There is one shrine to a martyr of the Pol Pot era that visiting foreigners to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh are taken routinely to see. In room No. 5 of the former Hotel Royale, three beds have been set up and a great stain of blood and hair smeared across the floor, according to numerous travelers.
"Here," the visitors are told, "is where the British professor, Malcolm Caldwell, was murdered by the Pol Pot assassination squad." Documents have been "discovered" proving this.
It is a complete fabrication. I know because I was there when Caldwell was shot to death last December by unidentified terrorists in a guest house about one mile from the hotel in a far less protected area of the Cambodian capital. Not once on his trip did Caldwell step inside the old Hotel Royale.
Yet newspapers around the world, including a major American weekly, and many communist governments have accepted and repeated the Vietnamese version as fact. In their need to convince the rest of the world that their January invasion of Cambodia was justified, the Vietnamese have rewirtten history, casting themselves as disinterested liberators. They so seriously miscalculated the political, military and human cost of the occupation that they appear to have no choice but to blame everything wrong with Cambodia then and now on the four-year rule of Pol Pot.
Asserting that Caldwell's death took place in the Royale gives the Vietnamese a propaganda edge. The Royale was completely under the control of Pol Pot forces -- in contrast to the more remote guest house. Thus it would appear that Caldwell was killed by Pol Pot forces and was not, as Pol Pot and others have charged, a Vietnamese-encouraged murder that was a prelude to the invasion.
There is ample evidence that Pol Pot deserves the criticism leveled against him as one of the modern world's harshest tyrants. Yet the current plundering of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, the famine there and many of the recent deaths cannot be placed solely on Pol Pot. Cambodian refugees interviewed in Thailand, recent visitors to Cambodia and evidence in Vietnam itself suggest that the Vietnamese must accept their share of the responsibility for what is happening in Cambodia. Requests to visit Cambodia were denied by the Heng Samrin government.
The refugees made the sharpest criticisms. "The Vietnamese have taken out rice, tires, machinery from factories, cloth, furniture, spare parts for vehicles, anything of value," said Han Tao, a Cambodian refugee from the eastern province of Kompong Cham. Han Tao said he watched the Vietnamese drive these goods out in the trucks along Route 7 into Vietnam.
"The strategy of the Vietnamese was to make it appear that the people stole everything from warehouses. In Kompong Cham city they let us take some things from the warehouse and filmed us with their cameras.Then they put the cameras away and took for themselves anything of real value," Han Tao continued. "Boats, cars, they all went to Vietnam."
Han Tao's testimony was confirmed by other refugees in his camp at Surin, Thailand, and by refugees much farther south near the Gulf of Thailand, at a camp near Trat. "I saw myself the Vietnamese taking out beds, tires, everything," said Wu Shu Zwang, a Cambodian refugee from the east bank of the Mekong.
"The Vietnamese took it out in trucks. They took the rice and brought back wheat," he said. "They used the wheat to buy goods in the market."
Partial confirmation was available in Vietnam itself. One foreign official who recently visited Cambodia told me that a fleet of white Mercedes had been taken to Vietnam and then hastily returned to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to ferry visitors around during a show trial of Pol Pot in abstentia.
"Like any occupying army there were some spoils," the official said. "But when so many foreigners arrived in Phnom Penh the Vietnamese had to 'lend' the cars back to the Cambodians."
Convincing proof of plunder can be found in the antique shops of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The theft and export of Cambodian art treasures must be widespread, judging from what can be found in Vietnamese shops. There were common wooden Buddhas, priceless stone carvings, brass objects, dancing aspara figures and what were described as Angkorera busts.
One piece was mounted on a dark wooden block, the type used by museums.
Questions put to shopkeepers about these pieces and their origins led to police surveillance and my guide abruptly ended the day's shopping trip when I persisted.
"The Cambodian art began appearing in Ho Chi Minh City about February, March," said one foreign resident. "They've only recently found their way up to Hanoi. The wooden Buddha I bought was still dirty from the axle grease of an army truck, I am sure."
Censure has already come from the international community, which has refused to recognize the Heng Samrin government, installed by the Vietnamese in Phom Penh last January. Only the Soviet Bloc has supported Vietnam's actions, increasing Hanoi's isolation and refusal to admit to any problems in Cambodia.
"Those who bring up Kampuchea [Cambodia's official name] are those who were always opposed to the independence of Vietnam," said Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's de factor foreign minister, during an interview at his office. "If you see conflict in Kampuchea you have to say there is conflict in Italy. There is no war, no hostility in Kampuchea. The only problem is a food problem."
While the rest of the world fears that Cambodia is in the throes of a civil war and faces imminent famine, Thach dismisses such concerns.
"The situation in Kampuchea is stable," he says in fluent English. "There is no problem in Kampuchea of war . . . Pol Pot? He is a gangster. In Chicago you have a lot of gangsters."
Meanwhile, Thailand worries that by October there will be 200,000 starving Cambodians at its borders, fleeing another Vietnamese campaign to wipe out the remaining Pol Pot strongholds.
The Vietnamese version of most things Cambodian differs, however, from that held by the rest of the world. Pol Pot has proved a greater military foe than the Vietnamese had expected. With troops roughly estimated at 20,000, the Khmer Rouge resistance has prevented the Vietnamese from securing the countryside. Peasants cannot return to cultivation and the threat of famine grows.
Yet Thach says there is no need for a diplomatic compromise to end a war Vietnam does not officially recognize. "There will be no change in Kampuchea, no compromise . . . It is irreversible. It is hopeless for Pol Pot. And the others, who are they? They are nothing. Sihanouk, [exiled former head of state] he can change Kampuchea all he wants in the newspapers or radio but not in the country."
Hostilities between Hanoi and Phnom Penh are centuries old. Most of southern Vietnam was once Cambodia and during the 19th century Cambodia was little more than a vassal state of Vietnam. Modern Cambodian leaders of all political stripes -- Prince Sihanouk, Lon Nol and Pol Pot -- have assumed that Vietnam would try again to control Cambodia: It was a given for all Cambodian policymakers.
In its recent trial in absentia of Pol Pot, the Heng Samrin government convicted the deposed Cambodian leader of destroying the country's economy and producing the current famine. It has been charged that, under Pol Pot, factories were not operated, fish nets were not to be seen in the lakes and rivers of Cambodia, and hand looms were rarely operated.
Other accounts say garbage littered the streets of Phnom Penh, providing breeding grounds for rats and vermin. (Foreign visitors were allowed to see only one Potemkin boulevard in Phnom Penh during the reign of Pol Pot, the Vietnamese say, and therefore did not understand the true situation.)
Both the Vietnamese and the Heng Samrin governments charge that Pol Pot oversaw the destruction of the country's art treasures, the Buddhas and other statuary.
Yet the evil of Pol Pot was more exact and measured than this; the oppressive labor -- forcing at least two-thirds of the people to work slavishly for the benefit of the one-third of the old peasantry who form the elite; the executions to ensure discipline and the extreme regimentation led to material gains. Human life became subservient to a radical materialist revolution.
As one of the few Western journalists permitted to visit Cambodia during Pol Pot's rule, I was surprised throughout my travels in Vietnam to hear these tales about Pol Pot repeated over and over again. During my trip to Cambodia last year, just weeks before the Vietnamese invasion, I toured more than 10 factories, from pharmaceutical to textile to rubber factories. On a long boat trip up the Mekong River I saw the fishermen casting their nets into the river and bringing up immense harvests of fish. In the early morning hours I walked through over a dozen clean streets in the capital. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodians made a fetish of their heritage and took us on tours of the national museum, royal palace and the Angkor Wat complex, still filled with art treasures.
There is already enough evidence to indict Pol Pot. Tens of thousands of Cambodians were executed or died of starvation and hard labor during his regime. As one expert said: "by manufacturing more charges and staging these show trials, the Vietnamese are doing a disservice to the memory of Pol Pot's victims."