Robert Bingham: Lightning on the Sun

lightning.jpgRobert Worth Bingham IV was graced by the malice of God with good looks, great wealth, and impeccable connections. To balance these he was born into a summary of Southern Gothic plot-points – father killed in front of him by an errant surfboard, uncle electrocuted while stringing up party-lights, grandfather suspected of murdering second wife, grandmother’s last words a wish for “a big pink cloud to come down and take me away,” which it did, on the spot.

Success came early and easily:

 [He] was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation…

Then he went to Cambodia. Just why, I do not know. Was he suddenly overcome by the emptiness, rocked to the core of his being by the inauthenticity of the unexamined life? I think not. But he was obsessed with death:

 He would joke nervously about carrying on what he called the ‘family curse’. In a 1997 interview in New York magazine, he claimed that ‘the odds aren’t on that I’ll get nailed early because they’ve been used up’.

The Binghams who had not fallen victim to a violent end had a propensity to succumb to drink. Shuffling around a house stacked with pizza boxes, broken furniture and a television set that was never turned off, [Robert] Bingham spent the final years of college wearing rags and swigging Jim Beam straight from the bottle.

When sober, Bingham was a complex man: often abusive, occasionally violent, but also kind, clever and generous with his wealth (he funded one friend through film school and footed the bill for countless other projects that caught his attention). When he was drunk, the ugly side to his character was exaggerated, and even his wildest friends learnt to keep their distance.

In Phnom Penh he played tennis on the courts where Lon Nol’s cabinet were executed and hung out with the other death-seekers at the Thanatos Bar. Sober, he was great company, knowledgeable about Cambodian history, witty and charming; drunk, he began to scream and spit and the scary animal came out. He developed a heroin addiction, wrote for the New York Times, and helped start the Cambodia Daily. He was recklessly fearless, even pulling a gun on a Cambodian official extorting money at a roadblock. Out of it came a novel, Lightning on the Sun.

The plot involves aimless young Asher and his girlfriend Julie (no second names) who come up with a plan to smuggle a large quantity of high-grade Cambodian heroin into America. At the American end is a Julie’s boss at the strip-club where she works, and whom she double-crosses. At the Cambodian end is a Khmer loan-shark who Asher double-crosses. Asher and Julie are clearly not going to end happily ever after, and the end of the line is Kampot.

”Lightning on the Sun” cuts deepest when Bingham lets his wicked sense of humor wield the knife. … Cambodia is more expensive backdrop than truly engaged terrain. But, paradoxically, Bingham’s writing is at its most alive when it is most nihilistic, when he lets the devils play. Crime by crime, none of them committed for any good reason, he constructs for each character an anti-résumé. … Against privilege, he asserts haplessness. Against conscience, a faintly ridiculous stupor. In its way, it’s wonderfully anti-American.



Chapter 1, Lightning on the Sun

Stacy d’Erasmo, review in the New York Times, April 23, 2000.

Amelia Hill, review in the Guardian, 1 July, 2001

Samantha Gillison, review in Brown Alumni Magazine, July/August 2000

Bob Wake, review in Culture Vulture, 7 July, 2006

Adam Wilson, The American Reader








Phnom Penh’s real-life private eye





Phnom Penh night: “down these mean streets” (photo by artist Chris Coles)

Yes folks, there’s a real-life private investigator in Phnom Penh. The name is Phnom Penh Investigations, they have an office on street 110, and their Facebook page is fascinating (:

Case #1: scam

Client: A well-respected Cambodian businesswoman had been contacted by a (presumed) previous business associate from the USA via Facebook requesting assistance in opening a Cambodia-based business with an initial investment of $480,000. However, the “American” reported difficulty in wiring the initial investment to her due to “new American banking regulations” and requested to send the client cash instead via DHL.

Investigation Results: Posing as the client, attempts to correspond with the “American” by phone and/or Skype video conferencing were rebuffed.

Subsequently, the “American” claimed that DHL “rejected the shipment” and requested a $2,000 payment from the client to cover DHL’s reported “customs duties” in order to ship the $480,000 cash payment.

The client was advised that it was an obvious “419 scam” and to cease all communications with him/them.

Further investigation revealed that the fraud perpetrators had stolen photos from the actual American business associate’s Facebook page in order to pose as him in an attempt to fool the client. The actual American business associate had no knowledge of this until we contacted him directly by phone.

Case #2: embezzlement

Client: A group of Singaporean clients suspected the NGO they had donated money to in order to build a rural school had embezzled their donations entirely with zero construction nor any charitable distribution of funds.

Investigative Results: The fraudulent NGO in question had indeed embezzled the entirety of the funds donated and the various NGO “directors” listed on their websites/Facebook pages and in email correspondence, etc. were in fact aliases. The “NGO” fraud network had also falsely used the identities of other legitimate Khmer business/charity leaders to perpetuate the scam to foreign donors.

Case #3: international fraud

Client: American national had been defrauded by an “international freight/shipping company” operating out of Central Asia but with associates working in Cambodia.

Investigative Results: Our investigation revealed the fraudulent “shipping company” would steal (high value) packages and reroute them to Cambodia. Associates in Cambodia would then “ransom” the packages by requiring the owners to send Western Union payments to Phnom Penh. The sophisticated criminal network would also provide access to forged online tracking pages and forged Cambodian Ministry of Economy & Finance invoices to elicit fraudulent “customs duties” from unsuspecting clients. Further investigation revealed the criminal network involved an African national and several Khmer and Chinese nationals living/working in Phnom Penh.

The fraud investigation was then turned over to the Cambodian Ministry of Interior due to the network’s use of forged Cambodian government invoices, fraudulent Cambodian VAT numbers, and fraudulent Cambodian business registrations.

Case #4: suspicious death

Client: A foreign client’s brother had been pronounced dead shortly after arriving to a Phnom Penh hospital of a suspected drug overdose. The family believed foul play might have been involved and requested an investigation.

Investigative Results: Following an extensive witness canvassing, including responding police, emergency drug treatment center personnel, etc., all indications pointed to either a drug overdose or adverse drug reaction. Subsequent information from a previous Phnom Penh-based employer indicated the deceased had been terminated several weeks prior due to a drug problem. The family accepted the findings and terminated the investigation.

Cases #4,5,6, 7, 8 and 9: love. (“After conducting nearly 150 infidelity checks throughout Cambodia over the past three years, our investigations have revealed that over 80% of our clients’ spouses/girlfriends/sponsored parties have been unfaithful.” To which I add that a PI will inevitably get a very skewed set of clients.)

“I had suspicions about my husband during his business trips to Asia but I did not know what to do at first. Luckily I found your company during an internet search.

Your staff followed my husband and took photographs of him bringing Cambodian girls to his hotel both in the day time and at night!Thank you very much for your work and professionalism!

-Irina, soon-to-be divorced wife from the US”

Client: Malaysian client (living in Kuala Lumpur) whose Khmer wife was visiting family in Phnom Penh suspected her of drinking to excess and possibly meeting other men throughout the night.

Investigative Results: Surveillance revealed that the client’s Khmer wife was indeed becoming extremely intoxicated each night as she visited numerous bars and clubs in Phnom Penh. The client’s wife also departed the “Pontoon” club one night at closing and accompanied a foreign tourist to his hotel at 5am, presumably for a sexual encounter.

Client: French national had been “sponsoring” a supposed Khmer university student he met online and with whom he had corresponded via webcam for several months. Client had been sending monthly “support payments” to her via Western Union to assist her with her education.

Investigative Results: After finally locating the supposed Khmer “student” in Phnom Penh, investigation revealed that she had been collecting multiple monthly “support payments” via Western Union, presumably from other foreign sponsors she had met online. Further investigation revealed that the subject was not enrolled in the university she claimed and that she was unemployed and living with her parents. However, the subject was surveilled on multiple occasions drinking with her friends at nightclubs such as Nova, Pontoon, Heart of Darkness, etc.

Client: Khmer-American national working in the US wanted to investigate his future Khmer bride who was living with her family in Phnom Penh. The marriage had been suggested by the client’s parents, but the client was suspicious of the chosen bride due to her close working relationships with foreign nationals in Phnom Penh (as required by her work in the finance industry).

Investigative Results: After 200 investigative hours covering one full month of surveillance, our investigators witnessed no improper relationships involving the (future) Khmer bride. Virtually every evening after work was spent with her family or occasionally with Khmer (mostly female) friends in public places.

(“Special discounts are offered for investigations requiring significant investigative hours.”)

Client: Australian national had purchased a hostess bar (lease) in Phnom Penh for his Khmer fiancée, an ex-bargirl. Client had become worried after returning to Australia as his fiancée was no longer responding to his phone calls.

Investigative Results: Investigation revealed that within just days of the client’s return to Australia, his fiancée had already put their hostess bar for sale and was hoping to use the money earned from the sale to build a house in her home province. Further investigation revealed that the Khmer fiancée had, in fact, a Khmer boyfriend working as a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh and that they planned on moving back to their home province immediately after they sold the (Australian) client’s hostess bar.

(I like this one – the cliche reversed)

Client: European national (female) suspected her Cambodian boyfriend of having a local wife and possibly other foreign mistresses.

Investigative Results: Surveillance revealed that the Cambodian boyfriend was indeed married to a Cambodian woman and had one child with her. Investigation also revealed the cheating Cambodian husband had at least two other foreign mistresses who were sending him money from abroad.

Case 10: recovery of stolen property.

Client: Canadian national tracked his stolen laptop to a user in Phnom Penh with the assistance of a computer app that provided remote photos of the user and network and location data.

(Please refer to…/six-security-apps-that-can-help-reco…for further information on this crucial computer security technology.)

Investigative Results: Our investigator located the current user of the stolen laptop and his current employment and discreetly approached his employer to negotiate a settlement (the user’s employer, a large multi-national firm with an office in Phnom Penh, was contacted as the user was conducting company business on the stolen laptop, as verified by the owner’s screenshots of usage).

The Khmer user of the stolen laptop claimed he purchased it from a local computer shop in Phnom Penh and apologized to the client, stating he never would have purchased the laptop if he had known that it was stolen.

They offer other services too – like personal bodyguards for example – this is what can happen to tourists who think they’re still in Kansas:

In a café in Phnom Penh earlier this year, a tourist encountered the wrong person on the wrong day. What began as a verbal exchange with another customer quickly escalated into a violent confrontation. The tourist says that in a fit of rage, his adversary, an affluent local man, stormed over to his bodyguard who was standing nearby. The bodyguard pulled out a handgun, passed it to his “boss” and stood by as he dished out a pistol whipping.

Source: Phnom Penh Investigations on Facebook



Police forensics in Cambodia?

Short answer: What police forensics?

Very important article in the Cambodia Daily, which I’m copying here without permission (sorry CD but this is worth preserving):

When two North Korean doctors dropped dead in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district in January, the stated cause of death raised eyebrows among many. Police ruled that the hard-partying duo died of simultaneous heart attacks brought on by alcohol consumption, despite their wives’ admission that they had injected the men with a homemade health serum in the hours before their deaths. The men’s wives wrote a letter to police requesting that no autopsy be performed, but according to many, they needn’t have bothered.

“In Cambodia, there is no equipment to do autopsies like in other countries,” said Norng Sovannaroth, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court doctor and the only physician qualified to perform autopsies in Cambodia.

Although he believed the suspicious nature of the North Koreans’ deaths warranted further examination, the power to seek an autopsy falls to the police, and it is a request they rarely make—including in this case, when the women’s stories were allowed to stand without question.

In interviews last month, Dr. Sovannaroth, the court doctor, outlined his frustrations with the shoddy state of forensic medicine in the country. “It’s because the Cambodian government doesn’t care much about autopsies. They just let [the] doctor see what happened and make a report; they never think about it,” he said.

The need to introduce standardized forensic medicine—a discipline that includes autopsies— was first discussed in 2001, when government, medical and legal officials gathered in the capital for the the country’s first-ever conference on the topic. The event ended in formal recommendations for the establishment of a coroner’s office and a university-based forensic medical program. But 15 years later, neither of these exists, and Cambodian police are still eyeballing most corpses to determine the cause of death, according to Dr. Sovannaroth.

Though police often refer to this external examination as an “autopsy,” a procedure of international standards involves opening a body at the front and removing organs one by one before carefully examining them, as well as methodically scrutinizing the outside of the body.

However, Dr. Sovannaroth— who performs autopsies at the Phnom Penh Referral Hospital— said his repeated requests for the practice to be given more funding had been rebuffed, and there was no autopsy training program at the University of Health Sciences.

“I am an autopsy doctor, but in every of meeting at the Health Ministry when I make requests about the need for technical autopsies, they always ignore me,” he said.

He added that he had requested basics such as better tools, DNA testing facilities and the addition to more hospitals of cool rooms needed for storing corpses, to no avail.

“In other Asian countries, the police take any evidence or bodies to do DNA testing…. When will Cambodia do it too?” he said.

Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the  Health Ministry, declined to comment on the issue, saying only that the Ministry of Health “is not responsible for this,” and directing all questions to the Interior Ministry’s technical and scientific department.

Moung Sothea, director of the department, conceded that facilities for forensic medicine were sorely lacking but said there were plans for improvement. “In the provinces…they don’t have enough equipment for autopsies on bodies,” he said. “But by the end of this year we will have full equipment for autopsies in the whole country,” he said. He admitted that autopsies were rarely requested without the intervention of NGOs.

“Our police do autopsies sometimes depending on what we see…but almost all are murders or rapes that involve NGOs—they always request for autopsy for more specifics.”

He said that equipment that can identify DNA, an important tool in many investigations into crimes such as rape and sexual assault, would be purchased “soon,” adding that the government currently relied on NGOs to pay to send blood and other samples overseas. “NGOs that work for protection of children have the budget to take the blood or masks found at the scene [of the crime] to Vietnam or Thailand to do DNA testing,” he said.

James McCabe, chief investigator for the Child Protection Unit, the investigation arm of the Cambodian Children’s Fund NGO, frequently employs the services of court doctor Mr. Sovannaroth.

“We will request an autopsy if we’re not certain [of] the causation of death,” he said, citing an example of an 8-year-old child who was killed by his stepmother in late 2014. “The stepmother had stomped on him. Obviously there were signs of bruising, but no obvious signs of how that child would have died,” he said.“Had we not done that autopsy, that stepmother would not have been charged,” he added.

While the CPU regularly requests autopsies and sends DNA samples collected at crime scenes to Vietnam for analysis if necessary, Mr. McCabe said there was room for improvement in how police were trained to collect such evidence. “The confession is only the start of an investigation…. You then have to corroborate that confession,” he said.

The ability to perform autopsies is crucial to a robust justice system, according to David Ranson, the head of forensic services at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Australia. “In most suspicious deaths the police will request that a full autopsy be performed and this request will usually be supported by similar advice from the forensic pathologist,” Dr. Ranson wrote in an email last month.

Still, determining a cause of death is just the first step, Dr. Ranson said.

“[M]ore commonly the issue is one of analysis of the fatal injury to determine question[s] such as: how much force was used, what type of weapon may have been used, how was that weapon wielded,” he said. “For example was the knife used in a stabbing pushed in and out of the body several times through the same wound, was the person lying down sitting or standing when they were stabbed or shot, was the person trying to defend themselves when they were fatally injured,” he continued.

The country’s lack of forensic medicine facilities are considered problematic enough that the British Embassy in Phnom Penh highlighted it in an information sheet at the beginning of this year warning families of U.K. citizens who die in Cambodia.

“You should be aware that the cause of death given on the death certificate is often given in very basic terms, and often does not reveal the underlying cause of why the death occurred,” it states, recommending that families use the services of the Phnom Penh-based coroner John Allison Monkhouse Repatriations.

Contacted last month, the head coroner of John Allison Monkhouse, who declined to give his name, said the only thing his company could do for those who desired a more thorough examination was to ship corpses abroad for a proper autopsy. “There are no forensic pathologists in Cambodia,” he said. “What we can do is send a body to Bangkok.”

Source: “Dearth of Forensics Makes Justice Evasive” – Taylor O’Connell and Sek Odom, Cambodia Daily, May 14, 2016.

Review: Christophe Peschoux’s “Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer”

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Christophe Peschoux interviewing KR soldiers, 1993

Over May 4-6 1999, in a village near the Thai border, Christophe Peschoux interviewed the notorious Duch, one-time commander of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre S-21. Duch was arrested two days later and has been imprisoned ever since for his offenses against humanity. By mutual agreement the interview was kept in a drawer until preparations for his trial got underway in 2006, at which point it became part of the public record. In the course of his trial Duch denounced the interview, claiming it had been extorted under false conditions. The charge shocked Peschoux, who devotes several pages to refuting it and suggests that the about-face may have been connected to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political campaign to eviscerate the international tribunal in order to prevent it implicating past Khmer Rouge who now serve in his government.

Peschoux, who was representing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, has now published the text of the interview “to put it at the disposal of those who are interested in the history of Cambodia and of the Khmer Rouge movement, and the role of that S-21 played in that history.” It forms the core of this important book, which is essential to any study of the Khmer Rouge period. Peschoux’s Introduction forms an equally important part of the story, setting out the context of the interview, the history of the subsequent trial, and a nuanced and humane sketch of a man who has come to be seen as a monster, the embodiment of inhuman evil.


Comrade Duch

Duch was born in 1942 to a humble family in Kompong Thom province. Thanks to scholarships he was able to study at the elite Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh and the National Institute of Pedagogy, from which he graduated in 1965, and was sent to teach high-school mathematics at Skoun in Kompong Cham, where he was remembered later for his commitment to his students and to social equality.

But Duch had imbibed socialist ideas at the Institute and in 1967, as Sihanouk cracked down on leftists, he joined the armed resistance in the maquis (the forest). The teacher had become a revolutionary. In 1968, following a spell in Sihanouk’s prisons, he joined the infant Communist Party of Kampuchea and was assigned to run the security police of the “Special Zone” surrounding Phnom Penh. Thus began the next stage in Duch’s career, the one that was to earn him the title of chief torturer to the Khmer Rouge.

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Duch with staff and families at S-21, 1977

Duch’s work at rooting out Sihnouk’s spies seems to have pleased his superiors, for following the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 they appointed him to head up S-21, the new party security office in the capital, in which position he was responsible for the torture and death of some 14,000 people.

S-21 was where the Party uncovered traitors within its ranks, and all inmates were Party members. Duch stresses his lack of autonomy within the system: he sent nobody to S-21, all arrests were ordered or authorised by the senior members of the Standing Committee, namely Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Pheum, and Ta Mok. Even this overstates the case, as Sao Pheum was distrusted by the other three and was about to be arrested and sent to S-21 himself when he committed suicide in 1978.

Nor, according to his own account, did Duch have any control over what happened inside S-21. His political masters expected him to produce confessions, and confession meant interrogation, both “hot” (with torture) and “cold” (without). Duch says he did not believe torture to be effective and wanted to dispense with it, “but the abilities of my subordinates were limited and I was unable to achieve this. … Sometimes, my subordinates used methods which I could not believe they had employed. … I learned that my former primary school teacher [Din Saroeun] had been tortured by insertion of a piece of wood into her vagina. … I was shocked…” (Peschoux notes that the torture and execution of his primary school teacher and her husband, and a handful of others whom Duch had known intimately and respected, were instrumental in his ultimate loss of faith in the Party and its cause).

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Duch with one of his aides, Phnom Penh, 1976

The point of the confessions was not to discover truth – the fact of arrest presupposed guilt – but to uncover “threads” (khsae in Khmer), the vertical networks of patronage and loyalty that give structure to Cambodian society. Every Khmer is either a patron or a protégé, and one man’s protégé is another man’s patron. “[I]f one person is considered an enemy, all persons linked to that person are likewise.” Once uncovered, the threads had to be destroyed. “[A]ll those who were sent to me had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

The interrogations and killings at S-21 can be viewed as a logical conclusion to the KR obsession with spies, played out within traditional Khmer client-patron networks. This explanation seems unconvincing: Cambodia is still built on khsae, but today’s leadership does not find it necessary to discover and destroy entire “strings” of real or imaginary opponents, including children.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 4.34.15 PM.pngPeschoux believes, as Duch came to believe, that what was at stake was much simpler: the cold-blooded pursuit of power. During the armed struggle of the five years before 1975 the various KR regional commanders recruited their own troops, who were loyal to them, not to the Party. (This, incidentally, has always been the way armies were raised in Cambodia; the creation of a professional army answerable to a single central authority is one of the unremarked but essential steps in the creation of a “modern” State). When the stage of armed struggle ended in 1975 Pol Pot and his innermost circle had no troops under their direct control, and thus were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the zone commanders. Peschoux remarks: “One of the historical interpretations of the conflicts and bloody purges of the following three years sees [them as] Pol Pot’s effort to impose his direct control of the true power that was in the hands of the heads of the zones.” Duch ultimately came to believe that Pol Pot and his circle had no real interest in whether the people he interrogated and killed were really spies, but only in rooting out potential rival khsae. His reaction was to withdraw from politics after 1975 and, eventually, to return to being a village schoolmaster.

So who is Duch? In Peschoux’s words, he was “an intelligent, gifted, well-taught, and generous young man of modest origins, animated, we suppose, by an ideal of liberty and justice, [who] joined the revolution and became, little by little, a cold and pitiless torturer. … [O]nce the ashes of history had cooled and greater [personal] autonomy was regained, he became again an ordinary man, capable of exercising choice and moral discernment.”

Peschoux says of his first sight of Duch: “He resembled any man of his age, a benign Cambodian grandfather—timid, affable, and very ordinary. … [N]othing in his appearance or his manners suggested a devilish personality or character. He was an elderly, very ordinary former torturer.” The transformation from teacher to torturer had been motivated by the noblest of mirages, a world of justice and liberty, but it led Duch to monstrous crimes; when circumstances changed, he again became a teacher.


Duch’s confession to Peschoux is certainly self-serving to a degree. It lacks the realia conveyed in this underling’s report of the interrogation of Kim Huot, Duch’s revered former teacher and husband of the Din Saroeun who was tortured with a piece of wood in her vagina, a report which was delivered to Duch in the routine way:

  1. In the morning of 18.7.77 1 decided to employ torture. I told the prisoner that I was doing this because I had not grasped the weak points of what he had said, and my pressure had not had any results. This was my stance. I watched his morale fall when I administered torture, but he had no reaction. When questioning began, it was still the same. As for his health, he ate some gruel, but he was not able to sleep. The doctor looked after him.
  2. On the morning of 20.7.77 I beat him again. This time his reaction was to say that he was not a traitor but that the people who had accused him were the traitors. His health was still weak, but was not a serious problem.
  3. In the afternoon and evening of 21.7.77 I pressured him again, using electric cord and shit. On this occasion he insulted the person who was beating him: “You people who are beating me will kill me”, he said. He was given 2-3 spoonsful of shit to eat, and after that he was able to answer questions about the contemptible Hing, Chau, Sac, Va, etc.
  4. That night I beat him with electric cord again. At present he is a little weak. The doctor has seen him. He has asked to rest.

To paraphrase Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, our sympathy for the murderer is not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy, but we would do well to remember that he is a man like us. Or as Peschoux puts it, Duch’s testament is “an occasion to reflect on what this extreme experience can teach us about ourselves and our humanity, and what our humanity can turn into when crushed in the jaws of history.”


Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, Former Khmer Rouge Commander of S-21, Silkworm Books, 2016, 204 pages.  (This review appears in the May-July 2016 issue of the Mekong Review)

Mekong Review

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The third issue of the Mekong Review is out. Will secular saint Aung San Suu Kyi face a lonely old age? Is Pulitzer-winning Nguyen Than Viet, author of The Sympathizer, a novel, and Nothing Ever Dies, memoirs, the true heir to Graham Greene? Does Southeast Asia needs more Silkworms? (Answer: yes).


…Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices.

Hollywood has been still more Americentric. In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.

Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.

Serious praise: we hear about Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the outside; where is the fiction about the lives of Khmer-Americans deported back to the homeland they never knew, for example?

lady-and-the-generals.jpgThe piece on Suu Kyi is a review of Peter Popham’s recent biography, The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom. Essential point: the people adore her but the generals don’t, and if she loses the adoration factor it’s hard to see a soft landing.

[T]he run-up to the historic election in Myanmar, last November that swept the Aung San
Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD)
to power was punctuated by long-time NLD activists complaining of being side-lined or simply dropped by their leader. More damaging to her reputation globally has been the criticism by the Western media, as well as by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, for supposedly turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Then there’s her haughty and authoritarian style. She declared before the 2015 election that she would be “above” whoever takes the presidency that she craves, but is barred from by the army-written constitution because her two children are British citizens.

Political life is only going to get harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Indeed. And the loss of saint-hood is a given – politics is like that, just ask Tony. (Which Tony? Any Tony; Tony seems to be a very unlucky name for politicians).

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Elsewhere, Khac Giang Nguyen asks what a man who is a tree portends for democratic reform in Vietnam, Liam Kelley surveys the academic landscape of Asian Studies in Australia and finds is bleak (I vaguely remember being told by my betters that Australia’s future lies in Asia, that this was the Asian Century, and that we all had to prepare for it, but that was in another country, and besides, the policy is dead), and Robert Turnbull writes about politics and patronage in Cambodia – patronage of the arts, that is. Did you know that Hun Sen likes to jot down ideas for poems in classical Khmer meters as he helicopters from one meeting to the next? Neither did I, and it’s fascinating to know; but the more important point is that without patronage of some kind, Cambodian classical performing art will become a tourist ghetto, as has happened in Bali. (Or I believe it has – perhaps the next edition of the Mekong Review will set me right).

And much more. Mekong Review is available on paper at Monument Books (which also has The Sympathizer – $15) and online as pdf.