To viewers of the CBC national news last week, the pictures from Indochina resembled scenes from the Vietnam War: boyish-looking guerrillas in green shirts and rubber sandals, filing warily out of the jungle and splashing through rice paddies. But the pic-
tures were new and they provided a rare glimpse of a hidden war that most Westerners have forgotten. In filming them, CBC Peking correspondent Jean-François Lepine became the first Western reporter in five years to travel with the Khmer Rouge rebels deep into the interior of Vietnamese-controlled Kampuchea. Lepine and his crew of three spent 13 days in Kampuchea, slogging across monsoon-swollen rivers with the rebels and spending the nights in hammocks under mosquito nets. His TV and radio reports, filed to the CBC’s French and English networks, represented a daring journalistic coup and they provided graphic evidence that the once-hated Khmer Rouge are now more popular and are rebuilding their strength.
Lepine’s television dispatches—three on the English network, four on the French—showed the Kampuchean villagers to be friendly and relaxed with the rebels. The reports highlighted cooperation between local leaders and the rebels, the distribution of medicine and even a volleyball game, although Lepine
acknowledged that he had found it difficult to determine if the surprisingly friendly peasants were typical of the general population. Back in Peking after his adventure, Lepine described the collaboration as “quite strange,” in view of the reported atrocities that the Chinesebacked Communist rebels committed while their hard-line leader, Pol Pot,
was in power from 1976 to 1979. Since then the Khmer Rouge have been striving to rehabilitate their reputation within the country, speaking approvingly of limited free enterprise, and now they are providing military leadership to the political coalition that is trying to overthrow Kampuchea’s Vietnamesecontrolled government. Said Lepine: “I guess the Kampucheans’ hatred of the Vietnamese is even stronger than their old hatred of the Khmer Rouge.”
To Lepine, the Khmer Rouge’s motives for providing his unprecedented guided tour seemed obvious: “They wanted to show us they could reach villages far inside the country,” he said. “I think everything was arranged for us.” Still, it took months to set up the trip with Khmer officials at the United Nations and in Peking. Those negotiations were handled by Stephen Orlov, a specialist in Asian politics and chairman of the humanities department at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-deBellevue, near Montreal. The Khmer Rouge finally gave their consent after
Orlov met the group’s representative in Peking in June. Within two weeks Lepine, along with his wife, Claude St. Laurent, Orlov and London-based cameraman Michel Dumond, crossed Thailand’s border into Kampuchea, far into Vietnamese territory.
The rebels supplied their guests with standard-issue Chinese Army uniforms, canvas boots and even a generator to recharge the camera batteries. Members of the crew walked in mud up to their knees and slashed through bamboo thickets.
The effort was not only physically exhausting. Mentally, the crew had to face the imminent danger of a Vietnamese army raid. At one point they filmed Vietnamese trucks on a highway several hundred metres away. And Orlov gratefully noted that Kampuchean villagers did not betray the Westerners’ presence to the occupying Vietnamese forces even though they would probably have received rewards for their information. The tension was understandable: rebel and government forces have contested the area since the Vietnamese army invaded Kampuchea and overturned the Khmer Rouge government in 1979. But Lepine’s Khmer guides deliberately kept the party away from any fighting. The only real evidence of war was the crunch of distant artillery fire.
Indeed, the Khmer Rouge’s restrictions on the CBC crew left them wondering more than once whether the journalistic prize would be worth the immense effort that they made to earn it. Lepine said that his guides did not try to censor his stories, which he filed from Bangkok after leaving Kampuchea. But they did refuse to take him into some villages that he had wanted to see. And despite their apparent openness, they held back a good deal of information. Said Lepine: “They were very secretive.” Inevitably, Lepine’s reports left much unexamined. But the assignment was a tribute to the nerve and endurance of Lepine and his crew, and it served a proper journalistic function: it stimulated as many questions as it answered.^
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.