PPP: Wrong on Gottesman (2005)


Original content: The Phnom Penh Post: Wrong on Gottesman

Michael Vickery | Publication date 28 January 2005 | 07:00 ICT

Luke Hunt’s review of Evan Gottesman’s book (Dec 31 – Jan 13, 05, p. 13) was one of the most dishonestly prejudiced things I have seen.

The first paragraph is not factual. In 1979 There was not yet an “elite” and no warning was then issued about them being “blinded by wealth”. “Rape and violations against women” were probably fewer than at any time in Cambodian history, except possibly under the KR, who, whatever their own sins, managed to keep those things at an absolute minimum. Not only are Luke Hunt’s statements inaccurate, they are not even what Gottesman, who is often dodgy on his own, said.

As for Gottesman “stamp[ing] his credentials on a period [1978-79] few authors have dared to touch,” Luke Hunt here exhibits ignorance of the rather voluminous literature on the period. In particular, the identity and role of Mat Ly, a Cham leader, is well known to all students of the period and is described in existing literature. Luke Hunt got it wrong again in calling him “the spiritual head of Cambodia’s Cham Muslims, the mufti Mat Ly.” He was neither a spiritual leader nor a mufti, nor does Gottesman say that. Mat Ly, as well as his father, were old-time Cham communists, who earlier opposed the French and of course at first joined the KR, just like everyone with leftist sympathies in 1975-76.

Again Luke Hunt goes beyond the facts with “The Vietnamese edited a new constitution beyond any recognition of its Cambodian authors,” which is non-factual, and not what Gottesman’s rather careful treatment of the constitution-drafting process permits. It is true that Gottesman edits his sources to give as anti-Vietnamese picture as possible, but his treatment does not permit Luke Hunt’s conclusion.

Luke Hunt might take a look at my analysis of the three drafts of the constitution in my book Politics, Economics, and Society in the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, which, to be sure, has long been unavailable (although Gottesman knew it), but is now available in my authorized paperback pirate version in the little bookstore on the street between the Golden Gate Hotel and Tom’s bar.

Even if one Cambodian told Gottesman in 1997, repeat 1997, (his page 110) that the first draft was Cambodian and the next one “Yuon”, the comparison I did shows that was not true.

As for currency, whoever controlled it, they did a good job. The new currency quickly replaced the Dong, was generally accepted in the markets, and maintained its value better than the Dong until undermined in the post-1991 great leap into an uncontrolled free market, and the impact of UNTAC.

French and English were not banned, although not introduced immediately into the schools (although the medical school taught in French from the beginning), but private tuition gradually developed, especially in English, and by 1984 there was an entire street full of small, private English schools. The then Minister of Economy, Meas Samnang boasted to me in front of his Vietnamese adviser that one of his assistants was spreading his knowledge of English to young people through such work.

Hun Sen “reading the charges” against Pen Sovan is ludicrous. Hun Sen did not yet have such an exalted position. This is no doubt Pen Sovan’s special pleading, about which more below.

The “rumors about foul play” in Chan Si’s death no doubt came to Gottesman from Pen Sovan, and reveal one of the weak points in Gottesman’s book. Gottesman relied too much on interviews in the 1990s with people who revised their oral histories of the early 80s. The worst is Pen Sovan, whose May 1999 interview with Gottesman is one of his most important sources. One certain lie in Pen Sovan’s late testimony is his insistence (to, among others, Margaret Slocumb, The People’s Republic of Kampuchea 1979-1989, pp. 143-144) that Chan Si was killed by Hun Sen at a banquet in Phnom Penh in 1987, when the truth is that he went in 1984, very ill, to Moscow where he died in a hospital, where one of my oldest Cambodian friends visited him before his death.

Gottesman’s treatment of Chan Si’s death is embarrassing. He obviously got the same story from Pen Sovan, and apparently did not believe it. He wrote on page 134 that “to this day, Chan Si’s death … is clouded by rumors of foul play.” To some extent this is true. There are people who think his death was not natural, but I have heard of no one but Pen Sovan who denies he died in Moscow, but was killed by Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Gottesman could not treat this subject honestly because it would have undermined Pen Sovan as a source, and thus undermined other details which Gottesman needed. Another relevant reference in Gottesman to Chan Si, on page 204, is “in December 1984, as Chan Si lay ill, Hun Sen began speaking …”

It is peculiar that Gottesman would not say “…lay ill in Moscow …”, no doubt through misplaced fidelity to Pen Sovan. Luke Hunt calls Chan Si “Hanoi-friendly Chan Si,” but those who still think his death was arranged impute it to his opposition to Vietnamese policies. Calling the 1980s “not always unlike the decade before” is perverse exaggeration.

There were no serious “attempts to banish urban populations,” although it would have been rational to do more to limit rapid immigration into the city. The K5 program was certainly unpopular and resulted in many deaths. But Luke Hunt goes far beyond Gottesman in comparing it to the KR, and Gottesman himself relied too much on the worst propaganda sources, such as Luciolli (see my review of her in the Post 04/08, 1995). Moreover, no western, especially American, critic of K5 should speak of it without acknowledging that Cambodia, and its Vietnamese supporters, were in fact forced to fight, even to the death, against enemies supported by the US, China, Thailand, etc.

Luke Hunt’s deepest descent into scurrility is “throughout the Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia was a reclusive state that ranked alongside North Korea.” Evidence against that is in the writings of the numerous foreign, western, journalists, researchers, and aid workers who traveled in, out and around Cambodia starting even in 1979, and increasingly from 1980-81, with increasing freedom, including yours truly. In 1981

I was able to drive with a colleague and an aid worker in a private vehicle from Phnom Penh to Battambang, then to Siem Reap, visit some of the temples there and return, with three to fours days in each town, and in Battambang a long interview-conference with the local governor, one of the Hanoi Khmer. Once more, the propaganda scam is not from Gottesman, whose only mention of North Korea was with reference to the KR.

Gottesman, like many latecomers (1990s, especially mid-to-late 90s), has sucked up stories from Cambodians with the anti-Vietnamese animus which has been growing in the last ten years, forgetting or denying what Vietnam did for them when they were just recovering from the KR. At its most extreme, this now leads some Cambodians, and increasingly, to even blame the disasters of the KR period on the Vietnamese

(Khieu Samphan’s line). Gottesman then, in spite of his extended research into genuine PRK documents, which treating specific problems of the day are not always clear about the total context, was able to interpret them as support for the anti-Vietnamese scene depicted by his informants, most of whom he met in 1997-1999.

One example is on Gottesman’s page 93. Writing of the refugee outflow in 1979, he says: “Cambodians voted with their feet. The lack of food compelled tens of thousands to head for the cities or for Thailand. … Peasants too, had no choice but to leave the cooperatives in search of food …”

First, this is not what the refugees at the border were saying when I talked to them in 1980; and second, the 1980 PRK document quoted by Gottesman, and which from my research seems factually true in the details it reports, is not, however, evidence for his statements. He has simply interpreted it to support oral information he got from some unreliable source.

A technical problem with Gottesman concerns his sourcing. Lacking a bibliography and without explanation of the locations of the documents he used, it presents great difficulty to other researchers whom might wish to recheck the same situations.

Another dubious facet in Gottesman is his reliance on Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia by Stephen Morris, a longtime right-wing hack and proven falsifier of documents. Whatever the problems in Gottesman’s treatment, Hunt has gone far beyond him in pursuing his anti-PRK and anti-Vietnamese line. His review in unworthy of even the Phnom Penh Post.

-Michael Vickery.

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ខ្មែរ​ម្នាក់​ដែល​រស់​ដើម្បី​ខ្មែរ ! A young Khmer with big ambition for his motherland!
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