King Norodom’s Capital

NEXT MORNING, I saw General des Essars, who was in command of French troops in Cambodia. Like all the official personalities I visited in the country, he seemed to be enjoying life, and he gave the impression of being no more than faintly amused by the preposterous difficulties of the military task.
A London newspaper had been interested to know what were the possibilities, in the event of the French being obliged to leave Indo¬china, of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos lining up together to form an effective barrier to what was called the southwards march of commu¬nism. Put into plain language, this meant, could these three countries combine to keep out an invasion by Chinese communists? The General said that he would not wish to have his opinion quoted on such a point, and would content himself with supplying figures to give some idea of the Cambodian war-potential.
The regular army, he said, consisted of three battalions, comprising 2500 men. There was also a national guard which wasn’t particularly well trained or well equipped. These short-time warriors also numbered about 2500, and the General quoted Wellington’s remark about not knowing whether or not they would frighten the enemy, but, by God, they frightened him. He felt nervous about giving them up-to-date arms, because if they had anything worth taking they would clear off – ils foutraient le camp. Besides this there was an officers’ school with twelve students and a police force whose armoury contained one medium machine-gun and two tommy-guns. On the whole the General said it wasn’t famous. But there you were, what could you expect in a country where every man-jack of them had done a year in a monastery, where they taught you that thou shalt not kill had to be taken literally? ‘They defend themselves – sometimes,’ the General said. ‘But that is about the best you can say for them.’
As for the other side of the medal, there were the Viet-Minh, who held the coastline, solidly, all the way from the frontier of Siam to Cochin- China. And then there were five bands of Issarak nationalists, all well armed with fetus amulets and automatic weapons, and they were only getting a little peace round the capital itself since the sixth band, that of Dap Chhuon, had surrendered, and Dap Chhuon himself had been given the governorship of the province of Siem-Reap. I remembered seeing propaganda pictures at Saigon of the ceremony that had accompanied Dap Chhuon’s submission. It had been a well-staged act of fealty. Dap Chhuon, thin and tough, with the ravaged face of an anchorite, knelt before the King, who, dressed I believe in the uniform of a French admiral and smiling like a Bodhisattva, was leaning over to hand him back his carbine. This was the thing in a nutshell. You committed a single murder and you were probably shackled hand and foot, thrown into a dark hole in the ground and left to rot. You went in for large-scale slaughter, called yourself an Issarak and managed to keep a whole skin for a year or two, and it was cheaper to buy you off. The King himself made the nation’s peace with you and you got a provincial governorship. And now, with Dap Chhuon and his three hundred and fifty men keeping order, tourists could come again – for the first time for several years – to visit the ruins at Angkor Vat.
But the General pursed his lips and shook his head over future prospects. It seemed that a certain, quite unforeseen element had sud¬denly cropped up. It was to be feared, in fact, that Dap Chhuon was no decent, reliable, straightforward bandit after all. Either he had never been one of the old school of dependable tiger’s-liver-eating thugs, or in some mysterious way he had been corrupted, being now, indeed, suspected of having turned communist. The latest news of him was that he had put one of his men in each of the villages, who had presented the notables with a list of reforms to be carried out. That was the state of affairs. Apart from all the bother the Viet-Minh gave, they now had their own people, who used to be satisfied with looting pigs and rice, going in for all this silly nonsense. The General wondered how long it would be before he had to send the planes to Siem-Reap.
It was clear that this account of the military situation in Cambodia contained the death of my hopes about the overland journey to Laos. Of the five Issarak bands still active, one, controlled it was thought by the Viet-Minh, operated on the Cambodia-Laos border. This would have been the same band that was reported in the neighbourhood of Stung Treng, when I had tried to reach Laos from Central Annam. They were mounted, the General said, well armed, and very mobile. By the time he could get planes to any district where they were reported to have been seen, it was always too late. Land operations were almost useless, because you had to fight with soldiers who expected to be fed regularly and generally mollycoddled. But the bandits didn’t worry about creature comforts. While you were dragging your baggage trains about after them, they just slipped off into the mountains, or some god-awful swamp, and that was that.

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