. And on the way back to Phnom Penh I asked Bon and Sokheng why they had left Buddhism for Christianity, and what it had meant to their lives.

Sokheng is 19 and has been a Christian for five years. Pretty and open-faced, she was born in Phnom Penh but has lived in Prek Ho since she was a child, as her father owns a crocodile farm in the village. She was brought up as a Buddhist, but when she was about 14 a friend persuaded her to come to the Khmer classical dance classes at the church, which is a few minutes walk from her home.

She’d been suspicious of Christianity, as she’d heard that Christians don’t respect their parents, but she came to the dance classes with her friend over several weekends and enjoyed them. She also heard talks about Christianity, read some literature and some of the Bible, and learned to her surprise that Christianity actually teaches respect for parents. Eventually she told her parents that she was no longer a Buddhist but a Christian.

Their reaction was to forbid her attending the church, but a teacher from the church visited her home and explained matters, and after many such visits they agreed to let her attend, but she had to cut down the amount of time she was spending there. She used to spend several days a week at the church but now it’s just one day a week, and she’s not allowed to come home late. She still lives at home and her relations with her family are now good. She’s still the only member of her family to have become a follower of Christ.

When she became a Christian her friends accused her of betraying her religion; becoming a Christian, they said, meant betraying your own people, because Christianity was not a Cambodian religion. She told them, “Buddhism is not a Cambodian religion, it was Indian, and was imported by missionaries just like Christianity,” but this answer didn’t stop the criticism. She used to get angry, but she remembers what Jesus said: “you can be angry, but don’t commit sin.” It was hard for a long time, but now days her friends accept her for who she is, because she treats them fairly.

She’s now doing degrees at two different universities in Phnom Penh, in banking and in English literature. This means she’s busy all day, leaving home early and coming home back after dark. She spends her weekends at church helping community children, teaching English and Khmer dance and doing hair-washing with the children. When she compares her present self with the past she sees a big difference. Before she was a Christian she was quiet and self-centred, but now she goes to church and takes part in social activities and is talkative and likes sharing. Her studies are being sponsored by the Singaporean mother-church, so she believes she has to help the others in the same way.

She doesn’t believe that the spirits, the house protector spirit and the mrieng kong veal child-spirits and so on, are real. She doesn’t visit the village temple, although sometimes she goes with her parents at Pchum Ben just to please them, but she never goes inside. She wants to marry some day, but will only marry a Christian, because Christianity says that those who are married can never be divorced. For her future she wants to have her own business some day, so that she can continue to support the church and educate poor children so they can have a better life.

Bon was born in 1988 in a village next to the church. He lived here all his life until he moved to Phnom Penh four years ago to work in a hotel and do a degree in tourism and hospitality at Norton University, one of the more prestigious private universities in the city.

He was the ninth of twelve children, all now working as construction labourers (the boys) or in the garment factories (the girls). His parents were farmers. He didn’t like his father, who drank and gambled and was violent towards his mother and his brothers and sisters and himself. Bon went to school when he could, but had to collect wild vegetables from the village forest to sell in the market to make the tea-money for the teacher and to buy books. He often went home at the end of the day not knowing whether there would be food on the table that evening.

He left home when he was in his early teens and went to live in the village monastery as a temple boy, to escape his family life and because he wanted to study. (“Education is the only thing I wanted in life.”) He intended to stay in the monastery and become a monk, but quickly became disillusioned with the jealousy, materialism and corruption he saw in the monastery. “If a monk has a relative who is a senior monk, he’s invited to take part in ceremonies where he’ll be given cash, while the monk who has no relatives gets nothing.” After two years he left the monastery and went home.

Like Sokheng, he hated Christians before he knew any, and like her he thought Christians didn’t respect parents. Christians were also morally suspect: they believed they could get drunk and cheat and rob and commit any crimes they wanted and then ask God for forgiveness and go out and sin again. In Buddhism, sins cannot be forgiven, they’re added to karma. Even after quitting the monastery, he remained a Buddhist.

Some years later his father became bedridden, and the family sold their land and eventually even their house to raise money. Doctors and hospitals failed, and finally they took him to a kru khmer (traditional healer). The kru told them they had to give money and fruit for a special ceremony within ten days or their father would die.

By this time the family had sold everything and had no money for the kru. They were in despair, but by chance at this moment a free clinic of the Singaporean parent church visited the village. Thanks to the treatment provided by the clinic Bon’s father recovered and was able to work again. Bon began going to church every Sunday and saw the good acts the Christians were doing, their kindness, and this was enough to convince him to become a Christian. His father returned to his old ways and is not a follower, nor are any of his brothers and sisters.

The church supported Bon while he finished Senior High School (grades 11-12) and his university degree afterwards. He saw how those Christians who had jobs supported those who did not, and now, even though he doesn’t earn a very high salary, he contributes $10 each month to the church to pay for the village English classes.

When he first became a Christian the people in his village and his friends at school ostracised him, and he had several bad experiences while going round the village with other followers spreading the gospel. People would slam the door in their faces or set the dog on them, and once, when a woman allowed the church members into her house, her drunk husband chased them out and threatened to kill them. This was hard, but he always remembered that people could only curse Jesus Christ, not A Yisu (a complicated pun in Khmer, meaning that people who curse Christ do not curse those who spread his message). The hostility and opposition stopped since he graduated from university, as the villagers are impressed that the village boy they knew now has a higher education and a brilliant future.

He believes that ghosts and spirits exist. If invited to a funeral or festival he joins in and will try to help it be a success, not because he believes the rituals work but because he believes in being a good citizen. Sometimes he attends the village temple at New Year and Pchum Ben, because the monastery is just a building, but he prays to God while the others pray to Buddha. In his six years as a Christian he has persuaded four friends and a nephew to become followers. He still supports his parents.

Christians are not allowed to have sex before marriage, but if someone does it means they not a pure Christian (says Bonn). Mixed marriages between Christians and non-Christians are not forbidden, but in his experience they usually fail.

Mrieng Kongveal


Shrine for the wish-granting child-spirits mrieng kongveal, “children lords-fields). The little red objects are clothes – these spirits are naked except for a red and black chequered scarf (the traditional Khmer krama), and should be given a suit of red clothes when they join the household.

Aside: the colour red is closely associated with spirits and magic, just as yellow is associated with the Buddha and the monkhood. Just why this is so I have no idea. I’ve been told by Cambodians that it comes from Chinese influence, but I doubt it – this holds true across the Buddhist part of Southeast Asia.