Not much notice was taken recently when Lon Nol died his second death — the real death, the physical one. On the other hand, a lot of attention was paid 10 years ago when he died his first death — the political one, the one that resulted in the transformation of the country then known as Cambodia, of which he was the last prime minister, into the charnel house called the Republic of Democratic Kampuchea.
Two weeks before this first, political, death — made inevitable by a complete cut off of American military aid — Lon Nol predicted that if the Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas under Pol Pot came to power, “they would kill all the educated people — the teachers, the artists, the intellectuals — and that would be a step toward barbarism.”
The New York Times, speaking for the conventional wisdom of that moment, disagreed. No sooner had Lon Nol and his remaining American supporters fled the capital city of Phnom Penh before the advancing Khmer Rouge tide than the Times commemorated the event with a story by Sydney H. Schanberg under the headline: “Indochina Without Americans: For Most a Better Life.”
Lon Nol turned out to be a better prophet than Schanberg — though not even he foresaw how gigantic “a step toward barbarism” his poor country was about to take. Not only did the Khmer Rouge Communists kill all the educated people; in the process of making their revolution they killed somewhere from a third to a half of the entire population of the country.
When he was still prime minister of Cambodia, Lon Nol had been described by everyone as corrupt and ineffective, and no doubt everyone was right. Indeed, things in general seemed so bad under his leadership that another Times writer, Anthony Lewis, thought himself morally safe in asking: “What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening to Cambodia now?”
Today, 10 years later, much the same rhetorical question is being asked about the Philippines under President Ferdinand D. Marcos. Like Lon Nol, Marcos faces a Communist insurgency, the New People’s Army. And like Lon Nol, too, Marcos is accused – and with at least equal justification – of tyranny, mismanagement and corruption, though on a much larger scale.
Confronted with this situation, the Reagan administration is doing what the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations did before it in dealing with the corrupt and ineffective leaders of Vietnam and Cambodia. It is trying to pressure Marcos into instituting reforms that it hopes against hope will undercut domestic support for the Communist guerrillas.
And who exactly are they? Perhaps the most detailed answer to that question yet published is a massive article in the December issue of Commentary by Ross H. Munro, who has been covering the Philippines since 1978 for Time magazine. The article runs to 20,000 words, but its frightening thesis is summed up in a title running only to four: “The New Khmer Rouge.”
According to Munro, the NPA (now 20,000 strong and growing) has been conducting a “reign of terror” in the countryside “rivaling the Khmer Rouge in savagery if not yet in scale.” Indiscriminately the NPA tortures and kills, often “at the slightest pretext just to demonstrate its power and cold bloodedness.
But Munro finds an even more telling kinship with the Khmer Rouge in the ideological program of the NPA’s “parent,” the Communist Party of the Philippines.
These former Maoists, who are now “avidly courting the Soviet Union,” openly declare that upon establishing the People’s Democratic Republic of the Philippines, they will mete out “severe punishment” to “enemies of the revolution and their collaborators” and will send “those who deserve leniency” to reeducation camps. Furthermore, “evoking memories of the Khmer Rouge’s forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, one CPP member said that ‘most probably’ the population of Manila would have to be significantly reduced.”
No wonder that even “a radical but independent leftist who knows the CPP and the NPA well” told Munro: “I’m afraid we might be staring at a Pol Pot future.”
Stipulate the worst that has been charged against Marcos — and Munro himself does. Concede to Munro as well “if Marcos were to die or be toppled and succeeded by a competent, reformist government, it is quite conceivable that the current rapid growth of the Communists could stall.”
But suppose other authoritative observers of the Philippine scene are right when they suggest that no such competent reformist government is in sight. What then?
Should the United States nevertheless help to topple Marcos? And if we do, and if in so doing we help ensure the victory of the NPA, will we some day look back on Marcos as we look back now on Lon Nol — when, that is, we have the stomach to look back on him at all and contemplate what hideous things followed that first, political, death he suffered, with not so incidentally, a little help from his American friends?”