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The Gate – F. Bizot

September 27, 2016

tgFrançois Bizot (born February 8, 1940 in Nancy, France), is the only Westerner to have survived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge.

Bizot arrived in Cambodia in 1965 to study Buddhism practiced in the countryside. He traveled extensively around Cambodia, researching the history and customs of its dominant religion. He speaks fluent Khmer, French and English and was married to a Cambodian with whom he had a daughter, Hélène, in 1968. When the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, Bizot was employed at the Angkor Conservation Office, restoring ceramics and bronzes.

Bizot, at first, welcomed the American intervention in Cambodia, hoping that they might counter the rising influence of the Communists. “But their irresponsibility, the inexcusable naivete, even their cynicism, frequently aroused more fury and outrage in me than did the lies of the Communists. Throughout those years of war, as I frantically scoured the hinterland for the old manuscripts that the heads of monasteries had secreted in lacquered chests, I witnessed the Americans’ imperviousness to the realities of Cambodia,” wrote Bizot in his memoirs of the time

Bizot observes early on that he wrote his book out of ‘a bitterness which knows no limit’. The bitterness which propels his memoir is a bitterness at the ideology which propelled the supporters of the Khmer Rouge: the zealous utopianism which so cheapened their regard for human life, and cauterised their compassion. Bizot reserves his greatest contempt for those Western intellectuals who expressed their approval of the Khmer Rouge, and whose high-profile fellow-travelling was in part responsible for the West’s failure to intervene in the Cambodian genocide once it had begun. These were the people, Bizot suggests, who should have known so much better.

No incident he describes in the camp is more terrifying than his account of a little girl he tried to help with food and friendship. At first it seemed to work, and “the sight of this child under my protection filled me with immense courage”. Then, one evening, when his foot had been chained up as usual, the child came to see him and slipped her finger under the iron links on to his bruised ankle. Bizot was moved and encouraged. But: “she skipped away and returned with a bunch of keys in her hand. I looked at her with astonishment. She undid the padlock and…carefully retightened the chain.”


A boy of fourteen! We all knew his parents, who came from a nearby village. He had begun his ideological instruction only a few months before. Seeing the boy hesitate in front of everyone, one of the leaders — his instructor, probably — came up, put his arms around his shoulders, and urged him on in a low voice. Now, comrade, I saw this with my own eyes: the young boy gathered his courage, moved forward, and one by one, in no sort of a hurry, he took hold of each baby by its foot, and smacked its little body firmly against the trunk Of the tree, the old mango tree on the west side of the square . . . Two or three times, each one. He was congratulated for his efforts by the leader, who hailed his example of zeal and composure. That’s what the Khmers Rouges are doing to our children! They are transforming them into shameless creatures who can no longer tell good from evil!”

“Comrade Douch!” I continued, raising my voice before he could start speaking again. “The resoluteness of the teachers who speak in the name of the Angkar is unconditional! Sometimes it is even devoid of hatred and is purely objective, as if the human aspect of the question did not come into consideration, as if it were an intellectual concept. They mechanically carry out the impersonal, absolute directives of the Angkar, even going to extreme lengths. As to the peasants who come under your control, they are subjected, purely and simply, to a sort of purification rite: new ‘teaching’ (rien sutr), new mythology and an amended vocabulary that no-one initially understands. Then the Angkar is adopted as family, while true kin are rejected. And after that the population is divided into `initiates’ and ‘novices’. The first constitute the true people, that is to say, those who have been won over; the others are those who have not completed the period of preparation and training; only after that can they be admitted into the former group and acquire the superior status of accomplished citizen. Need I go on?”

“That has nothing to do with it!” Douch repeated. “Buddhism benumbs the peasants, whereas the Angkar seeks to glorify them and build the prosperity of the beloved homeland on them! You attribute scholarly ravings to bogus ideologues when they belong only to yourself Buddhism is the opium of the people. And I don’t see why we should draw our inspiration from a capitalist

past, which is the very thing we want to abolish! When we have rid our country of the vermin that infect people’s minds,” he went on, “when we have liberated it from this army of cowards and traitors who debase the people, then we will rebuild a Cambodia of solidarity, united by genuine bonds of fraternity and equality.

First, we must construct our democracy on healthy foundations that have nothing to do with Buddhism. Corruption has seeped in everywhere, even among families. How can you trust your brother when he accepts the imperialists’ wages and employs their arms against you? Believe me, Comrade Bizot, our people need to rediscover moral values that correspond to their deeper aspira­tions. The revolution wishes nothing for them besides simple happiness: that of the peasant who feeds himself from the fruits of his labours, with no need for the Western products that have made him a dependent consumer. We can manage and organise ourselves on our own to bring radiant happiness to our beloved country?’

“Consumer?” I asked, opening my eyes wide. “I don’t remember the fishermen from Kompong Khleang using many imported products. I don’t know who you’re talking about, unless perhaps it’s yourself, comrade. Did your grandmother pamper you as much as all that?” I whispered mischievously. “You are the ones who are totally dependent! You fell into a trap by taking up the cause of the North Vietnamese. They are using your men to advance on the battle front of a war that is not yours. You are armed by the Soviets, your speeches are written in Peking, your songs and your music — which nowadays are accompanied by the tambourine, violin and accordion — no longer have anything Khmer about them! Is that what you call ‘national integrity’ and the ‘sovereignty’ of the people? I see nothing of traditional Cambodia in your plans for society. To me everything seems imported. When the North Vietnamese have made use of you and, thanks to your sacrifices, gained their victory against the `imperialists’,” I said, stamping my foot and with a note of hatred in my voice, “they’ll take control of your country and subject you to an even harsher yoke.”

“Indeed,” I replied at last, nodding my head in a resigned way. “Man is made that way; he seems to accept anything and to forget everything. The fact that he has created works like those at Angkor will always be to his credit, however much inhumanity may have been involved in their construction. You see, comrade, for me the great question in life is the suffering we cause to others. We have no rights — nobody does — over each other. That’s why I reject, from the very core of my being, the idea that spilling blood is a bloodletting needed to strengthen the patient. How can we let some people decide their own salvation by enforcing the sacrifice of others? Where does this apportioning come from? Does the land of the Khmer now follow the law that requires one fish to devour the other?”

The peasant to whom you and your leaders constantly refer, comrade, has no connection with the events on the front pages of the international newspapers; he is the hero whom no-one could care less about in a war that has nothing to do with him.”

I was not really annoyed, just piqued by the cook’s lack of awareness of the impact of such negligence: I had acquired a sacred relationship to food during my imprisonment. At this solemn moment, when I was resuming contact with existence, meals had attained the rank of a divinity, and I did not want to hurry the worship. I had sacrificed too much, too painfully, over the past months to be satisfied now with nonchalantly gulping down cold soup, as though it were unimportant, as one might in normal daily life, joking about it politely.

And then there was the Thai woman who had lost her passport and was insisting that she would manage to seduce a handsome revolu­tionary who would look after her. But deep in all their eyes we could see their terror.

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