Cambodia Book Reviews: A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79) by Khamboly Dy

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


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Since Chinese Diplomat Chou Ta-Kuan wrote his account of life at Angkor Wat in the 13th century, Cambodian history has been written by foreigners. In recent years there has been a huge amount of writing on the subject of the Khmer Rouge and its regime, but other than the personal accounts of various survivors, there have been no histories of the period written by Cambodians themselves.

Whilst this may seem strange, it should be remembered that dealing with this time is much more difficult for people who were directly affected than for foreigners who are able to hold themselves with a certain distance from all that entailed. Khamboly Dy has put this volume together with the intention of it being read by Cambodian high-school students, who until now had little except over-complicated and confusing foreign language books to reference.

Published in both Khmer and English, it summarizes much of what went on in the 1970’s in a form that can be easily understood by Cambodians and foreigners alike. Recent Cambodian history is full of twists and turns, and difficult enough for anyone to come to grasps with. Here we have a bared down, but not over-simplified narration of the more important events. Unlike many of the better known books on this subject, Dy refrains from too much shock-style reporting, preferring to stick to known details and information, and leaving the reader to make their own conclusions.

Interspersed with many before unseen photographs, maps and documents, and quotes from various people who lived through the period, DCCam has again produced one of the superior quality publications that have become their signature. Of particular interest are the maps from May 1972 and 1973, which show how much of the country was within the ‘liberated’ zone by then, and leads one to wonder what the Lon Nol government and its allies were hoping to achieve at that point. There are unlikely-looking photos of Khmer Rouge dance performers, one with the band wearing white bow-ties in contrast with their smart black outfits. There is one remarkable photo of a celebration after completion of a dam project, and unlike what we often read about botched attempts to build canals running uphill, this is a very solid looking forty foot high concrete structure.

The chapter on daily life during Democratic Kampuchea has a whole section devoted to marriage, an aspect which has little been dealt with before. These were fairly austere affairs, organized with the production of new soldiers in mind, rather than the usual idea of family. Khamboly Dy has created a work to be proud of, which summarizes events effectively, and by disposing of the normal descriptive writing and filler, leaves us with a more easily read and understood version of events, suitable even for those of us with very short attention spans!

Dermot Sheehan

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