23 July 2024

Khmer Rouge vs. Religion

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 411-412:

Every aspect of faith—religion, neak ta [tutelary deities], ghosts, demons—has been erased. The monks have all been defrocked and forced out of the priesthood to live as laymen. All wats and temples have been abandoned and converted into pig farms, warehouses, and granaries, or torn down completely in some cases, like the temple in Wat Trapeang Thmor.

But some temples possess great power and cause peril for those who tear them down. I hear that this was the case when the Organization ordered the tearing down of the temple in Wat Chey in the town of Phnom Srok.

A story is told: One day Comrade Hat, the chairman of Phnom Srok district, ordered someone to tear down a neak ta shrine. The man was hesitant because he had known the power of the neak ta, but he did not dare to argue with the decision of the Organization. Perceiving the reticence of the man, Comrade Hat secretly followed him and spied on his activities. Carrying a hatchet and a crowbar, the man walked to the neak ta shrine, knelt down, placed his palms together and reverenced the neak ta, and said out loud, “Comrade Hat has ordered me to take down your shrine. If you are displeased, please take it out on him!”

Understanding the mindset of the people, Comrade Hat showed himself before the neak ta and stopped the man from tearing down the shrine. In fact, during the war, the Khmer Rouge soldiers all followed gurus and carried protective magic amulets such as chae kach [small elephant tusk embedded in a tree], khnay tan [boar's tusk], katha [prayer scroll] necklaces, yoant [magical drawing] scarves, etc. That is to say, they also believed in and reverenced supernatural objects. Now the senior levels of the Organization have given them orders to erase these beliefs, and they have to comply, but in their feelings they are still uneasy, still frightened, especially when they hear that the people who follow their orders place the responsibility for it on them.

21 July 2024

Khmer Rouge Division of Labor

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 330-332:

We may have finished our tasks at one worksite, but the work of the Revolution has no end, and there is no time for rest. To rest from revolutionary labor is to rest from eating; that is, to die. So long as we still live, there is revolutionary labor for us to perform at all times. The people in the cooperative villages are no different from those of us in the mobile units. When one assignment ends, another assignment begins: plowing; transplanting; harvesting; threshing; clearing land to make fields; planting tubers, taro, sugar cane, corn, and beans; building paddy dikes; digging canals; sowing; transplanting…

The old men who cannot walk far, lacking in strength, plant tobacco and vegetables; raise chickens, ducks, and pigs; watch fields; weave kanhchraeng, kanhcheu, chang’er, l’ey, and bangky baskets; and repair and make oxcarts, plows, and harrows. The old women watch small children, raise silkworms, weed and care for mulberry orchards, weave silk, card silk, spin silk, weave kramas [a traditional cottage industry in the area], etc. Everywhere is like everywhere else: there is no end to activities, and nobody ever complains that there is not enough work or that they have nothing to do.


1976 was a period of harsh oppression in terms of revolutionary work and discipline. The Revolutionary Army was busily engaged in activity at the worksites. The chhlop [informer] units would collect intelligence at nighttime to get a feel for the mentality, stance, and viewpoint of the young men and young women toward the Revolution. Many young men and women from the mobile units were taken away to be clubbed to death at night, near the base of the causeway, just for reminiscing about songs from the old society, being perceived as resistant to revolutionary labor, not respecting the Organization’s appointments, etc.

It was also in 1976 that my next younger brother Samat was taken from the hospital and killed. Friends who used to work with him think, some of them, that my brother was killed because of viewpoints incompatible with the cadres in charge, while others think that my brother was killed for taking something that belonged to somebody else. Which of these opinions is true? It’s all very unclear, all speculation. The truth, the plain reality, is that my brother was arrested, his arms tied behind him, and marched away to be killed. These circumstances, dying by being taken away and clubbed to death, is the legacy of all Life Slaves. Nobody laughs at anyone, and nobody sneers at anyone. Each person thinks only of working to redeem his own life.

20 July 2024

Water Outranks the Khmer Rouge

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 308-310:

The sun is very hot, and water vapor rises from under the layer of dead leaves up into the sky, so that you can see the hazy waves. The sky is cloudy, and the air is still, and we each feel like suffocating. Now and then, someone gets dizzy and passes out, so everybody is pulling hair and pinching skin [to revive each other].

We wait expectantly for the people we secretly sent out looking for water, who don’t return until at least noon, and for the water truck whose shadow is nowhere to be seen. Oh, holy angels above, why such bad karma? If they want to kill us, why don’t they just kill us quickly? Why leave us to suffer such drawn-out agony? If they spare us in order to work, why don’t they provide adequate rice and water? As for food, when they starved us to the point of measuring and distributing dry rice with a spoon, we still worked hard, following the directions and the rules of the Revolution without daring to do anything that could be called a reaction against the Organization’s leadership.

Now we see clearly what is the thing which can make us forget about work and the Organization’s disciplinary line; what can make us forget death from failing to obey the Organization’s orders. We don’t want to die, but we are all dying, dying from despair of living.

If we endure working even another hour, we will pass out and fall over dead, one by one. If we stop working and rest, we can live for another three or four hours waiting for the water truck. If the water truck shows up within this time, we will live! But if they take us away to kill us while waiting for help, what of that? No, nobody can take us away to be killed now, as the unit leaders and soldiers are all as thirsty as we are; and even if they weren’t thirsty, the twenty or thirty of them don’t have the ability to kill the tens of thousands of us in the space of just two or three hours.

Right now, the unity of our unit is equal to when we were raising the dams at Trapeang Thmor. We are all united in sitting down and lying down and watching the road for the water truck. Ever since we started to live in this revolutionary society, many people have been taken away to be killed because of hunger, from daring to steal paddy rice, milled rice, corn, or tubers; but nobody has dared to put up any resistance. Now people do dare: they dare to go on strike and refuse to work, a strike without any preparation and no leader.

No, this strike actually does have clear leadership. The leader, who is as strong as life itself, is Thirst. Water has blocked the wheel of history from rolling forward for an hour now. Water is powerful! More powerful than human life! More powerful than the Revolution!

12 July 2024

Khmer Rouge Great Leap Forward

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 263-266, 269:

But then we reach the Great Leap Forward offensive, and the mode of working changes. When the work first began, only Ta Val’s brigade and the district young men’s and young women’s units kept working twenty-four hours per day. They would take shifts both day and night, one unit up and another down. But starting in early April, all of the units begin to work both day and night, and there are no more individual allotments.


In one day and night there are three shifts. In my unit, the men and women take turns working at night. Because of this, the working hours are not the same. The men start work at six o’clock in the morning and continue until eleven or noon, then take a lunch break. In the afternoon we work from twelve or one o’clock and take a dinner break at six o’clock. At night we work from ten o’clock until three in the morning. We have two chances to sleep at night, from seven to nine thirty, and again from three thirty to five thirty in the morning. In total, in one day and one night, the men work for sixteen hours and sleep for four and a half hours.

The women begin work at four o’clock in the morning and work until eleven o’clock or noon. In the afternoon they work from noon or one o’clock until six o’clock. At night they work from seven to ten o’clock. The women sleep only once per night, from ten thirty at night until three thirty in the morning. In total, in one day and one night the women work for sixteen hours and sleep for five hours.


When the sky is bright and clear, the economy team (cooks) carry rice and water to us at the edge of the pit. During the transplanting season, we were so hungry for rice. We wanted to eat rice so badly! The word rice would make our mouths water like dogs that have seen a piece of meat. But now, the word rice has a different meaning, a bitter flavor. If they weren’t afraid that we wouldn’t have the strength to dig and haul dirt, we wouldn’t have rice to eat. Now they give us abundant rice. Leftover rice is thrown out because the economy team doesn’t even have time to dry it.

But it isn’t rice for which we hunger now, it is sleep. We can’t get enough sleep. But nothing is up to us to decide. We have neither time nor rights to think about anything. The Revolutionary Organization is the one who does the thinking, who resolves everything. We have only our strength to do the labor, and that is sufficient for them; they are content with that.

We drop our hoes, baskets, and yoke poles in one spot, and then we each untie our own bags and take out our bowls and spoons, dish up our rice, and sit around the soup pot and try to swallow, try to chew, but without heart, and without daring to prolong the moment. We can barely finish eating the rice before we must rush to pick up our hoes and baskets and get back to work right away.

The Organization tells us, “People can rest, but the hoes, bangky baskets, and yokes must never rest!” Dear God! Each person has one hoe, one yoke pole, and one set of bangky baskets. If a person rests, how is the equipment supposed to keep moving? This kind of language makes us all shrink in fear, not daring to rest or take time to eat.


It’s not only the unit cadres who watch over us personally and supervise our work activities; clandestine chhlops from the region work among our units as well. Their presence intimidates us, and we work hard without daring to converse with one another. They come to assess our mentality toward the work and toward the leadership of the Party. Every thoughtless utterance which they perceive to be an objection to the Revolution is a danger to our lives. They can take you away without even telling you what you have done wrong. They take you away secretly. Only the people in your unit will know that you have been taken away to be killed; other units will have no idea.

How many people have already been taken away and killed at this worksite? Nobody knows. My older sister tells me to be cautious. A few people have already died in the special unit just for saying, “Gee, this rice looks a bit spoiled.” They were dragged away immediately and clubbed to death beside the base of the dam.

The economy unit rises to cook the rice in the middle of the night. They cook a pot and dump it into a large basket, then another and another. Because the earlier rice and the later rice are all piled together, sometimes this causes it to take on a sour, spoiled smell. Saying that the rice is spoiled means that you are not pleased with the Party, that you are hindering the work of the Revolution.

The fragility of life fills us all with terror! Each of us works to appease Yama so that he will spare us to live another day.


If you are too lazy to work, the Organization says, “To keep you is no gain, to remove you is no loss,” and the Organization will take you away and club you to death. Actually, we Life Slaves don’t dare be lazy, as we are afraid to die. We do whatever they want us to, so long as they don’t kill us.

11 July 2024

Domestic Abuse Law in China, 2011

From Seeing: A Memoir of Truth and Courage from China's Most Influential Television Journalist by Chai Jing, trans. by Yan Yan, Jack Hargreaves (Astra House, 2023), Kindle pp. 88-90:

In 2011, Kim Lee, an American citizen, posted a picture on the Internet in China. In it, her ninety-kilogram husband rode on her back, pulling on her hair and smashing her head into the ground. After he’d struck her over ten times, she sustained injuries to her head, knees, ears, and more. Her husband was Li Yang, a Chinese celebrity who’d founded a famous English-language education brand. They used to work together.

The day the assault occurred, Kim needed her husband’s help with paperwork. She wanted to take their three children to the United States to visit her mother, but her driver’s license and teacher’s certificate were expired. Li Yang said he didn’t have time to provide the assistance she needed because he was only at home two days a month, otherwise occupied with touring the country. After arguing for several hours, he screamed, “Shut your mouth.”

Kim said, “Everything in my life is under your control, you can’t tell me to shut my mouth.”

When he held her hair and pinned her head to the ground, he shouted, “I will end this once and for all.”

Had it gotten any more serious, he later admitted, “I might have killed her.”

For the first time, it made the violence in elite urban families public and caused a strong social reaction. Kim refused to give any interviews, but when Old Fan sent her the footage we’d shot at the women’s prison, she agreed to talk to us. “I did not know that there were so many women living like this in China. If I stay silent, who will be there to protect my daughters?”

In the footage, I asked the female inmates, “When you testified in court, did you talk about the domestic abuse you suffered?”

They all said no.

No one bothered to ask them. The murder of a husband by an abused woman was considered ordinary murder, not “self-defense,” because it did not occur while the abuse was “ongoing” and the “abuse” was not considered a long-term process. During questioning, when an inmate wanted to talk about how her years of marriage had been, the prosecutor would interrupt her: “Are we here to listen to your life story? Get to the part where you murdered someone!”

After being assaulted, Kim Lee reported it to the police. A police officer tried to dissuade her: “You know, this isn’t America.” She said, “Of course, but there must be a law in China that says men can’t go around beating up women.” He said, “You’re right, men can’t beat up women, but husbands can beat up wives.”

10 July 2024

No Peace Dividend for Japan's Navy

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle pp. 145-147:

While Japan’s participation in UN operations constituted a dramatic change in defense policy, it was not the only change. A number of unforeseen circumstance were converging in the post-Cold War age, some in Japan’s favor, others not.

In the early 1990s predictions abounded that the U.S. economy would falter without the huge Cold War expenditures on defense. But after a brief recession in 1992 the U.S. economy boomed while it was the Japanese economy that stalled. The stock market was depressed, GNP stagnated, and commercial bank debt mounted to alarming levels. The United States sought a “peace dividend” from the Cold War’s end and cut defense spending. Japan did not.

While the United States drew down its navy, its intelligence operations, and its active duty army divisions, Japan continued to spend at its Cold War pace for several years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 1994 its defense budget had increased in constant dollars by almost a third over what it was in 1984. In 1995, the government made some cuts not because it apprehended a favorable change in the strategic environment but because the economy was stalled and the budget pressures were irresistible. Even so, the cuts were minimal. The maximum number of troops authorized for the ground forces was cut to 145,000 from 185,000. Since the GSDF only employed 150,000 and not the maximum of 185,000, the effect of the cut was small. The maritime forces retired the oldest vessels and gave up the equivalent of just one escort division consisting of a few destroyers and some antisubmarine aircraft. The air forces eliminated one F-4 fighter squadron. Not only did Japan not draw down its forces significantly but its relative strength in force stood out all the more starkly against the background of international change in defense postures—the most significant being the deterioration of Russia’s Pacific fleet.

For many years the old Soviet fleet continued to be regarded in official reports as large and potent but unofficial reports suggested otherwise. Sailors were underfed and in ill health, while ships were undermanned. Many had left or deserted the service and had not been replaced. Supplies, including fuel, had become tenuous and supply officers corrupt. The ships deployed less and less frequently and confined their exercises to local waters. Repairs were not made as spare parts were scarce. Not only were some ships not sea-worthy but some had sunk at their moorings. Since it takes many years and great efforts to build an effective navy, it was less and less likely that the Russian fleet could recover. By the end of the decade, Japan had sixty principle surface combatants compared to forty-five for Russia’s Pacific fleet. Neither fleet had an aircraft carrier.

As the demise of the Russian fleet became more obvious, analysts scrutinized Chinese naval forces more closely. Many suggested that China had hegemonic ambitions and its naval force, the PLAN, was growing quickly. The U.S. assistant secretary of defense asserted, “the Chinese are determined, through concealment and secrecy, to become the great military power in Asia.”

09 July 2024

Japanese Navy in the Persian Gulf, 1990

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle p. 143:

Japan’s final contributions [to the 1990 war on Iraq] totaled $13 billion. Only three countries had spent more: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Japan had also frozen Iraqi assets and embargoed Iraqi oil. And its initial financial commitment in August of 1990 beat Germany’s announcement by ten days. Nonetheless, it was, as critics had charged, largely “checkbook diplomacy,” which incurred no substantial risk to the Japanese people.

The deployment of minesweepers, even after the hostilities were over, was a signal departure from the policies of the past. [Prime Minister] Kaifu was forced to deploy them without the aid of any legislation from the Diet, claiming that they were not going to a war zone but would be in international waters, merely clearing obstacles for international shipping. It would take some time for the Japanese public and the parliament to come around. The LDP leaders believed, however, that if the minesweeping mission was successful, the public would support a substantial change in defense policy and allow the SDF to be deployed on other missions.

Six ships and a crew of 511 made the trip to the Persian Gulf. The vessels were small but relatively modern. The largest of the six was a ship-tender of 8,000 tons. The mine warfare ships were just 510 tons and did indeed have wooden hulls. But then, recent minesweepers all had wooden hulls as a precaution against magnetic devices.

The minesweepers probably would not have been more useful had they been sent sooner. Before the UN deadline expired, little minesweeping was done because the allied commander did not want to risk touching off an early confrontation. After the deadline expired, minesweeping was mainly to give the appearance that the allies might make an amphibious assault on the Kuwaiti coast. Japan might have joined the allied minesweepers somewhat sooner but even its arrival in late May was useful. Iraq had dropped over a thousand mines in a long swath off the Kuwaiti coast. It took more than two dozen minesweepers and ten support ships from eight different countries over four months to clean up the mess.

According to a map in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Museum in Kure (near Hiroshima), Japan itself laid 55,347 mines to defend its perimeter: 15,474 along the Tokai and southwestern island chain, 14,927 in the northern Honshu and Shikoku regions, 10,012 along the coast of Kyushu, 7,640 along the south coast of Korea and across the Yellow Sea, and 7,294 around Taiwan.

The same map shows that the U.S. laid most of its 10,703 naval mines in the Inland Sea and along the Japan Sea coast (to destroy economic supply routes). When we visited the museum in 2015, a total of 297 American naval mines from World War Two remained unaccounted for. Mine disposal efforts continue to this day.

08 July 2024

Japanese Navy in the Korean War

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle pp. 110-111:

When the Japanese withdrew from the Korean peninsula in 1945, the allies had split Korea into north and south, allowing the Soviets to set up a Stalinist protégé to head a communist government in the north. Meanwhile, the Western allies installed a proto-constitutional regime in the south. On June 25, 1950, the Soviet-armed North surprised and quickly overran the South. The North Korean army took the capital, Seoul, in a matter of days and advanced down the peninsula in a matter of weeks. It was stopped only ninety miles from the Strait of Tsushima by U.S. and South Korean forces desperately defending the last perimeter and using Japan as their rear base of supply and air operations.

The strategic importance of Japan to the United States and vice versa seemed to crystallize. For Japan the tables had turned completely. Rather than being the strong man of Asia, bullying its way over the Asian mainland, it was prostrate at the feet of the allies, a small archipelago on the edge of a vast continent dominated by large, aggressive powers, protected only by its erstwhile rival for Pacific power, the United States. For the United States, Japan ceased to be the demon of the Pacific and was a strategically invaluable outpost on the far side of the world’s largest ocean on the edge of the Asian expanses. Indeed, the conqueror of Japan, the supreme allied commander and a student of Asian history, took a page from Japanese military history in launching the most audacious amphibious counterattack on Korea, the “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan” as it had been called a century earlier. Landing in Inchon in mid-September precisely where the Japanese had landed in 1904, MacArthur drove his forces to Seoul in ten days, cutting off North Korean troops that had overrun the length and breadth of the peninsula. His reenactment of the Japanese landing in Inchon exceeded in speed, audacity, and effectiveness any and all of the many amphibious attacks in the Pacific during the war. Vital to the plan was the proximity of Japan, which provided a rear base for troops and supplies, safe ports for naval vessels, and air fields for fighters and bombers. But Japan’s participation in this war was more than just a passive staging area for U.S. operations.

Japanese minesweepers operating now under the auspices of the Maritime Safety Agency were called into service for the United States in late 1950 to clear North Korean harbors of mines sowed by the North Koreans. The United States was woefully short of both minesweepers and experienced crews, and the deficit could not be made up by any of the other fourteen UN member nations taking part in the fight. In fact, “there was only one expertly trained and large minesweeping force in the world qualified to do the job, the forces of the Maritime Safety Agency.” Unbeknownst to the Japanese public at the time, Japanese crews operated in foreign waters, in a war zone, against an undeclared enemy regardless of Article 9 of the constitution.

I first heard about Japanese minesweepers from two grizzled characters, one very talkative, the other very taciturn, whom we met on a beach in Tsuruga in 2011. The taciturn man had been a Japanese Navy captain in command of a minesweeper recruited by the U.S. Navy, according to his loquacious companion. That's where I learned the Japanese word for 'naval mine': 魚雷 gyorai lit. 'fish-thunder', which more commonly refers to torpedoes, as in 魚雷艇 gyoraitei 'torpedo boat'. (Torpedoes are also called "fish" in anglophone sailor slang.)

07 July 2024

Japan vs. Germany in the Pacific

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle pp. 80-84:

The European war that began in August 1914 was more than European. Though it was the great European powers that immolated themselves in both victory and defeat, the war was fought around the globe and had immediate consequences for Asia and Japan.

The requirements of the European war were such that Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had to redeploy the troops maintaining their empires in Asia to the European theater of war. At the same time, they all wanted to defend those parts of their empires they could while depriving the enemy of his. Japan was Germany’s foe in this war and a very useful ally of Britain. The war was the final denouement of the tsarist regime in Russia and, when the Bolshevik Revolution had run its course, it would present Japan with a new, virulent, and formidable neighboring regime. Moreover, the successful Marxist revolution in Russia would embolden the nascent communist party in China just as the Bolshevik regime would aid and abet the Chinese revolutionaries who would one day make their own revolution and reshape Japan’s geopolitical reality. In the meanwhile, it was Japan that had an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the geopolitical contours of Asia.

Japan entered the war without hesitation on the side of Britain, sending an ultimatum to Germany on August 15 demanding that Germany withdraw all naval forces from Asian waters, disarm those not withdrawn, and turn over to Japan the whole of Germany’s Chinese territory. A week later, Japan blockaded the German-controlled port of Tsingtao and in early September Japan landed a force in order to assault the port from the rear. By November 7, 1914, Japan had taken the base at Tsingtao. At the same time, Japan also took over Germany’s other Pacific territories and bases, including the Marshall Islands, the Mariana Islands, Palau, and the Caroline Islands, prizes Japan kept as rewards for its participation in the war against Germany. The former German possessions gave Japan’s navy an orientation very different than it had before. Japan’s armed forces were arrayed across the Sea of Japan to China and the continent and, for the first time, had far-flung bases and possessions southward and eastward across the world’s largest ocean.

It is a common view of historians that Japan’s participation in the war was solely to further its territorial ambitions. A typical summary of the period opines that “the Japanese Empire was keen to make the most of the golden opportunity which Germany’s occupation with European events provided. . . . She proceeded to seize every Germany territory in the Pacific she could lay her hands on.” Doubtless this view comes from the Twenty-One Demands that Japan made on China—actually a series of memos that pressed the Chinese to give to Japan the same concessions they had given to Germany, plus several additional ones. The memos put Japan at odds with the United States, which was lamely arguing to restore China’s territorial integrity. In fact, the memoirs of Germany’s Kaiser, written after the war, support this view: “the rapid rise of Tsing-tao as a trading center aroused the envy of the Japanese. . . . Envy prompted England in 1914 to demand that Japan should take Tsing-tao. . . . Japan did this joyfully.”

Yet few history books note Japan’s contributions to the allied effort against Germany. All the great powers, most especially the United States, were apprehensive about Japan’s potential to become the dominant power not only in China but in the Pacific. Germany even briefly tried to pit the anxieties of the North American power against Japan in an effort to save Germany’s Pacific possessions. Britain too was ambivalent about Japan, first demanding that Japan enter the war immediately, then trying to limit the scope of Japan’s operations. But it must be said that Japan adhered to both the letter and spirit of the alliance it had made with Great Britain. In addition to joining the war immediately and taking Germany’s Asian bases, Japan served a number of other roles. First, Japan’s navy helped Britain drive German warships from the Pacific. The Japanese Imperial navy also allowed Britain, and later the United States, to minimize their forces in the Pacific, freeing those ships for duty in waters surrounding Europe. Further, Japan escorted convoys of troops and war materials from the British dominions in the Pacific to Europe—no small task in an era of mine and submarine warfare. Meanwhile, Japanese yards produced both ships of war and merchantmen for British allies. And beginning in 1917, Japan sent two flotillas of destroyers to the Mediterranean Sea to assist Britain in antisubmarine operations and escort troop transports. In the Mediterranean theater alone, the Imperial navy had thirty-two engagements with submarines and escorted a total of 788 allied ships.

One of the few who gave Japan its due was Winston Churchill, who served as Britain’s first lord of the admiralty and wrote a prodigious history of the war. To him Japan was “another island empire situated on the other side of the globe” and “a trustworthy friend.” Similarly, Lord Grey, who served as Britain’s foreign secretary, wrote that “Japan was for us for many, many years a fair, honorable, and loyal Ally.” Nonetheless, when the time came for postwar negotiations, Churchill and Grey were out of office and Britain had obligations to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, who had all given Britain their firm support in the war.

The Australians and New Zealanders, chips off the Anglo block, were alarmed by Japan’s reach in the Pacific at the war’s end in 1918, and equally aware of Britain’s diminished naval strength. They insisted Japan give up any of the former German holdings south of the equator. Likewise, the United States apprehended Japan, its navy, and its extensive Pacific outposts as a maritime rival and a potential threat to free trade in Asia. As a result, Japan, the United States, Britain, and its oceanic dominions now found themselves in a peculiar geographical and political puzzle.

Japan was Britain’s ally, had built a formidable navy, and had acquired far-flung Pacific bases. Australia and New Zealand were dependable British dominions but strongly preferred to have their security guaranteed by the motherland rather than by Japan. The United States never had a peacetime alliance with Britain, but Britain valued U.S. friendship, and the two democratic, commercial, naval powers sat astride the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, Japanese and American interests and possessions in the Pacific were not separated by any discernible boundary and the two powers viewed each other as rivals. The Americans also insisted on an “Open Door” trading policy in China but Japan clearly had gained the upper hand over the Europeans in that chaotic country.

The Americans had some reason to be concerned about Japan’s new position in the northwest Pacific. Japan had been consolidating its control in southern Manchuria and Korea, had taken over Shantung, and had won most of its twenty-one demands from China. The Open Door policy, the idea that outside powers would compete on equal terms in China and respect its sovereignty, was seriously threatened by Japan’s increasingly advantageous position. Government in China was becoming ever more fragmented and corrupt.

The American government also had domestic pressures to deal with in regard to Asian policy. Navalists saw British power fading and Japanese power expanding. The trend seemed to be toward Japanese dominance in the Pacific. Likewise, American traders wanted the government to take a more aggressive stance that would give them some advantage—or at least, not put them at such a disadvantage in Asia in general and in China in particular. Christian missionaries were also keen to set to work on the vast populations now accessible to their gospel. But worst of all, and most outspoken, the racist Anti-Immigration League in California made barring Japanese immigrants from schools, jobs, and property the sine qua non of their agenda and, consequently, of California politics. The Californians now found allies in various anti-immigration societies in the eastern United States as well as in worker unions and even in recent European immigrants who feared the Asians would not only drive down wages but take their jobs. Thus, the nascent Japanese-American rivalry found expression even at the level of local politics.

Complicating matters further, the Western allies, including Japan, still had troops in Siberia. Their intervention there was a confused, fruitless, and embarrassing attempt to stave the Bolshevik Revolution, or rescue the Czech freedom fighters, or prop up an alternative government, or prevent the massive resources of Siberia from falling into somebody else’s hands, or something similar. Everyone, except perhaps the Japanese, was ready to leave Siberia but not so willing to leave first and allow Japan a free hand. Consequently, the peace conference at the palace Versailles was an infamous mess.

06 July 2024

Japan & Britain as Island Societies

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle pp. 16-17:

The consequences of Japan’s relative position to Asia are at least as important as those that stem from its topography. Though classified as part of Asia, the archipelago stands off the Asian continent anywhere from a hundred to several hundred miles. This physical separation from Asia minimized influences from the continent on the Japanese population and allowed Japanese culture and politics to develop relatively independently. Indeed, this physical separation is the primary reason so many observers have emphasized the unique character of things Japanese.

Even so, Japan is not the only example of an island-nation removed from continental civilization. Great Britain is in a similar position, and it is worth comparing Japan’s placement off the northeast coast of continental Asia to that of Britain off the northwest coast of Europe. Both Britain and Japan had the geographical advantage of being insulated by the sea. For both continental Europeans and continental Asians, the difficulties of navigation made travel to and from the islands hazardous and limited for many centuries. Consequently, both Japan and Britain were at the periphery of continental politics for those centuries. The insulating sea made Britain and Japan naturally defensible. The sea also offered both of them an avenue to the rest of the world and made them both, eventually, trading and maritime nations.

The stark difference in this comparison is how far Japan was from the Asian continent as compared to how far Britain was from its neighbors. Japan and England were both insulated from their continental neighbors but Japan was more than insulated, it was also isolated by the seas that surrounded it. The English had the advantage of a natural defensive moat but could easily traverse the moat to communicate and trade with their cross-channel neighbors and, by the same token, were not immune to the political machinations of those neighbors. The core of the English population was physically oriented toward the continent: the great city of London grew up on the Thames River, which flowed into the Channel between England and France. But on the other side of the globe, travel from Japan to the mainland was a much more difficult affair because the distances were so much greater. Further, the Japanese population did not live facing the continent but on the side opposite, facing away (toward the Americas in fact): Japan’s great fertile plains were on the Pacific Ocean and on the Inland Sea, not the Sea of Japan. Thus, the island-bound English developed into international traders, explorers, and empire builders much sooner than did the island-bound Japanese.

The twin geographical influences of insulation and isolation have been greatly modified by modern modes of transportation and communication, but Japan’s history reflects the way it was both insulated from attack and isolated from cultural, economic, and political transactions.

It is interesting that two of Japan's first three railway lines were built to connect to ports on the Japan Sea, facing Asia. The first railway connected Tokyo to the major port city of Yokohama, but the next two connected Sapporo to Otaru and Osaka to Tsuruga (including one segment by boat across Lake Biwa). 

05 July 2024

Prudence of Tokugawa Isolation

From Geography and Japan's Strategic Choices: From Seclusion to Internationalization, by Peter J. Woolley (Potomac Books, 2005), Kindle pp. 43-46:

Events outside Japan in the seventeenth century emphasized the prudence of the Tokugawa seclusion. This was the Age of Expansion—and not just for Europeans. In China, the Ming Dynasty was coming to an end at the hands of the Manchus, people the Ming once ruled. The Manchus gained control of Inner Mongolia before moving south and taking Manchuria and then Korea in 1637. They took the capital, Beijing, in 1644, prompting the Ming emperor to commit suicide. They spent the rest of the century subduing the remainder of China, defeating the last resistance in Taiwan in 1683. They would later add to their empire Outer Mongolia (1697) and Tibet (1720) to make the largest Chinese empire in history.

India had expanded to, then fallen victim to the expansion of others. The Mogul emperors had consolidated the vast subcontinent under their rule, adding the last big piece, Afghanistan, in 1581. By the end of the next century, however, the government had fallen into decline. Its infighting and inefficiency would eventually weaken and divide India to the point where the British could become the real rulers.

In Russia, Ivan the Terrible was creating an empire at the same time as Japan had been fighting its civil wars. Russians crossed the Ural Mountains into Asia and by 1584 had defeated the Tatars. They went on to colonize Siberia over the next several decades, reaching the Pacific Ocean by 1639, thereby becoming neighbors of Japan.

The Europeans continued to explore, conquer, and settle. In contrast to Tokugawa’s stable Japan, a chaotic Thirty Years’ War began in 1618 between Catholics and Protestants, which slowly engulfed the European continent. By its end, Germany was in ruins and hundreds of thousands were dead from disease, famine, and massacre. The Tokugawa strategy of seclusion then seemed like the wise choice. The only question was how long it could last.

The 250 years between the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 and the first American attempt to force Japan to abandon its seclusion in 1853 were not years of stagnation in or outside Japan. In Japan there was political stability but also long-term trends toward urbanization and bureaucratization. A middle class of merchants emerged: people who accumulated wealth but did not necessarily control land. Nor did they have the same obligations and restrictions as the government and ruling class.

To be sure, there was more change taking place outside Japan than there was within. Much of this change would impinge sooner or later on Japan’s foreign policy as well as its domestic harmony. While most writers focus on the technological changes of the era, social, political, and intellectual changes were just as important. If Europe’s seventeenth century was the Age of Expansion, its eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, which laid the foundations not only of modern science but of democratic conceptions of government as well. Notions such as the divine right of kings, raison d’état, and the innate superiority of a ruling class were on their way out. While Japan remained secluded in the fifth reign of its Tokugawa Shogunate, the English philosopher John Locke was publishing his Second Treatise on Civil Government, emphasizing the triune values of individual liberty, the sanctity of property, and equality under the law. Montesquieu’s treatise advocating a separation of government’s basic functions into separate institutions, De L’Esprit des lois, followed in 1748. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s appeal to the “general will” of the people in Le Contrat Social followed in 1762. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations argued the advantages of free trade in 1776. And James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay produced The Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788. These works presaged an Age of Revolution. But in Japan none of this would be discussed: the most influential philosophers were Kamo no Mabuchi, Motoori Norinaga, and Hirata Atsutane.

A small school of Japanese writers began both to lead a return to ancient Japanese literature and to critique Chinese influences on Japan—influences they deemed to be impure blots and accretions on Japanese culture. Thus, one curious effect of Japan’s self-imposed seclusion was that the Chinese became the foreigners. The philosophers advocated the revival of Shinto, an indigenous animistic religion in which many things, living and inanimate, had kami, or spirits. Hundreds of native folk tales were attached to Shintoism, many supporting the notion that Japan was the center of creation and the emperor was divinely appointed.

Shinto had been gradually eclipsed by Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, each of which made its way to Japan through Chinese and Korean missionaries as early as the sixth century. Kamo no Mabuchi (1697–1769) was, not coincidentally, the son of a Shinto priest and was most influential in attracting attention to and reverence for classic Japanese literature—literature that included Shinto mythology. Mabuchi was succeeded in his endeavor by a disciple, Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801). Motoori’s quest was to discover the true Japanese culture, now overlaid with so many foreign influences. He saw in Japan’s distant past an ideal society ruled by the descendents of Shinto deities— the emperors. His works and speeches became very popular. But his writing had more than nostalgic undertones. Demanding new reverence for the emperor was a subtle criticism of the Shogunate that ruled in the emperor’s name. And criticizing Confucianism was tantamount to criticizing the political leadership which not only had been schooled in Confucian thought but was— Motoori implied—subservient to China. And though the Shogun gave Motoori official honors, it was Motoori’s own disciple, Hirata, who drew the ultimate conclusion: that all gods were born in Japan and none outside, thus Japan and the Japanese were a category of creation all by themselves, one that was perfect and pure—when free from the corrupting influences of outsiders.

Hirata, born the same year that the Americans produced their Declaration of Independence, became the leader of a full-blown Shinto revivalist movement. That movement was subtly critical of the government, for which Hirata spent the last two years of his life under house arrest. Though he died before the opening of Japan, his disciples were later appointed to important posts in the government, bringing with them their ideas of Japanese cultural purity to the strategic conversation.

Perhaps fundamentalist ideas such as Shinto revivalism were also the result of the strange political climate in Japan. While politically stable and peaceful, social volatility threatened. Peace and stability had brought overpopulation and a recurring threat of famine, since trade was so severely restricted. This allowed merchant and artisan guilds, or kumi to monopolize a particular distribution, trade, or manufacture. The leaders of the kumi were rich and getting richer, and this naturally caused resentment in both the aristocratic class and the underclass. Women were feeling the brunt of a more and more regulated society under an increasingly fearful, conservative government: their dress, civic participation, businesses, and even leisure arts were more and more carefully proscribed. Meanwhile, the police were easily corrupted and the highest officials were profligate in their spending and increasingly arbitrary in their enforcement of laws. All of these consequences and benefits of seclusion would be starkly outlined when Japan was confronted by the need to reevaluate its strategy of seclusion.

04 July 2024

Pinpointing the SARS Ourbreak, 2003

From Seeing: A Memoir of Truth and Courage from China's Most Influential Television Journalist by Chai Jing, trans. by Yan Yan, Jack Hargreaves (Astra House, 2023), Kindle pp. 45-48, 50-51:

I wanted to go back to People’s Hospital [in Beijing], because I couldn’t stop thinking about the “courtyard problem.” By then, it’d become the site of one of the biggest and most difficult battles against SARS. Starting on April 5, about 222 people had been infected at the hospital, including ninety-three hospital staff across nearly half the departments. The emergency ward north of the outpatient wing was the most severely affected; that was where the courtyard was. On April 22, I had seen patients covered in white cloth being rolled out of there. Two days later, when our van passed by once more, the eighty-five-year-old hospital had just announced a full quarantine. Beyond the yellow quarantine tape, three nurses sat on the empty steps, holding their blue nurse’s caps. Their long wet hair was drying in the sun. As they sat in silence, one would occasionally comb her fingers through the hair hanging in front of her chest. Our van parked in front of the hospital for over ten minutes. Xiao Peng pointed his camcorder at them from a distance.

I felt that there must be a correlation between the twenty-nine patients I’d witnessed being transferred without proper protection and the high rate of infection now sweeping the hospital. I wanted to know more about what had happened. No one asked me to work on the story. I wasn’t even sure if I could make it at all, let alone get it on the air, but my team was willing to work with me....

I ended up getting an interview with Zhu Jihong, the director of the emergency ward. He confessed to me that, at the time of transfer, the twenty-nine patients I’d counted were all in fact infected with SARS. In fact, the emergency ward had already been battling known cases since April 5. But rather than report the cases, the real numbers were hidden from the World Health Organization when they came to inspect the hospital. The patients had been transferred to ambulances that drove around Beijing in circles until the inspectors left.

I’d spent a long time convincing Zhu Jihong to accept the interview. I said, “You don’t need to make any judgments or draw any conclusions, just describe what you saw, heard, and felt, that’s all.”

After a long pause on the phone, he said, “The memory is too painful.”

“Of course,” I said, “but pain can be cathartic, consolation for one’s sacrifices.”

Zhu Jihong led me through the emergency ward corridor. He leaned over, undid the heavy chain lock, and pushed the door open. He reached for the wall with his left hand and after some flickering the lights turned on. In the ashen light, the classroom-sized space was filled with blue IV chairs tagged with white labels that read: April 17, Thursday; April 17, Thursday

The beds were littered with rumpled blankets, some of which had fallen to the ground. Chairs were upturned, four feet in the air, left there by people fleeing for their lives.

This was the courtyard I had been hearing so much about. It was a space wedged between four buildings. With the addition of a roof, it had become an indoor space, sealed off from traffic in the rest of the hospital. They’d used it as the IV room, where all the patients with fevers came to receive their drips. Twenty-seven beds sat shoulder to shoulder with only the space of a fist between them. Every day, almost sixty people had sat tightly together on the beds and among a few chairs. Even during the daytime, the room completely depended on artificial lighting. There was no airflow, no windows, only a ventilation panel connected to the central air conditioning system, which spread the germs across the whole hospital.

The patient files that piled up in a mound on a desk were yellowing with age. I hesitated for a second. Zhu Xuhong said with a dismal smile, “Allow me.” He opened the files, which said pneumonia. He pointed toward a blackboard. Next to the twenty-two names written in white chalk, nineteen read: pneumonia, pneumonia, pneumonia

“In fact, it was SARS,” he said.

Even the patients had not known. It was like a taboo. No one in the hospital had even called SARS by its name. They’d called it “that thing.” The first patient had come in on April 5. The doctors suspected she was a SARS patient after seeing her chest radiograph. But the government announced that all cases were from outside Beijing. All public hospitals are managed by the government. And according to the standards for diagnosis and treatment in Beijing, the doctors could only diagnose someone who had a history of direct contact with a confirmed infected person.


On April 22, Zeng Guang, the chief scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention examined this hospital. He said, “When buildings are about to collapse, escaping is the only choice.” Two days later, People’s Hospital quarantined. Zhang Wenkang, the minister of health, was fired, and within one week, the army built the biggest field medical hospital in Beijing. There were 686 SARS cases there, almost one-tenth of all global cases.

03 July 2024

Journalism: Telling Whose Story?

From Seeing: A Memoir of Truth and Courage from China's Most Influential Television Journalist by Chai Jing, trans. by Yan Yan, Jack Hargreaves (Astra House, 2023), Kindle pp. 4-5:

I never wanted to be a news reporter. Journalism remained a monopoly when I began building my career. For a long time all Chinese people watched the same program, Joint News, on CCTV, which contained countless political meetings and aired every night at seven P.M. For me, all it meant was the start of dinnertime. The only CCTV program I watched was Oriental Horizon. What impressed me was the candid state of people’s lives on screen, full of struggles in a rapidly changing society, conflicting desires that led to inevitable consequences. I watched it as a work of art, not just as news. The slogan of these stories was “Telling the ordinary people’s own story.” After being ignored for a long time, ordinary people in a fast-rising society became protagonists on a national television station.

Chen Meng, a man who had never been trained by any official news school, created a slogan in 1993 to express the goal of China’s journalism reform at the time: “Turning propaganda into communication.” In the beginning, CCTV asked the program to “serve people” by teaching them how to cook. But when Chen Meng became a producer, he said, “If we serve people, we serve their spiritual life.” He put life in a shell. Chen Meng invited me to join CCTV in 2000. Since I was a young girl who hadn’t studied any news textbooks, he asked me to learn the principles of journalism from life: from the pain, joy, struggle, and bloody lessons of people in general and myself in particular.

Fourteen years later, I quit my job, went back to freelancing. I used what I had learned, and used some royalties from the book I’d published (which you’re now holding in your hands) to make a nonprofit documentary about air pollution in China. On February 28, 2015, I put it online. It got over three hundred million views before being removed seven days later. I left China then, and have been living in Europe ever since.

For those fourteen years, working at CCTV gave me the opportunity to travel to different places over a hundred and fifty days a year, to see my country, which was changing dramatically, and understand the trajectory of that change. What I saw showed me that China’s development depends on its ability to free people’s creativity from unnecessary shackles. It can explain the country’s stagnation, and it can also explain the country’s success; it can explain the past, and it will explain the future.

Chen Meng never told me why he chose me until he became seriously ill. The last time we talked in the hospital, he told me that eight years prior he had seen a young girl talking on TV. He didn’t remember what she had said and didn’t check her background, but he thought, “This girl has many flaws, but there is one thing about her I value—she doesn’t follow blindly.”

That was when he called me.

02 July 2024

Journalism in China & Taiwan, 1990s

From Seeing: A Memoir of Truth and Courage from China's Most Influential Television Journalist by Chai Jing, trans. by Yan Yan, Jack Hargreaves (Astra House, 2023), Kindle pp. 1-4:

My mom bought a radio for me when I was sixteen. I found out I could hear broadcasts from Taiwan. Listening to “enemy radio” had been illegal for a long time. One of my father’s colleagues had been tortured as a spy in the 1960s, when there was hostility between Taiwan and mainland China, for breaking this law. He ended up cutting his own throat with a razor.

The way the hosts spoke surprised me. They didn’t read from a script or talk like official spokespeople. They shared literature, music, plays, and jokes. One time one of them even went out to her balcony and described how beautiful the sunset was. I’d never experienced such a thing in any media before. I learned to make my own tape, telling stories to myself, in my lonely girlhood.

In 1994, while studying at a railway college in Hunan Province, I took one of those tapes to Hunan People’s Broadcasting Station to look for a summer job. I was too naïve to know that there was no possibility for a student like me to work at a state-controlled media network. The state allocated jobs to everyone. My role was decided already, as an accountant working at the 17th Railway Bureau. The head of the station told me to leave. However, after listening to my tape, the radio host Shang Neng offered me a half hour in his program. He was famous enough to be able to fight against his boss’s disapproval. All state-controlled stations needed money to survive after the 1992 economic reforms—when China set the goal of establishing a socialist market system, opening the gate to the outside world—and Shang Neng attracted a lot of commercials for them.

One year later, in 1995, I signed a contract with the radio station by winning an open competition. It was the first time the station had selected staff through an open market and fair competition. Thinking that a contract meant a job that was only temporary, my mother wrote a harsh letter to warn me of what I might lose if I gave up my state-allocated railway job: my house, hukou, social benefits, safety. In short, all she had had to struggle for her entire life. I didn’t write back to her. Living in a society with a long history of collectivism, we rarely talk about our personal feelings at home, and this was especially true after a period of excessive politicization where the idea of individual humanity was seen as “spiritual pollution.” It was hard to tell my mom that, for me, a job was a spiritual human bond. People wrote to me and I read their letters on the radio; it was a human bond. There were long-suppressed voices that wanted to be heard, and I was there. I did nothing but listen, yet the hole in my life was filled by strangers. More than making a living, I was alive.

In 1999, in order to survive, all the stations—radio and television alike—had to produce programs that spoke to people’s needs. New Youth, a program on Hunan TV, invited me to be their host, and my job was to interview young people who brought sharp ideas to different fields. This was during China’s explosive economic growth, and I realized these people had one thing in common: instead of destroying the old, they built the new where creativity was most unfettered. Life itself has to grow, and where there is a gap, there is a way out. I ended up writing their story as well, including the parts that the station cut, to provide a fuller picture for the magazines. The media market was expanding quickly and competitively around 2000, so it had been to my advantage to work freely, and not sign a contract with the TV station. As one of the first generation media freelancers, I got a taste of what it was like to be independent. Like the rock-and-roll star Cui Jian sang, “As long as I have a pen, no one can stop me.”

28 June 2024

Khmer Villagers vs. Forced Migrants

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 211-213:

When we first arrive in the village, I give my personal history as a widower separated from his wife, hoping to be able to stay in the village and have the possibility of planting some food to send to my brother, who is required to go to the front lines (in the youth mobile unit). However, quite the contrary, in this village we have no possessions whatsoever. We are only temporary people. Even the place where we sleep is temporary.

The owners of the house stare at us like we are creatures of Hell risen up to dwell beside them. They loathe us. They never invite us up into the house to visit.

On the day of our arrival, it just so happens that there is a large rainstorm, so kingkuok toads come out here and there to catch food. The toads in this area are strangely large, even larger than toads in the river country. We catch the toads for food. The owners of the house find this very odd, and Mother Lam says to us, “Damn, you children eat such awful food! The people who came before you never ate such things as you folks. It’s disgusting! Hey! Bury the skins far away, don’t throw them into my mulberry bushes!”

Indeed, the people of this area are very clean. Never mind the toads—they won’t even eat little frogs caught in the village. They will only eat frogs caught out in the rice fields. But we are filthy people, eating anything. Some even go so far as to eat earthworms. The earthworms in this place are also strangely large, as thick as my pinky and as long as twenty-five to thirty centimeters. They call them traok earthworms.

After leaving the jungle, we thought we had escaped from worry. But after coming to live with the base people, we have emotional issues, trouble sleeping, trouble eating, trouble relieving ourselves. Having just arrived, we do not yet know the proper order of things, and we don’t know where to find a latrine, so we dig holes and defecate among the mulberry bushes. They scold us so loudly it can be heard throughout the village, and then they take us to the cooperative chairman to be “built.” Have we no shame!? The jungle people come into society and can’t do anything right—not even shit.


Back when we lived in the jungle with other people of the same “ministerial” [kongsey < Fr. conseil for colonial administrator, therefore urban] class as ourselves, when we all got full or starved together, we never suffered emotional hurt. But coming to live with the “capitalist” [figuratively, the base people, not the new people, but separate from the kongsey] class is emotionally painful. We collect our rice rations at the appointed rate of half a can apiece, while they collect a different amount. We bring bowls to collect the rice, while they bring baskets. They eat rice for every meal, while we eat only phek porridge (porridge mixed with leaves).

When we fall sick with a fever and ask to rest, they say it is “consciousness sickness” [psychosomatic or faked illness due to prerevolutionary mindsets], and they taunt us, saying that it is because we are so lazy that we can’t find anything to eat. The others can get sick as often as they like, and when they do, they are tasked with fishing with nets. We are the only ones they send out on mobile units, while the others cool their heels back at the village. Only a week after arriving at this village, my younger brother Samorn is once again assigned to the district’s young men’s mobile unit at the Kok Rumchek worksite.

One evening, as we are busy transplanting rice seedlings, we are suddenly sent back to the village to prepare for departure on a mobile work detail. We are not led by any of the base people, but are instead driven off like cattle, without a grain of rice or salt for rations. They tell us that clothing, shoes, and rice have already been prepared for us in Phnom Srok. At dusk we enter Phnom Srok and have no idea where to find clothing, shoes, or rice. It’s not until very late at night that we finally get some uncooked rice to make porridge with. In the morning we are sent away again with no directions and no assignment.

27 June 2024

Khmer Rouge Fertilizer Crews

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 201-203:

The piles of ash on the farm are all used up now. The fertilizer unit makes its own ashes to mix with the excrement. Making ashes is not an easy task; we must fell large trees, saw them into pieces, carry them and place them into piles, and then light fires to burn them. Now the fertilizer unit has been divided into three teams: the ash makers, the excrement carriers, and the fertilizer mixers.

I and Bong Sae, my group leader (a former teacher in Kampong Speu province), who both have similar wounds, are placed in the excrement carrying team. This team has four people: Bong Sae, Bong Phon, Bong Him, and me. We stop using bangky baskets to carry the excrement because we find two wooden buckets, each attached to a board. We carry one bucket between two people. It’s very difficult because we can’t breathe without taking in the stench, but our labor is not as rigorous as that of the ash makers.

Each morning we carry the buckets from the fertilizer shed and scoop the excrement out of the latrines from one end of the village to the other and then back again. In the morning, we must carry four buckets, and another four buckets in the evening. At first, we are reluctant out of sheer disgust. Then after doing it every day, our noses get tighter, and we grow accustomed to the stench. After scooping the excrement into the buckets, those who smoke sit and have a smoke to gather their strength. I’m not a smoker, so I walk around and look at the villagers’ huts, observing the lives of each family. Only we, the excrement carriers, have the possibility of becoming so intimately familiar with the real lives of the villagers.

We go from one latrine to the next, from one hut to the next. The shit from this latrine is like the shit from that one, their shit is like my shit. All of it is dark green colored like the leaves of trees, different from animal droppings only in that ours smells worse. Before we had latrines, we relieved ourselves in the fields. When they encountered our excrement now and then, the base people would say, “human tracks, but animal shit.” Only the excrement of the cadres, the chhlops [lit. 'spies': monitors and enforcers], the cooperative chief, and the soldiers has a natural color. If any of the people’s latrines has fresh excrement with a color like that of an animal, it is certain that last night they had rice or corn to eat. If they didn’t trade for it, then they must have stolen some corn from someone’s field.

Some latrines have a decent amount of excrement, while others hardly have anything at all to scoop out—even if we only come by once a week. It’s because the owner is down sick and has no leaves to eat, so there’s not much excrement to produce. At each hut we see illness and suffering. Tears, pus, blood, clear fluid from sores, all flowing and mixing together. When I never saw anybody besides myself, I used to think that I suffered the worst. But after seeing others around me, I am surprised. Most of the people in the village are suffering as badly as I am. Some even have it worse than I do: they have no family, but are left to suffer in illness, all alone.

Some days, the excrement carriers postpone scooping excrement for a while to help carry a dead body to be buried. We cut wild bamboo and split it into strips about a meter-eighty in length, then we use dah kun, yeav, or preng vines to weave the strips into a lattice to wrap the corpse in (instead of a coffin) and carry it to be buried. Some corpses have grass mats to be wrapped in, while other corpses have nothing at all but these bamboo lattices. The four of us don’t know any proper religious rites, so we simply bury the corpses straight, like we would any other thing. And we are not afraid of the corpses either, for we have become the village corpse buriers, and we are as accustomed to this work as we are to the smell of excrement.

Those with strength are sent out on mobile assignments away from the village, and those who are ill nearby have no strength to carry the corpses to be buried. So it falls to the excrement carriers. Every two or three days we have a body to carry off and bury.

There is no special place for burying bodies. We usually bury them in the forest behind the houses of the dead, a distance of only about 100 or 150 meters.

24 June 2024

Khmer Jungle Hospital

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 157-158:

All the patients at the hospital are Life Slaves; there are no base people mixed in. Some people have the shivers, some have swelling, some have dysentery, some have skin lesions. These are the types of illnesses common during this so-called revolutionary era. Patients lie moaning and groaning day and night. Some patients with no hope of survival have been abandoned here by their families to lie alone, sick and moaning. Some of them have siblings or a spouse to sit with them, help them relieve themselves, and bring them food or water.

We can’t tell who are the medics and who are the soldiers. They all wear the same black clothing and black caps with silk kramas around their necks. The medics don’t watch the patients. They are at their own place over near the dining hall all the time. At about nine in the morning, three or four of them walk over to poke their heads in and check on us. In the afternoon, at about three o’clock, they come again. If a patient dies in the night, the body lies with us until morning. If a patient dies during the day, only after one of the patients goes to tell the medics will they quickly take the body away to be buried. They have no medical supplies or equipment whatsoever. They don’t come by to treat the patients; they only check to see who is close to dying and who is not yet close to dying.

Contrary to what I had heard, there is not much medicine. I have been here for four or five days now and haven’t seen so much as a single pill. If there is medicine, it is mostly just “rabbit turd” pills. If liquid medicine, it is mostly clear or reddish-colored medicine in old soft-drink bottles.

Most of the medics are females who seem to have no medical expertise. One day they bring some foreign medicine to administer by injection to patients with shivering fever. They have ampules with the word QUINOBLEU written in French on the sides, containing a dark blue intravenous liquid. The female medics give me an injection. I feel excited to be so fortunate to be treated with foreign drugs. They turn my arms back and forth, left and right, forearms, wrists, looking for a vein. One of the female medics gives up and hands the task over to another medic. They trade off back and forth and after ten sticks still can’t find a vein. I am sick and just can’t take any more of this, and I beg them to stop sticking me. They don’t know how to give an injection or how to find a vein. I’ve lost my chance at the good medicine.

The two other patients who came with me from the village to stay in this hospital house are both gone now. One of the men, about my age, had a shivering fever but was still able to walk. He went back to the village after trying out the hospital for about two days. It’s better that he left anyway; if he had stayed, it would only have led to catching some other illness. Like me—when I left the village, I only had a shivering fever, but now I have swelling as well.

As for the other man (about forty years old), who had some swelling when he left the village, after he got to the hospital the swelling got worse. He came from the village alone, like me, without any wife or children accompanying him. He dies after sleeping at the hospital for nearly a week. I’m not able to go back to the village, but if I remain, the outcome is clear.

23 June 2024

Oxcarts Into the Khmer Jungle

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 141-143:

The sun rises dimly and the sounds of oxen calling moo! moo! moo! mixed with the sound of their wooden bells clack! clack! clack! and metal bells clang! clang! clang! awaken us from sleep. We are surrounded by hundreds of oxcarts pulled by small oxen. Other oxcarts hurriedly approach, churning up clouds of dust behind them. Where have they come from? Have they come to transport us? The answer becomes clear when we are ordered to board the carts and continue our journey onward.

Where are we going? They don’t tell us. They are a very secretive bunch. Trucks, trains, tractors—they never tell us where we are going. If we ask the cart drivers, they might as well not answer at all because we don’t know the area anyway. But we do know that they are taking us to a place where trucks and tractors can’t go. Damn! Maybe we really are going to eat the stones of the mountains. No, there are no mountains here. As Life Slaves [an epithet coined by the author to denote the “new people,” the class of people treated most harshly by the Khmer Rouge (though sometimes defined as everyone except the cadres); opposite: Life Masters; p. 644], we are prepared to accept our fate.

Last night we slept outside some village. Now the oxcarts take us over a wooden bridge across a large canal [the moat around the town] and into the village. We see a sign reading “Phnom Srok District Primary School.” When we arrive in the village, the locals—young and old, male and female—stand around in an orderly fashion watching us as though waiting to welcome a kathen tean parade [annual festival when clothing is donated to the monks]. Indeed, it’s a parade like none they’ve ever seen: hundreds of oxcarts, one after another.

The carts steer through the village and then back out again. We pass over a sandy road through rice fields and sparse trees. I think of my family moving from our house north of Wat Tuol Tumpung to the shores of Boeng Trabek more than nineteen years ago. We had ridden on an oxcart through fields of kantraeuy [Chrysopogon sp.] and barang [Urochloa sp.] grasses with small reang [Barringtonia sp.] and trah [Combretum sp.] trees growing here and there in clumps. At that time, I had ridden the cart with my mother. But now there is no mother on the cart with me. [She died of starvation.]

The small oxen struggle to pull the carts along the sandy road, making me feel particularly sorry for them. I ask the driver, “Father, why are the cows here so small?” “Nephew, this land can only support small cows like this. We can’t use the big ones because there is so little grass here that the cows have to eat prech leaves.” Prech leaves? What are prech leaves? I used to know of a novel (or maybe a movie) entitled The Hunter’s Trail, the Prech Buds. Prech must be in the jungle, where a hunter goes to hunt animals. This driver’s home village must be near the jungle. Are we going to live in his village?

After passing through the fields and forests for a while, we enter a village. It’s a fairly small village with dense stands of banana trees, coconut trees, papaya trees, and manioc [= tapioca] shrubs growing here and there. But we couldn’t even see it from very far away. The villagers are surprised at our presence, and they call out to each other and stand around staring at us.

The people of Phnom Srok had looked at us with familiar gazes, but these villagers look at us with amazement and wonder, as though they’ve never seen such a thing. Perhaps they’re as puzzled as we are, wondering where we are going.

I tap the driver and ask, “Uncle! What village is this?”

“This is Boh Sbov village, Nephew,” the cart driver replies. None of the cart drivers are soldiers or members of the Organization. They are all locals with oxen and carts who have been gathered from various villages to help transport us. After leaving the village, we again pass through rice fields, then through scattered clumps of trees, then through sparse trees, then through forests so wild they nearly overgrow the cart road, forests with tall thin trees. They are taking us into the jungle! Are they taking us to live in the jungle? We drive through a forest with large, tall trees and after a while the carts begin to stop one after the other, about ten or fifteen meters apart.

17 June 2024

Khmer Rouge Stated Goals

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 78-80:

One day, about a week after the groups and villages are organized, we receive an order to attend a meeting in Tuol Tnaot at 7 p.m. Each family is to send one representative. When we return from work in the evening, we hurriedly eat dinner and head out for the meeting at the appointed time.

Tonight is a new moon and there is no moonlight. We all sit on the ground in front of a wooden house with a tiled roof beside the highway, near the mouth of the road leading to Wat Don Sar. A small kerosene lamp has been lit and casts a flickering light on the meeting.

A revolutionary cadre dressed in black and wearing a black cap on his head and a krama around his neck comes and stands before us to announce the start of the meeting. We don’t know his name or his rank, and we can’t see his face clearly in the dark. He begins to speak:

“Greetings, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, who have just been evacuated from Phnom Penh. The Revolutionary Organization regrets taking so long to get you organized into groups and villages. Our Organization has faced many responsibilities and has been very busy. Now we have gotten you organized, so you ought to understand the political line of the Revolutionary Organization and the way of life in revolutionary society. The Revolutionary Organization has the political aim of annihilating all traces of the regime that ruled the country for sixteen years [Sihanouk, 1954-1970], as well as the five-year, one-month regime [Lon Nol, 1970-1975]. Therefore, anything in the image or spirit of these two regimes must be obliterated. Fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters who used to live under these two regimes, you must learn to align, temper, and build yourselves to become suitable as a revolutionary people.

“Cast off the morality of vice! The morality of exploitation! The morality of taking advantage of others! Obey the discipline of the Organization! Don’t be free! Don’t have your own opinions! Don’t be vague in your consciousness!

“Food will be distributed according to your labor. Those comrades who work will receive food. The Organization has no need for the lazy or the worthless!

“The wheel of history rolls forward! No one can stop the wheel of history! Whoever puts forth his arm will lose his arm! Whoever puts forth his leg will lose his leg…”

This is our first lesson. We hear them say nothing about returning to Phnom Penh. We hear only the words “revolution,” “annihilate,” “temper.” Now we see clearly: They don’t support Sihanouk’s royalist regime as Dad thought. They will squeeze us because we are the people of the two regimes that the Revolutionary Organization must annihilate.

14 June 2024

Khmer Rouge "Grandpa Snoopy"

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 76-78:

Starting now, a new administrative structure has been put in place: group, then village, then cooperative. All of the leaders are people who had been living in the liberated zones. My group is led by Pu Et. He is in his sixties, dark skinned, skinny, balding in front, with large eyes and curly hair, about a meter sixty in height. He was born here in Tuol Ampil. He has built a hut about seventy meters to the north of mine. The cooperative cadre who has taken charge of Tuol Ampil is called Phal, a man of about thirty-five who used to live at Boeng Trabek near my house and knows my parents very well.

We are a people who no longer have the freedom to move about or eat as we please. We have become workers who labor as we are ordered, in line with the aims of the Organization, at the appointed hours: from six until eleven o’clock in the morning, and from one in the afternoon until five o’clock in the evening. The Organization provides us with the necessities of survival: rice and salt. Occasionally, we receive a small portion of kerosene. We are to go and receive these supplies at the cooperative headquarters in Tuol Tnaot every day when we return from work at noon.

After the land is divided up, our corn ends up on the common land. We are worried that the Organization will confiscate these crops and make them common property.

I ask the cadre who comes to measure and divide the land, “Excuse me Brother, the corn that I planted before—is it still mine?”

“How much corn is it, Comrade?” the cadre asks.

“About twenty by thirty meters, Brother,” I answer.

“Oh, that’s nothing! You keep it and eat it,” the cadre reassures me. We stop fretting and once again our mouths have spit to swallow.

Each day Dad leads his two granddaughters, Sophal and A-Lin, by the hand to go sit and watch the corn so that cows don’t eat it. The corn is already starting to produce some ears. The rice that we transplanted with Mom in the water in front of the hut is starting to look nice. One day Pu Et, our group leader, comes to my family and says, “The Organization is taking your corn. Don’t touch it!”

This news causes all of us to lose heart and despair, especially my father. He says nothing, and he stops bothering to sit and watch the corn as he used to. One day, as I am going to collect our rice ration at Tuol Tnaot, I ask the advice of the cooperative chairman on the corn problem. He assures me that there is no problem, that we should keep it for the benefit of our own family. His assurance alleviates our anxiety, but with no one to stand guard and protect the corn for a few days, the cows have already eaten nearly half of it.

Pu Et is a very jealous and strict man. He has just arrived from the liberated zones, and he has nothing yet. None of his plants have had time to bear any fruit, so when he sees that others’ plants have already borne fruit, he gets jealous and wants them for himself. If we have better food than he does, he is unhappy. If he catches anyone sneaking off to trade things at the villages along the highway for rice, bananas, or yams, he confiscates their spoils and then “builds” them, guiding them in the way of the Revolutionary Organization, forbidding free movement and trade.

Each day he walks by and pokes his head into our hut at about eight or nine o’clock to see who has what to eat and who hasn’t gone out to work. How we despise this attitude! We, all of the “new people,” give him the name “Grandpa Snoopy.” When we see him coming from a distance, we call out or whisper to each other, “Here comes Grandpa Snoopy!” Both his wife and his daughter act haughty, as though they, too, are our leaders and supervisors.

13 June 2024

Leaving Phnom Penh, 1975

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 56-59:

Between dawn and 11 a.m., we are finally able to cross the Monivong Bridge, and we continue beyond to the Chbar Ampov subdistrict headquarters building where we stop to rest and prepare food. Here there are tamarind trees with cool shade. My brothers and I go to look for water for cooking rice. We figure that drawing water from the river will be easier than searching for well water at local houses. We walk through Chbar Ampov Market (the old market on the south side of the highway) and head for the river.

This is the first time in my life that my eyes have ever witnessed such an awful scene. Only four days ago, this was a battleground, and large brick-and-cement houses have been demolished, with chunks of brick and cement of all sizes, shards of roof tiles, dishes, pots and pans, tables, and chairs littering the ground all over the road. In the gendarmerie post, the body of a woman lies face up on a desk, naked and swollen, maggots perforating her flesh. Along the riverbank lie the bloated corpses of soldiers, some on the banks, others floating half in and half out of the water. Some bob up and down on the water’s surface, occasionally washing up against the bank. The water here, which appeared from above to be decent, is in actuality covered in a slick of dark-green foam mixed with grease from the corpses. The river water is undrinkable, and we return empty-handed.


As our thoughts drift with the smoke into the sky, suddenly the sound of gunshots pierces the air: bang! bang! bang! Startled and shaken, nearly losing my grip on the bicycle handlebars, I look around, worried that someone has just been wounded or killed. I think this because as we rested a little earlier, we heard that this morning a soldier shot and killed two people who took rice from a warehouse on the west side of the river. But I can’t see that anything has happened. The crowd continues walking forward. Then a military vehicle comes driving against the flow of foot traffic with two or three black-clad soldiers sitting on the hood. They are the ones who fired the shots, to open the road. We squeeze together on the right side of the road to allow the vehicle to pass.

We have walked another 200 meters when suddenly a mid-Pisakh [=April/May] rain shower begins to pour down without the slightest warning. Our bundles of bedding and clothes are soaked. We continue forward in the rain until we are nearly to Wat Niroth before finding shelter.

The locals here have all been evacuated. We take shelter in a wooden house with a corrugated iron roof whose owner was a fisherman. Up in the house, there are still several old fishing nets of various types and sizes. We salvage one small net and one larger net to take with us. We rest at the house for two nights until our bedding and clothes are dry and then continue our journey.

11 June 2024

Evacuating Cambodian Cities

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 45-46:

I dash into the house and call out, “Dad! Mom! They’re forcing everyone out of the city!” But my neighbors and family are busy celebrating peace and the end of the war and the spoils of victory at the hands of the Organization; they are not interested in what I have to say.

I have just spent a day filled with worry and fear. My family has just spent a day celebrating with a happiness that they haven’t seen for five years. Everything that I had just imagined to myself was all wrong—especially the reaction of my parents. In fact, my parents haven’t worried a bit about my absence. They feel that everything is going wonderfully. They have figured that I was gone all day tasting the joy of the birth of a new Khmer society.

The neighbors who have been going back and forth to gather loot from the Chamkar Mon warehouses know perfectly well that people are being evacuated from the city. But they assume that this matter does not affect them, that they won’t be ordered out by the Organization, because the Organization has allowed them to take freely from the warehouses.

Almost every family goes out to collect loot and stockpiles it in their house. My younger brothers procure three sacks of rice, several cases of beer, two or three mattresses, and large amounts of salt, fish sauce, soy sauce, and soft drinks, and pile them all over the house.

A French proverb says that “a single swallow does not herald the arrival of Spring.” I am but a lone swallow, the one person who desires to instill fear and an awareness of what will come. But no one believes me! They only believe in what is plain: that they have become wealthy without the necessity of effort. Let the neighbors refuse to believe, but I must win over my own family. My mother doesn’t matter; my father is the one who controls the power in the family.

I attempt to speak with my father about what is on my mind, but he objects, saying, “A-Moeun! You aren’t thinking straight. If they have just taken the city, what is the point of forcing us out? Do you remember what happened last year? People in Steung Mean Chey and Boeng Tumpun fell prey to propaganda that they would be forced out, and they fled in the middle of the night all the way to the riverfront by the palace. When they went back home, all of their stuff was gone.”

10 June 2024

Cambodia, April 1975

From Prisoners of Class: A Historical Memoir of the Khmer Rouge Revolution, by Chan Samoeun, tr. by Matthew Madden (Mekong River Press, 2023), Kindle pp. 11-12:

Cambodia is a small Southeast Asian kingdom, bordered by Vietnam on the east, Thailand on the west and north, and Laos to the north. Its primary religion is Theravada Buddhism. Its main ethnic majority are referred to as Khmers, and the national language is Khmer. The capital city, sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Sap rivers, is called Phnom Penh.

The kingdom was colonized by France for nearly a century, from 1863 until 1953 when it secured full independence from France under the leadership of King Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk abdicated the throne a year later to take a leading role in Cambodian electoral politics, which he dominated for the next fifteen years as a popular and powerful head of state.

On 18 March 1970, Sihanouk was deposed in a parliamentary coup by his prime minister, General Lon Nol. This seminal event broke Sihanouk’s long and carefully maintained neutrality that had kept Cambodia out of the Vietnam War raging next door, as Lon Nol immediately aligned with the United States against the communists, causing the conflict to spill over into Cambodia.

Thus began a bloody civil war, as Lon Nol founded the Khmer Republic, notoriously corrupt and heavily funded by United States military aid; and the embittered Sihanouk, with Chinese support, publicly allied himself with the Cambodian faction of communists, dubbed (by him) the “Khmer Rouge,” in an armed resistance against the new government. Hoping for a return to power, Sihanouk allowed himself to be made the nominal figurehead of this armed resistance, and because he was highly revered by many Cambodians, especially in the countryside, this decision lent tremendous influence and strength to the Khmer Rouge in recruiting large-scale support from the Cambodian populace.

Five years of violent conflict and devastating national division led, ultimately, to an imminent Khmer Rouge victory in mid-April 1975. As Khmer Rouge forces surrounded Phnom Penh for the final battle against disintegrating government forces and prepared to capture the city, the city’s population eagerly awaited the end of the war and the return of peace.

08 June 2024

U.S. Enlists Mafia to Invade Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 316-317:

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Mussolini declared his support for Hitler, with whom he had concluded the so-called Pact of Steel four months before. He did not immediately declare war—the Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, having warned him that Italy simply did not have enough tanks, armored cars and aircraft. To get involved in the European conflict at this point would, said Badoglio, be tantamount to suicide. Nine months later, however, the situation had changed dramatically. Norway, Belgium and Holland had been invaded; France was falling. On June 10 Italy declared war. Mussolini had hoped to help himself to Savoy, Nice, Corsica, Tunisia and Algeria from the French, but to his disgust Germany signed an armistice establishing the collaborationist government under Marshal Pétain at Vichy, which retained control over southern France and all its colonies.

So far as North Africa was concerned, only Egypt was left; and in September 1940 the Duce sent a large Italian force across the Libyan border. The British troops stationed in Egypt were at first hopelessly outnumbered; their counterattack, however, proved far more successful than expected and resulted in massive numbers of prisoners. So decisive was the Italian defeat that Hitler was obliged to send out his Afrikakorps, under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Only then did the British lose the initiative, ultimately to regain it at the Battle of El Alamein in October–November 1942.

The story of the Desert War is not ours, but it exemplifies the several successive humiliations suffered by Italy between 1940 and 1943. Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in October 1940 once again forced Hitler to send troops to his rescue; and by the beginning of 1943 disaster threatened him from every side. Half the Italian troops serving in Russia had been annihilated; both his North African and his Balkan adventures had been dismal failures. The Italians had had enough. Then, in July 1943, the Allies launched an operation which, as well as giving them a foothold in Europe, promised to remove Mussolini from the scene for good. They invaded Sicily.

For Sicily, hitherto, the war had been disastrous. As an island, it had suffered even more acutely than the rest of Italy. The ferryboats to the mainland were disrupted; the export market largely disappeared, while imports became irregular and uncertain; sometimes the Sicilians had found themselves with virtually nothing to eat but their own oranges. The rationing system was a bad joke; the black market reigned supreme. For the Mafia, on the other hand, conditions could hardly have been better. With a good deal of help from its branches in New York and Chicago, in the last years of peace it had already begun a swift recovery from the Mori reign of terror; and by 1943, whatever Mussolini might have said or believed, it was flourishing.

American intelligence officers, somewhat better informed than the Duce, understood that for the projected invasion to be successful it was vitally important to have the Mafia firmly on the Allied side. They therefore made careful approaches to the dominant boss of gangland crime in the United States, a Sicilian named Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano. He had in fact been in prison since 1936 on compulsory prostitution charges, but was still very much in command. In late 1942, after long discussions, the two sides struck a deal. Luciano would have his sentence commuted; in return, he made two promises. The first was that his friend Albert Anastasia, who ran the notorious Murder Inc. and who also controlled the American docks, would protect the waterfront and prevent dockworker strikes for the duration of hostilities. The second was that he, Luciano, would contact other friends in Sicily, who would in turn ensure that the invasion would run as smoothly as possible.

07 June 2024

Il Duce Redevelops Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 314-315:

IN 1937 MUSSOLINI PAID his third visit to Sicily. By then Italian troops had invaded and occupied Ethiopia which, together with the already existing colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland and the more recently acquired Libya, constituted a quite considerable African holding; and Sicily, being nearer to Africa than anywhere else in Italy, had thus gained new importance; “indeed,” declared the Duce, “it is the geographic centre of the Empire.” He would, he continued, inaugurate one of the happiest epochs in the island’s 4,000 years of history. This would involve, first of all, the demolition of the vast shantytown outside Messina inhabited by the thousands rendered homeless by the earthquake. (Many of those affected might have been excused for wondering why twenty-nine years had been allowed to pass before any action was taken at all.) The entire latifondo—those vast tracts of land owned by absentee proprietors, still known as “fiefs” and still being cultivated, if at all, by medieval and feudal methods—would be liquidated; and all Sicilians would henceforth be properly and adequately housed. New villages would be built across the island.

It seemed that Italy would never understand. One of these villages was actually built near Acireale, but the local peasants refused to move from the one-room huts in which they had always lived with their livestock, and a whole company of Tuscan peasantry had to be imported to occupy it. With yet another lesson unlearned, eight more villages were constructed—and suffered similar fates. Several meetings were held to decide upon their names; none, as far as anybody remembered, to discuss water supplies or electrification. But by this time the government had other things to think about. The Second World War had begun.