It’s A Small, Horrifying World

I’m 2/3 of the way through John Tully’s A Short History of Cambodia, and page 104 made me put down the book and say out loud, “holy shit!” When World War II started, Cambodia was still a French protectorate. In 1940, the French government capitulated to Nazi Germany and the Vichy government took over, and the governor of French Indochina, Jean Decoux, went all-out in his support of the new regime. Partly this was because Japan (a German ally, as we all recall) was quickly moving south, and there weren’t enough French/Cambodian troops to resist if they tried, so he wanted to put on a good show of support. But hoo boy did Decoux go all in. The press switched immediately from siding with the Allies to spewing hatred against Jews and cheering Allied losses. He had members of youth organizations goose-stepping in parades and doing the Nazi salute. (Tully even says that he set up concentration camps, although he doesn’t say where or who was imprisoned, and I can’t find independent verification of this.)

There’s a picture in the book (can’t find one online) that shows Cambodian youth goose-stepping. They’re all doing the Nazi salute in front of a parade dais. I just found it utterly bizarre to see Khmers doing an Aryan salute, to see that specific gesture of European terrorism imitated in Southeast Asia. The politics of why Decoux adopted these symbols and gestures for his protectorate are clear, and the Cambodians were in little position to resist his orders, but it’s still sickening and dizzying. That it reached to the other side of the globe — it really was a world war.