Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: history
Friday, 25 September 2009 21:14

After the Winds of War

In 1971 the American Herman Wouk published his epic novel about the Second World War, The Winds of War. The novel (later a mini-series starring the late Robert Mitchum) deals with the early years of the war, before America’s entry into the conflict. Through the eyes of an American Navy officer named Henry and his family we are provided the landscape, physical and political, of Europe as the war breaks and boils. The story is a treat: it gracefully weaves a private meeting with Mussolini in Rome, an encounter with a nationalistic German waiter in Berlin, a Jewish wedding in Poland and a private talk with Churchill. There is, however, a rather striking disruption in the narrative. Towards the very end a new element is introduced, that of Asia. A minor character offhandedly mentions the Japanese to another. Most of the major characters suddenly find themselves in the Pacific after years of storyline that have them in Europe. Without acknowledging this, the book ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What may be most surprising is that Herman Wouk served in the US Navy during World War II and spent his war in the Pacific theatre. Yet, when it came time to “throw a rope around the Second World War” (his words) his focus was almost exclusively on Europe in explaining how the war came about. In this I believe that Wouk was a man of his times. America in the 20th century most often poised itself towards Europe. This is understandable as the world economy was for so long centred around Europe and as most Americans can still describe themselves as of European extraction. But all of this may be changing as we speak. The day may come – it may be here already – when Europe is no longer where Americans instinctively face.

I have spent a large part of my adult life overseas, all of it in Asia. I first came to Europe a month ago, less Ernest Hemingway than Henry Miller. Let me first state the utterly obvious: Europe is amazing. All the tales are true and, if anything, understated. I am at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, in a town that dates back to the Roman era. I would challenge any sentient or sensible being to sit by one of the canals with a strong coffee, Paris only hours away by rail, enjoying Dutch hospitality in the autumn sun and not be enchanted. It really is not possible, absent a strong will otherwise.

But as wonderful as Holland is it has roughly the same population as Cambodia and it is simply dwarfed by its former colony, Indonesia. And Europe can no longer rely on economic superiority to command attention; the rising powers of Asia have seen to that. Europe is changing from the inside as well. The streets of the major cities are filled with immigrants from Africa and Asia and their European born children. It is reasonable to wonder if Europe should still receive the attention Wouk gave it, or if after years of immigration Europe will even be recognizable as we understand it from the 20th century. These are large questions, and any certain answers are far beyond an outsider who has been here very scant time. But I can hazard a guess and it actually is a very hopeful one.

I do not think that the splendour of Europe is found in any set of fixed traditions. I think it is to be found in a place that not only gave birth to the Enlightenment but lives by it still, by a European tradition that produced the culture of today. I see the children of immigrants and the children of native Europeans accepting one another in a way that is very familiar to my understanding of American idealism and I see it transpiring in a way that does not seem to sacrifice the European sense of self. Europe is responding to the changing economic world by binding itself ever closer in the European Union which as a unit rivals India, China, and the United States. In short, I think that the corrective to Wouk’s focus on Europe is not to discount this vibrant place but to recognize the vitality of other places, to embrace a multi-polar world and not simply to shift to a different uni-polar one. What will become of Europe? I think it will be here for dazzled newcomers to ask that question of it for a very, very long time.

Illustration from movie poster ’Lady Kungfu’ on the website

Friday, 22 May 2009 01:58

Account of the 17 April, 1975



My tuk-tuk driver and I were lucky to have spent an hour looking for the residence of Fr. Francois Ponchaud on a dry day- dense with dust and exhaust fumes- yet nevertheless, dry. There was nothing more ennerving than being stuck in traffic in a flooded street under pouring rain in Phnom Penh.

We arrived at Ponchaud’s workplace, where his staff greeted me warmly in Khmer, apparently the only working language in his office.The young man lead me to their bureau on the first floor where I was greeted by the legendary Francois Ponchaud himself, barefooted and smiling broadly.


Being ever so obliging, he agreed to re-tell the tale of the 17th April, 1975, the night when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and a tale he has had to repeat many times for the press and in his publication Cambodia: Year Zero.



Our hour-long interview was conducted entirely in French; each account was more enthralling than the other, in the course of thirty minutes I was given a literal brief history of Cambodia and its people.

"In the morning, thousands of militants, farmers flooded into Phnom Penh, because they knew the Khmer were going to arrive at any moment" begins Ponchaud. On that morning, the French priest of MEP hosted around 2000 people in the cathedral, including the militants who demanded entry at gunpoint. At 7am there was a complete calm in the city of Phnom Penh, as a series of white four-by-fours pulled up in front of the French embassy and 7 or 8 men in black stepped out of the vehicles. "We thought to ourselves, everything should be going quite well if the Khmer Rouge wishes to talk to the French, perhaps we might just keep our lives" recalls Ponchaud. When they finally left, they were shot at by the tanks by the cathedral on Boulevard Monivong; a lone man in black stepped out, walked slowly toward the tank in front of the cathedral and convinced the tank to lower its arms. From then onward, around 8-10am, it was sheer joy for the civilians for they had seen how these men in black had pacifically disarmed the militants. "The refugees believed the war to be over and were overjoyed, and despite what journalists say, the people applauded when Lon Nol’s army surrendered" Ponchaud remembers a discordance between the people’s jubilation that the war was over and the sullen attitude of the victorious soldiers in green, sporting hats of Mao Ze Dong. Shortly after that, these men in green started to manage the traffic, shifting weapons onto the middle of the roads, disposing their clothing along with with their weapons. "Later that day we heard on the radio several announcements, notably by the chief of the Army declaring that the war was lost and that everybody was to surrender. Another announcement was made by the Supreme Patriarch calling for reconciliation but at the end of the speech, the microphone was taken by someone declaring: "We are not here to negotiate. We won with our weapons."

Ponchaud felt that there was a new group in power- the Khmer Rouge.

From 11am onwards he witnessed an ’unbelievable spectacle’. Thousands of sick and wounded people were abandoning the city, some carried by friends, others lying on beds pushed by their families with intravenous drips still attached. At three in the afternoon many of his own friends came by to bid him farewell as they head towards the North, West, East and South. By night, the city was practically emptied of all residents. "I cannot say that I had ever seen any forms of physical violence. I have neither seen any dead bodies nor a Khmer rouge soldier firing into the crowds. It was a ’cold violence’...they made us scared simply by looking at us in the eye."Despite having down national service at the age of 20 for two years in Algeria, followed by living through the Cambodian Civil war between 1970-1975, the presence of the Khmer Rouge had Father Ponchaud turning cold.

When it came to the Westerners, the Khmer Rouge were not so adamant on making them leave like the rest of the population. Some asked Ponchaud for his Bic (pens), others for his motocycle; objects had lost their value at this point in time and Father Ponchaud was more than willing to give them away.


At 6pm the city had been emptied of its people and noise, some Khmer Rouge came to the diocese, and looked at the foreigners with much suspicion. Later when they heard Ponchaud and others speaking Khmer, they instantly warmed up to them and spent the night joking and chatting. They were people from the region of Angkor and were in fact, ’very nice people’. "One should not think that all the Khmer Rouge were vicious beings" continues Ponchaud. To his surprise, he saw many different groups of people amongst the Khmer Rouge: some were stern, others looked disoriented, some demanded the foreigners to leave, and others asked them to stay. It was completely disorganised, says Ponchaud. It was only later that they learned that Phnom Penh had been taken by six Khmer Rouge Armies.

The morning of the 18 April, the Khmer Rouge asked to be taken to the train station which was only 100metres from the diocese. Ponchaud and a friend took two cars but instead of driving them directly, they took them for a tour of the city, where they did some sightseeing and got fired at around the Independence Monument by soldiers of Lon Nol.


Finally they arrived very late at the station and the soldiers were scolded badly by their superiors. Ponchaud went to the French Embassy from where he was the last foreigner to leave Cambodian soil on 7 May, 1975.


Wednesday, 11 April 2007 03:12

My chance encounters with chance

An "alternative" biography...

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