When I visited Cambodia in 1995, I arrived at Phnom Penh’s airport on a brutally sunny day. My sunglasses offered little protection against the glare and stumbled toward the terminal seeking relief from the heat, then stopped upon seeing a score of young children getting off a bus. Every child was dressed in their best clothes and each was missing a limb or two. "They are flying to Bangkok for fittings with prosthetic limbs," a fellow passenger informed me with a hushed voice.Hopeful smiles disguised their absent arms and legs as well as their nervous anticipation of a long journey away from family and friends. I wished them luck with a smile. In Asia smiles have many meanings. Mine was shame.Amputees are everywhere in Cambodia and the mines laid during that long conflict reap new victims without a vacation. Strangely Cambodians don’t express anger about Pol Pot, the mines, or the long war, almost as if it had happened to someone else or talking about it might bring back those years.
Not me.I’d be out for revenge and my #1 target would be Henry Kissinger, who is portrayed in William Shawcross’ book, SIDESHOW as the principal architect of Cambodia’s descent from a neutral monarchy to the Pentagon’s secret front of the Viet-Nam War.
Prince Sihanouk had kept his country out of the neighboring conflict by waltzing between the USA and Vietnamese combatants. By 1970 this neutral status was unacceptable to the Nixon regime and Kissinger condoned the secret bombing of suspected NVA bases inside what was called the Parrot’s Beak.
Armed incursions followed by an ill-conceived invasion. Sihanouk was deposed and the Prince supported the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol dictatorship. This country of rice paddies and flood plains joined Laos and Vietnam in the holocaust. And despite the horrors portrayed in SIDESHOW, the Cambodians are a much more forgiving people than others who have suffered through a holocaust, mostly because they have to live with the perpetrators. They love Americans and only a few older people have any idea about what Kissinger or Nixon did to them. The rest live life as best they can without any help from the bombers of 1970.
Along the path to Angkot Wat’s Bayon Temple a quintet of amputees plays traditional music. A tourist stopped to take a photo and the leader of the troupe asked the visitor’s nationality. When the middle-aged voyager replied Texas, the band struck up YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS.
The tourist left a dollar and so did I.
Small reward for such forgiveness.
Forgetting is another matter.