WASHINGTON DC - Dam Pheng, Khmer Rouge cadres said, was the ideal soldier. Born into an impoverished family in the Cambodian countryside, he was intelligent, resilient and impassioned, with the spirit of the revolution in his heart and the pure blood of the peasantry in his veins. He suffered the oppression of Cambodia’s feudalist regime and found refuge in the ideals of the communist revolution, to which he devoted the entirety of his passion and energy. He lived for his motherland, they said, and ultimately died for it, falling at the cruel hand of the country’s neo-imperialist elite.
So tells “The Red Heart of Dam Pheng,” a Khmer Rouge propaganda story published in 1973 in the regime’s “Revolutionary Youth” magazine. In its first English translation, the story was reprinted last month in “Searching for the Truth,” the monthly publication of record of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. It has joined the Center’s extensive body of the Khmer Rouge’s public ideological documents, which have been relied on heavily as evidence at the UN-backed tribunal.
The story is one of the more prominent pieces of Khmer Rouge propaganda on the record today and a rare depiction of the sort of Cambodian who, under the regime’s ruthless scrutiny, fit the bill of approval.
“For most Cambodian youths, Dam Pheng was a hero. He was everything. He was the future of the country,” Chhang Youk, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia told VOA Khmer.
As the tale goes, Dam Pheng was an industrious farmer and a gifted student whose parents died and whose education was unfulfilled due to the harshness of the capitalist system. While his fellow peasants died of disease and famine, Dam Pheng found himself enthralled by the explanatory literature of the Youth Alliance of Democratic Kampuchea, which encouraged him to take up arms against the feudalists and neo-imperalists in the name of his rural brethren. He did so, and with unparalleled energy and talent. He was arrested by Lon Nol’s American-backed government in 1968, tortured, and left to die, a martyr for the communist revolution. The story’s title refers to his final gesture, writing a poem in his own blood on the wall of his prison cell.
“Red heart, I care for you and educate you every day for the valuable revolution, the poor, and the peasants,” the poem reads. “This time, Cambodians need my heart urgently to deal with heavy suffering, which, I, a Cambodian child, happily sacrifice.”
Experts express varying opinions on the origins of the story, a centerpiece of the Khmer Rouge’s artistically-driven propaganda machine. Chhang Youk insists that there was indeed a real Dam Pheng, who died at the hands of the U.S.-backed “feudalist” government. The author of the written story, he said, is unimportant. In the spirit of socialism, written works were signed with the name of the state.
Alex Hinton, a professor of sociology and anthropology and the director of the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University, attempts to look beyond the anonymity.
“Historically, it’s thought that many articles written in Khmer Rouge magazines were likely written by Nuon Chea or other top members of the leadership of the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “But there’s no way that we can be certain about the origin. As for the story itself, we don’t know for sure if it’s loosely based on an actual person, or if it’s completely fictional.”
There is an underlying element of irony in the Khmer Rouge propaganda record. To build a primitive, agrarian society deliberately deprived of education, literacy and culture, the regime relied on publications, radio shows, music and performances to convey the spirit of its ideology. Meanwhile, cadres arrested and executed the Khmer musicians, artists, and intellectuals whose work provided the foundation for the regime’s propaganda. The propaganda was derivative, tailored to the ideals of a society revamped to the point of being unrecognizable, but rooted nonetheless in elements of a world they sought to expunge completely.
“With propaganda, like with ideology, there was a pure path and there was an impure path,” Hinton said. “Ironically, many of the top Khmer Rouge leaders were highly educated in Paris, and many who would become high-ranking cadre were formerly teachers, were educated.”
“Yes, they were anti-bourgeoisie, anti-king, anti-imperialist, but they were also Khmer,” Chhang Youk said. “They indoctrinated what was already there… they stole from the Cambodian heritage and culture and made it their own.”
Chhang Youk recalled watching Khmer Rouge performers travel from village to village in the summer of 1975, donned in black clothes and performing epics about regime bravery. He recalled slogans painted on walls, “The plow can be the pen,” for example, and music played on loudspeakers, audible 5 kilometers away, with lyrics that addressed timely circumstances.
“When we were harvesting, they played music about harvesting,” Chhang Youk said. “When it rained, they played music about rain.”
Much of the propaganda, Hinton said, urged self-evaluation in the name of “purification.”
“When it came to people being, to use their terms, ‘built,’ ‘constructed,’ or, like a piece of iron, ‘tempered’–these are all metaphors that they used–two of the most direct vehicles were meetings that the Khmer Rouge would hold, in which people would talk about revolutionary ideology but also involve self-criticism and discussions of character weakness, and the individual writings of personal histories and biographies,” he said. “If you had bad traces in your background, you were supposed to constantly reflect on them and try to purify yourself by upholding revolutionary morality.”
Largely, it worked, at least in terms of securing an audience, and perhaps garnering its support. The story of Dam Pheng provided the Cambodian people with an archetype to be aspired towards, disguised with narrative.
“When you live in the darkness, a little bit of light is your future,” Chhang Youk said. “Any color is convincing. Propaganda was effective because [Cambodians] had nothing else. They were in, as we say in Khmer, a prison without walls. We saw nothing, we heard nothing, we knew nothing. So a little bit of a thing that has been dropped into your life will become everything. That’s why propaganda was so effective. There was nothing else to influence the thoughts and minds of the population at that time.”