It had started out as a typical, drab United Nations reception. The hors d'ouevers were chopped liver, the drinks Scotch and gin, and a tuxedoed crier announced guests to four anxious dignitaries. Then the host, Ieng Sary, deputy prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea (Cambidia), began to circulate, and his enthusiasm almost seemed catching.
"And how is your country after the Liberation?" inquired a delegate from Burundi. "Better, much better," bubbled Ieng Sary. "The bad image, it comes from bad information."
Certainly, the little information that has emerged from Kampuchea in the past years has painted a bad picture of life under the new Communist government. No Western reporters have had an opportunity to view things first hand since shortly after the fall of Combodia in 1975. What information that does exist has come largely from interviews with embittered refuges, monitoring of radio broadcasts, and the rare visits of Kampuchea's leader sto the West. Drawing largely on the refugees, a recent crop of books has emerged portraying life in Kampuchea as hell. The Wall Street Journal referred to the Country's experimantal regime as the cruelest since Nazi Germany.
So the receptin seemed like an ideal opportunity to raise some of these points with Ieng Sary, and get a first-hand reply. Well, not quietw. "Mademoiselle, the country is doing well," Ieng Sary told me. "If you have any questions, they will be answered by the movie."
Neither his two-hour color propaganda film, nor his equally long formal address to the United Nations, even began to answer the world's questions.
Ieng Sary spent over half his speech boasting about his nation's acheivements under its new government. Illiteracy now plagues only 10 per cent of the population, he said. There is one clinic and one pharmacy for every 100 families. Dams and waterways are under construction. Malaria has practically been eradicated. It was a litany of successes hard to believe.
The movie was a pictorial embroidery to the speech. The scenes were authentic. The pediatrics clinic at a "revolutionary" hospital was obviously the former Calmette French Hospital in Phnom Penh. It appeared a lot cleaner and fresher than the blodd-stained hospital I remembered from the war. The old Foreign Ministry in the road to the Pochentong Airport had also been spruced up. A bright red flag now stretchs across its facade.
The movie was a pictorial embroidery to the speech. The scenes were authentic. The pediatrics clinic at a "revolutionary" hospital was wbviously the former Calmette French Hospital in Phnom Penh. It appeared a lot cleaner and fresher than the bloodstained hospital I remembered from the War. The old Foreign Ministry on the road to the Pochentong Airportt had also been spurced up. A bright red flag now streches across its facade.
"With revolutionary fervor," the movie showed peasants sowing and harvesting rice in vast fields. In his speech, Ieng Sary said these same paesants were now eating two pounds of rice each day. This struck me as hardly plausibel, but these were some of the first answers Kampuchea has given to worldwide charges that many of its citizens have staved to death under the new government.
Otherwise, there were few pieces of solid information. There was no denial of charges that hundreds of thousands of people have been executed. That chore had been taken care of two weeks earlier by the nation's leader, Pol Pot, in a Peking speech that kicked off this new quest for respectability.
What all this adds up to is that Kampuchea is finally bginning tc show some concern about its world image. For more than two years after the Cambodian Communist defeated the U.S. backed regime of Lon Nol, they chose to live in excruciating seclusion. Last year, when Ieng Sary made a similar trip to the United Nations, he limited his speech to foreign policy statements. Nothing was said about the state of the country itself. There were no films, no parties. Now, however tentatively, that apparently is beginning to change.
The United Nations is Kampuches's only forum outside Communist Asia. (The country maintains only four embassies - in China, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos.) Even the U.N. Mission of Democratic Kampuchea is empty most of the year. Ieng Sary spent a scant four days here. The other three diplomats who are attending the current U.N. session are holed up in a Manhattan hotel; and are only expected to stay here a month.
Even the crucial U.N. forum was almost lost to Kampuchea this year in a battle over dues. Four years in arrears, the Communist government finally made the minimum payment of $40,000 required to retain its membership. Two years of the debt had been built up by the former regime and Ieng Sary said, "We need never pay for Lon Nol."
For most Americans, the three Indochinese states remain a confused mass. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are the dominoes that fell to the Communists in the quarter-century American conflict interchangeably called the Vietnam war and the war in Indochina.
At the reception, Indochina was mentioned.
"Ah, don't say Indochina," cautioned Nguyen Co Thach, deputy foreign minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. "At least not to the Cambodians. They don't say Indochina."
Cambodia's refusal to join any U.S. supported alliance in Southeast Asia in the 1960s is mirrored in Kampuchea's refusal to even discuss Vietnam's vision of an Indochina federation of Vietnam's states. kampuchea, Ieng Sary said in his speech, must defend it borders from enemies of all stripes. This pear there has been numerous reports of border clashes between Vietnam and Kampuchea.
Yet, at hte reception, Ieng Sary spoke to the Vietnamese diplomats in their own language, smiling and sharing private thoughts.
The border clashes? The Vietnamese would not comment. It was up to the Cambodians. One more charge for Democratic Kampuchea to answer.