Three Communists

Often reprinted in Laos and Vietnam was the image above – that of Laotian Communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane with Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary. The photo was never reprinted in its entirely in Laos and Vietnam – both still nominally communist – to include the third person present during that 1966 meeting: Pol Pot, the head of the Communist Party of Cambodia.

It was as if both countries were ashamed of their former relationships with Pol Pot.

The image above was the stamp from 2002, celebrating 40th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and Vietnam — tellingly the cigarette from Ho’s hand had been excised too.


In February 8th, 1966, when the photo was taken, Ho Chi Minh was 77-year old. His health, which was never robust, was failing and he had slowly turned over many of his ruling responsibilities to other party grandees. Ho, son of a minor palace mandarin, had been the boss of the Communist Party of Vietnam for over 35 years. His singular achievement: running it without a major purge. Between its formation in 1945 and 1967 (when a member died), the Party’s Politburo was ran by the same eleven men.

Something that could not be said of ruling elites in China or Soviet Union – nor in neighboring Cambodia and Laos.

The 1966 meeting was a fraught and pivotal moment. The communist parties in Laos and Cambodia were still struggling to mobilize and the Vietnam War was in a stalemate. Ho had a little over than two years to live, but the communist movements would endure a bitter decade to finally prevail. In 1975, with the American support for the war in Indochina flagging, Pathet Lao in Laos, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and North Vietnam would all emerge victorious.

This was the moment that the western powers had feared throughout the 1950s and the 1960s – that Communism in Vietnam would lead to domino effect first in Laos and Cambodia, and then spread to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But soon, Vietnam would invade Cambodia and China would invade Vietnam – allaying the fears about a monolithic communist bloc taking over South East Asia.



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Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

1.7 million Cambodians died during those bloody years

For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.

Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)

If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.

That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.

Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.