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.”

Cambodian kru and magic

Black magic kru

Black magic kru

The gentleman to the left is a kru. The word kru is from the Sanskrit word “guru”, meaning teacher or master. A teacher in a school is a kru, and if someone teaches you Khmer he’s your kru Khmer. But this is a more specialised use of the term: kru as magician,and kru khmer as practitioner of traditional, and very abstruse, teachings. (the man to the left is, unfortunately, a black magician, which is unfair, as most are white, but he looks so good I just had to use him. He comes from an article on fortune tellers at Khmer Connection).

Kru follow written texts detailing ingredients to be used and rituals to be followed. Symbols play an important role. A centrally placed bell represents Meru, the cosmic mountain, and other ritual objects represent the four cosmic continents. The kru might invoke Thorani the Earth Goddess while sprinkling holy water over the patient, thus creating a symbolic link with Buddha’s defeat of Mara the demon king through the water wrung from Thorani’s hair.

There are the “white” kru, who heal sickness, and also “black” kru who cause it through black magic. A black kru can cause a knife to enter a man’s body, causing sharp pain and even death.If a Cambodian has an illness that won’t respond to modern medicine, he’ll probably go to a kru. White kru have a high standard of ethics, following the Buddhist precepts and basing their powers on Buddhist teachings, albeit the more esoteric ones, or practices derived from Brahmanical belief. Black kru are the enemies of the Buddha and of religion: to preserve their power, must never enter a monastery or pass before or make a deferential bow to a Buddha image, nor may they wash their entire lives.

Cambodian lead katha amulet - lead charms indicated by arrows - one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6003a2.htm)

Cambodian lead katha amulet – lead charms indicated by arrows – one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6003a2.htm)

Amulets can protect the wearer from physical harm. The thirteenth century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan wrote of how the king of Angkor was protected from swords and arrows by powerful amulets implanted under his skin, and I know of a Western photographer living in Phnom Penh who wears an amulet made of a small sheet of hammered lead, rolled into a tube around a braided thread and tied to his wrist. More expensive ones are available of silver or gold.

Amulets can also take the form of small Buddha images carved from ivory or wild boar tusks or crystal, worn around the neck or waist or over the genitals. The katha must be guarded from contact with impurity, and for this reason should not be taken into the lavatory. The wearer should also avoid certain foods, and should obey the Five Precepts. For some people, such as soldiers and criminals, following the first two precepts might be difficult, as they prohibit killing and theft, and to compensate they will need to make especially generous and frequent donations to the monastery.

Amulets and charms drawn on cloth are popular. These are called kansaeng yantra, and are displayed on the walls of houses and businesses. The best ones are those prepared by monks, and monks who are skilled in them can become extremely sought after.

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Protective charms can also take the form of tattoos. These are called bidhi sak, and as usual, the process is surrounded by ritual. In the past the tattoo was rendered more powerful by the inclusion of certain substances such as the bile of a brave enemy, or the skin of a monk. The completed tattoo must be consecrated by ritual sprinkling delivered by the senior monks of seven monasteries.

Kru also prepare special potions. Their specific powers depend on their ingredients, and, of course, the incantations and rituals. One was prized for its ability to confer invulnerability to bullets – the ingredients included dried python and the faeces of the red vulture, among others.

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Possibly the most famous charm is the goan krak. This is made from a human foetus cut from the mother’s womb (the woman theoretically having agreed beforehand) and dried over a fire. Worn in a small wooden ball around the neck, it will whisper advice and warnings to its owner in times of danger. The Khmer Issarak rebels who fought the French during and after World War Two are known to have used goan krak, the current prime minister is rumoured to have a collection, and freelance journalist Nate Thayer was offered one when he set off to interview Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle.

All this, apart from a few details, comes from Ian Harris’ book Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. I’m trying to meet some of the kru, but not having much success so far.



Barefoot Diplomats


Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

Phnom Penh bombed by the KR, 1975

January 1979. The Vietnamese are closing in on Phnom Penh. A messenger from the Khmer Rouge leadership arrives at the Chinese embassy: the KR army has collapsed, there’s nothing between the Vietnamese and the capital. Prepare to evacuate within four hours. Papers are burnt, food prepared, and at midnight a convoy of diplomats, not only Chinese but the Yugoslavs, Burmese and others (in truth not that many) leaves the city headed for Battambang. Once there a new message from the KR government: the threat has been overstated, please return to Phnom Penh. Most of the embassies decline the invitation, but recognising that his duty is to represent Beijing to his hosts, the ambassador and his staff return to PP  immediately. The date is January 4.

The situation in Phnom Penh continues to worsen. Artillery can be heard in the distance and Vietnamese reconnaissance aircraft are overhead. On January 6 a Chinese Boeing 707 arrives. There are 180 people at the airport pleading for seats, among them Prince Sihanouk, Princess Monique, and some two dozen members of the royal household. The aircraft can safely carry only 150.

Now read on.

That’s just the first five pages of this document, The Collapse of the Pol Pot Regime, January-April 1979. It’s the story of the Chinese embassy as they retreated with the KR into the Cardamom Mountains in the face of PARVN (Peoples Army of the Republic of Vietnam), and was written, I gather, as part of an internal history of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The  Chinese tried to stay with Pol Pot and keep on being an embassy, but in April they crossed the border into Thailand. It’s an extraordinary story – you’ve heard of barefoot doctors, but here’s barefoot diplomats.

Nice blogspot here with photos of Phnom Penh when it fell to the PARVN – this is what the Chinese would have seen as they left the city. The photos used here are from another blog, Travis J Thompson’s Ten Pics a Day – unfortunately I don’t know who took the actual pics, especially that one at the top.

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979

Vietnamese troops enter Phnom Penh, 7 January 1979


Power and Political Culture in Cambodia

Power and Political Culture in Cambodia (Trude Jacobsen and Martin Stuart-Fox, National University of Singapore, as a pdf download here) is an examination of how Cambodian culture thinks of power, whence it comes and how it goes. Does this sound like Cambodia?

The client/patron relationship is hierarchical, but obligations are mutual. The patron is the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client, and his greater wealth, power, or prestige enable him to help or do favors for the client. The client is usually, but not inevitably, of inferior social class..Benefits a patron might confer include legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office or employment. In return, the client is expected to offer his services to his patron as needed.

i-claudius-patrick-stewart_5_l-1-_wide-8964c78b8fc127f2ece9037f297f853db476b3fe-s4-c85It’s actually ancient Rome, according to Wikipedia. (Pictured here is Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard, in the BBC mini-series I Claudius – he comes to a sticky end when he gets too big for his caligulas).

The patron possesses authority – omneach in Khmer or power, komlang. Such a man is a neak thom, “big person”. The first outward sign of his bigness are his wealth, as seen in his conspicuous houses and cars, his country house (apparently a must-have), his being seen at expensive restaurants and up-market nightclubs, and so on – the point being that he must not only be a wealthy man, he must be publicly seen to be such.

He will also have bunn sak, social status. This is shown through his possession of government and/or royal titles, a house near the house of the prime minister, his association with other persons of high status (including foreigners, who apparently are as good as a Rolex at a public event), and his immunity to the law. The highest neak thom can shoot someone dead in the presence of witnesses without fear of consequences, although this does test the extent of his bunn sak and should only be done if the outcome is assured.

The parking lots of the more expensive karaoke places, hotels and nightclubs in Phnom Penh are littered with shiny new Lexus, Mercedes and Audi four wheel drives sporting all manner of decoration stuffed toys, curtains, undercarriage lights in different colours but no license plates, because the owner of the car is so important that he or she does not have to conform to laws which apply to others. … Patrons at some popular Cambodian nightclubs are not permitted to sit in the upper gallery unless they are neak thom (and) Places usually frequented by a foreign clientele reserve space for neak thom (where) security personnel maintain an invisible barrier excluding other patrons.

The third quality of a neak thom is baramei, meaning charismatic powers of persuasion – Cambodians admire the ability to sway others through words alone. Sihanouk had it, Pol Pot had it, and Hun Sen has it. Paradoxically, the man who possesses baramei will be silent at social gatherings, because self-control is also admired, but when he speaks, all others fall silent.

Newsletter525_Narayana_clip_image002Whence comes greatness? Wealth and social rank and charisma are the result of bunn, the merit accumulated in previous lives through virtuous deeds. Since bunn, and not some accident of birth created the neak thom, he therefore has a moral right to his wealth and power. Some individuals possess so much power than bunn alone  can’t explain it – they must have inherited it, in a very personal sense, through the workings of reincarnation. Thus Sihanouk was thought to be the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, and there’s a rumour that Hun Sen in a previous life was the legendary hero Sdech Kan. If reincarnation isn’t enough to explain the power of the powerful, there’s also magic – Hun Sen is also said to own a store of powerful koan kroach amulets, preserved fetuses that protect their owner from harm.

Bunn derives from anupheap, understanding, so that the man of power is also a man of wisdom, and wisdom derives from dhammapul, the laws of nature, so that the powerful hold power by virtue of the same forces that make apples fall down instead of up and cause winter to be cooler than summer. The powerful man will therefore see any challenge to his power as an attack on the natural order: Sam Rainsey is not just a political opponent, but an evil man to boot.

Power is expressed through khsae, strings of client/patron connections. The village farmer will have his village patron, who will have his patron in the district town, who will have his in the capital, who will be the client of a neak thom at the highest level. The traffic cop will share cash from motodop fines with his captain, the millionaire contractor will share a cut with the officials who put the contract for that road or bridge his way. In return the patron will protect his client from the law to the best of his ability, assist his children (or those of sub-clients) with employment, and attend weddings and other occasions where the presence of a great patron will increase the standing of the client among his own circle.

17821_07_NeakPean_bigthumbDonors talk about strengthening the institutions of the State in Cambodia. Forget it. Patron/client relations take the place of the State. In the early 19th century the Cambodians rebelled against the Vietnamese, not because of national feeling, but because the Vietnamese wanted to reform the tax collection in a way that undermined the client-patron relationship. Today the Cambodian elite resist the pressure of Western aid donors for greater transparency for the same reason. The flow of goods and services in a patronage-based system is through the client-patron tie, not the State.

All in all, a pretty depressing outlook. Here’s the nub of the concluding paragraph of the paper, in which the authors explain why Cambodians keep on voting for the status quo:

In the privacy of the voting booth people are free to register their displeasure with the CPP. But they won’t. And the reason they won’t is not because they cannot envisage better government or a more just society, nor because they have been duped and coerced into submission, but because of how they understand the nature of power. Cambodians accept that the well-oiled patronage network of the CPP that now extends throughout Cambodian society cannot be challenged. The ‘strings’ are too many and too strong. Moreover they converge on men … recognised as neak thom, whose personal claims to power rest solidly on a moral order … conceived as a law of nature. At the apex stands Hun Sen, who has risen in status from one among a number of neak thom to ‘bong thom’, ‘big brother’ to all Cambodians.


 The Bong of Bongs





Song for an Approaching Storm

SongSong for an Approaching Storm (link to Kindle here) came out in English on 13 March 2014, with a fair bit of fanfare. The author, Peter Fröberg Idling, has an article in the Guardian on 20 March listing his top ten recommended books on Cambodia – you don’t get invited to contribute to the Guardian without good reason.

Idling (I hope that’s the right way to deal with Swedish surnames) trained as a lawyer, and worked as legal advisor to an aid organization in Cambodia 2001-2003, revisiting in 2005 and in 2008. His first book was the non-fiction Pol Pot’s Smile (2006), about a Swedish delegation who visited Cambodia at the height of the KR genocide without seeing anything alarming. If you find that unbelievable, bear in mind the innumerable visitors to Hitler’s Germany pre-1939 and to Stalin’s Russia who also saw nothing.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Song:

Idling’s book is historical fiction with a twist that will leave you breathless. Its intriguing conceit is based on a real-life anecdote repeated by Pol Pot’s former mentor, Keng Vannsak: that Pol Pot’s relentless radicalisation came about partly as the result of a broken heart….

Working as a legal advisor in Cambodia at the time, Idling began to research the story in earnest, talking to former colleagues of Pol Pot and trying to track down Pol Pot’s former fiancee, Somaly—was she still alive? And what of her involvement, while she was engaged to Pol Pot, with deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary? A fascinating tale of a love triangle between the three began to emerge… the result was this spellbinding, shattering novel.

Which I guess is what a publisher would say about any book, but early reviews back it up: “a beautifully evocative and compulsive book,” says the Daily Mail reviewer; “Who would have thought I could read about Pol Pot in a sympathetic light?  But such is the power of this must-read novel.”

I’ve bought the book but haven’t had time to read it yet – when I do I’ll review it on Amazon and Good Reads. And by the way, if you, dear reader of this blog, like a book, please review it on those two – it’s good for the author’s fragile ego, and, better, for sales. (Alternatively, if you think  book has wasted precious hours of your limited life, you can say that too).

Before I start reading, I want to pick up a point Idling makes in his Guardian piece on the Ten Best Books on Cambodia:

One might look at my following selection and ask where the contemporary Cambodian novels are. The answer, sadly, is that the authors in Cambodia are marginalised and struggling – there aren’t even any publishing houses. Very little of their work is translated into English. Thus, there are many foreign authors in the following list. But good literature knows no nationality or borders.

I sort of agree, but also sort of don’t. It’s true that Cambodian authors are struggling, but authors struggle everywhere – novelists make their living in all sorts of ways, but rarely from royalties. If you want to know about contemporary Cambodian authors, read Walter Mason’s recent travel book, Destination Cambodia – Walter is exuberant, endlessly enthusiastic, and knows his Cambodian authors. There’s also Sue Guiney’s writing schools in Siem Reap, and I believe Christopher G. Moore is doing things with Cambodian writers following Phnom Penh Noir.

Song for an Approaching Storm, published by Pushkin Press (which is English, despite the name) is available on Kindle (thank God the publisher is being sensible about ebooks and not attempting to charge an arm and a leg in order to subsidise the paper version) and from Amazon and in tangible form from Monument Books. I recommend Monument – you get the chance to browse real books, there’s nothing quite like it.