The Power of Sihanouk and the Power of Cinema: A Filmed Execution in Cambodia, 1964

Executed Khmer Serei rebel, the horrific crumpling of his formerly erect limbs and torso is emphasised by their vivid contrast with the upright and straight pole to which he has been tied, with thick ropes, at the neck, wrists, and knees. From: Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004).

By Roger Nelson

from ACT 77, April, 2019

This essay is about filmed executions, and the insights they may offer us into Cold War Southeast Asia, from cultural perspectives. Before outlining the essay’s contentions and scope, I will first introduce the facts and affective tone of the case study in question. My argument about this significant yet little-known occurrence examines the intersections between biopolitics and geopolitics—that is, power’s intersecting relations between persons and populations, as well as between governments and ideologies—and therefore it may be useful to proceed by considering both historical circumstances and visceral responses.

In January 1964, not far from Phnom Penh, a man named Preap In was executed by firing squad, at the command of Norodom Sihanouk. Preap In was a rebel fighter, and a member of a political group called the Khmer Serei, who were anti-communist but also anti-monarchy. Sihanouk was a Prince, and a former King; he was also a politician, and later Head of State, who at this moment was negotiating an increasingly fragile “neutralism” or policy of non-alignment in the Cold War: all American aid to Cambodia had been rejected by Sihanouk the previous year, in 1963, and official relations between Cambodia and the United States would be severed the following year, in 1965. Sihanouk was also a self-proclaimed artist, and a patron of modern arts, skilled at instrumentalizing culture to serve his political needs. He would soon also become a prolific filmmaker.

When Preap In was shot, the execution was filmed—also at Sihanouk’s behest—and this footage was screened in every cinema in Cambodia, before every feature film, for an entire month. The footage, which is now presumed lost, was reportedly gruesome: so monstrous that years later, people still felt ill at the memory of watching it. Historian Milton Osborne recorded that “Two years later Cambodians still spoke of the revulsion many had felt at the sight of the rebel’s body, riddled with bullets, slumping at the execution stake.”[1]Soth Polin, a prominent Cambodian novelist and later an influential opposition newspaper owner, told historian David Chandler in 1988 that “it was at that point that I began to hate Sihanouk,” speaking of his viewing of the execution footage.[2]

This horrific “film,” if we can think of it as such, coincided with the emergence of a national cinema industry in Cambodia and with the burgeoning popularity of cinema in the country, among diverse audiences. The film of Preap In’s execution also predated Sihanouk’s first foray into feature filmmaking, which came just two years later. Perhaps this filmed execution can therefore be regarded as the Prince’s first publicly distributed cinematic work. By decreeing that his film of Preap In’s execution be screened in every cinema in Cambodia, before every feature film, for an entire month, Sihanouk effectively ensured that an overwhelming majority of the population saw the film, both in the cities and in the countryside. The 1960s was a boom time for cinema in Cambodia: there were at least 33 cinemas in Phnom Penh, and many more throughout the country.[3]The first Cambodian-made film had been released only in 1960, and hundreds more followed over the next decade and a half.[4]

In this essay, I approach this episode in Cambodia’s cultural and political history as a case study of filmed executions, proposing five interrelated arguments about the film and its salience for understanding the Cold War in Southeast Asia from cultural perspectives.

I begin with a discussion of enforced physical immobility, a concept I will return to throughout subsequent sections of the essay. I contend that restricted bodily movement was a crucial mechanism of biopolitical control over spectators and citizens in this historical moment, exercised by Sihanouk in the Preap In execution and film. This is significant for being at odds with dominant contemporaneous strategies of corporeal discipline, exercised by Sihanouk and others in the Cold War context, which instead placed an emphasis on vigorous physical movement as a means of enlisting political participation. Second, I argue that because the Preap In execution and film marks a turning point in anti-Sihanouk sentiment, it demonstrates the power of cinema to transcend Sihanouk’s intentions. That is, while this episode makes manifest the Prince’s control over cinema and his population, it also reveals the unanticipated limits to his ability to regulate the messages communicated by his film, and the affective responses of his audiences. The significance of this lies in the nuance it may offer to discussions about the instrumentalization of the “arts” and their relationship to “propaganda” in the Cold War context. This argument also contributes to a growing discourse which emphasizes individual and collective agency in the face of state power. Following from this, in the essay’s third section, I argue that the filmed execution of Preap In set the tone for receptions of Sihanouk’s subsequent cinematic activities. This is significant as it reveals the impact of political events in shaping cultural life in this heated Cold War context. My argument is elaborated through a discussion of processional movement as performed in Sihanouk’s first feature film, Apsara, released two years after the Preap In execution. Fourthly, I contend that because accounts of this filmed execution rely on oral testimonies and necessarily subjective accounts—because the film itself, as a primary source, appears to be lost—it demonstrates the importance of memory to our understanding of this historical moment. I conclude with a brief discussion of the relationship between Cold War-era filmed executions and the presently dominant technology of weaponized drones. In proposing that the omnipresent drones of today are an extension of the filmed executions of the past, I aim to suggest ways in which political and cultural dynamics established during the Cold War cast an ominous shadow over the present.[5]

On Vigorous Activity and Enforced Immobility as Strategies in Cold War- era “Psychological Warfare”

By the 1960s, cultural diplomacy efforts from both the communist bloc and the United States in Cambodia had come to be known, in Khmer as in English, as “psychological warfare” (sangkream cittasastra).

The US was most active in cultural diplomacy activities that related to visual art and higher education. This included organizing three annual art exhibitions, in 1961, 1962, and 1963, which presented the work of dozens of Cambodian artists, and attracted large audiences of Cambodians from a variety of social classes. Many hundreds of Cambodians were also sponsored to study in the US during this period, and this effort expanded further after Sihanouk rejected American aid in 1963, making the organizing of subsequent annual exhibitions impossible.[6]

All this reflected the American belief, articulated by US ambassador William C. Trimble in 1959, that “Cambodia is probably the most critical area in Southeast Asia today.”[7] This was due to the nation’s proximity to Vietnam; similarly, in 1961, outgoing American president Dwight D. Eisenhower had told incoming president John F. Kennedy that neighbouring Laos was the most important place on earth for US foreign policy at that time.[8] With an awareness of the Mekong sub-region’s strategic importance in the Cold War, the US invested extensively in cultural diplomacy efforts and commissioned regular reports to refine their strategy on this front; an earlier American ambassador to Cambodia had remarked in 1955 that that “in this neutralist and Buddhist country we find it necessary to use feather brush techniques.”[9]

Yet while the US enjoyed some successes in organizing exhibitions and sponsoring an American education for Cambodians, they were keenly aware that they were less skilled at organizing performances or sporting activities, and that nations in the communist bloc were doing much better on these aspects of “psychological warfare.” In a confidential 1959 report on the US Information Service (USIS) in Cambodia, the US Information Agency (USIA) Inspector wrote that “The communists have been far more successful [than us] in their cultural presentations programs.”[10] In 1958, the USIS had admired the ability of communist countries to appeal to the “masses” much more than the Americans could, through their deployment of “low brow” performers.[11]

By 1963—the year before Preap In’s filmed execution—the US was most alarmed that “Chinese remain the most enthusiastic support” for transnational sporting events in Jakarta and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and that “there is no question that Peking is cultivating Cambodian youth through sports. For the past year, Chinese Communist sports and youth groups have paraded regularly through Cambodia.” The memo explains that such “activity might be considered a minor aspect of Peking’s people’s diplomacy if the development of Khmer athletic capability had not become, over the past several years, almost an obsession of Prince Sihanouk and the government.” This expression of alarm followed a November 1962 memo, which noted that “three Chinese Communist coaches” had come to work with “Cambodian Army teams, the first known penetration by the [communist] Bloc of the Cambodian Military Establishment.”[12]

A clear division had emerged, by 1963, between the chiefly visual and cerebral focus of American cultural diplomacy in Cambodia—with its emphasis on art exhibitions and education—and the distinctly physical and corporeal thrust of cultural diplomacy efforts from the communist bloc. The US sought to influence Cambodian minds (and eyes), while communist China instead strove to shape (and move) Cambodian bodies. In this, the communists were harmoniously in sync with Sihanouk’s own efforts—“almost an obsession”—to deploy vigorously physical methods to exercise his control over his citizen-subjects.

A linking of the physical performance of sporting prowess with ideological progress is, of course, by no means unique to Cambodia, or to this historical period. In a study of “physical culture” in Laos after the 1975 communist revolution there, Simon Creak argues that French colonial authorities had introduced “physical instruction and military preparation” to then-Indochina in the 1920s, acting “in response to perceived ‘physical deficiencies’ in the colonies” and thus initiating a continuing process “to link the physical form to concern with progress and identity.”[13]Creak argues that such “rhetoric” is rewarding of close analysis, and should not be dismissed as mere “propaganda.”[14]

If the fundamental efficacy of organized competitive sports as a site for political contestation lay in the familiar exaltation of the strong, vital body as a metaphor for the nation, then how might we make sense of the display of Preap In’s manifestly powerless body, grotesquely destroyed by the nation’s leader? In the only known surviving photograph of the executed Khmer Serei rebel [Figure 1] , the horrific crumpling of his formerly erect limbs and torso is emphasised by their vivid contrast with the upright and straight pole to which he has been tied, with thick ropes, at the neck, wrists, and knees. Preap In’s violenty enforced bodily immobility is hyperbolically stressed by its deviation from in both the vertical shape of the execution stake, and the vertically oriented composition of the photograph which documents it. This bodily immobility is starkly at odds with Sihanouk’s celebration of physical activity and “athletic capability” as the proper state for his people.[15]

Before his execution, Preap In had been imprisoned in an iron cage, which was brought to central Phnom Penh for mobbed public derision, including with garbage being hurled at the immobilized prisoner by energetic gathered crowds, for a period of two hours.[16]The spirited mobility of the crowd attacking the immobile Preap In was one of many instances of vigorous and violent physical activity choreographed by Sihanouk during this period. In addition to regularly overseeing mass parades, the Prince also called on crowds to gather and dance in the streets to celebrate the deaths of US President John F. Kennedy, Thai general and Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, and others.[17]These events took place within weeks of Preap In’s execution in 1964. Sihanouk also orchestrated numerous violent political protests during this period, including—later in the same year—against the US and other foreign embassies.[18]The rallies he organized and presided over, including a vast gathering at Phnom Penh’s National Stadium to welcome then-French President Charles de Gaulle in 1966, also demanded a lively physical response from audience-participants. At the de Gaulle rally, for example, he required all guests seated at the outdoor stadium—which holds up to 80,000 people—to hold aloft and display in precise coordination a changing sequence of coloured signs, which spelled out different messages in both text and images.

It may be productive to consider these examples of vigorously mobile physical activity, directed by Sihanouk, in contrast to the pronounced physical immobility enforced during the viewing of his films, including the filmed execution, which was his first publicly screened cinematic work. During screenings of Sihanouk’s films, it was forbidden for audiences to get up and leave the cinema. At the premiere screening of one movie, attended by the historian Milton Osborne in Phnom Penh later in the 1960s, the doors of the theatre were even locked and guarded, causing great embarrassment even for the privileged foreigner, when he attempted unsuccessfully to exit before the film had concluded.[19] The visceral disgust that viewers of the filmed execution described, as quoted above—“Two years later Cambodians still spoke of the revulsion many had felt at the sight of the rebel’s body, riddled with bullets, slumping at the execution stake”[20] and “it was at that point that [Soth Polin] began to hate Sihanouk”[21]—evoke the feeling of pained physical paralysis that cinemagoers would likely have experienced when being effectively forced to remain seated and endure the footage of Preap In’s execution.

Art historian Boris Groys, writing of quite a different context, has observed that while film is often “a celebration of movement, it paradoxically drives the audience to new extremes of immobility never reached by traditional art forms.” After all, as Groys continues, “it is possible to move around with relative freedom while one is reading or viewing an exhibition, but in the movie theater the viewer is cast in darkness and glued to his or her seat.”[22] This immobility was especially pronounced in the case of Sihanouk’s films, since the audience was prohibited from exiting the theatre, and also since these publics would have been familiar with Sihanouk’s more usual tactic of mobilizing physically active masses, for rallies and other vigorous and violent public activities, as outlined above.

The immobility enforced during screenings of Sihanouk’s movies would also have been especially pronounced for those watching the filmed execution of Preap In in 1964. According to retrospective testimonies, the film footage of the execution lasted around fifteen minutes. It was gruesomely explicit, and left many cinema-goers feeling ill.[23]To be effectively trapped in a cinema seat throughout this must have been difficult to endure. The viewers’ coerced immobility in the cinema mirrored Preap In’s cruelly immobilized state, tied to the execution stake. This enforced immobility in the cinema, like the the enforced mobility of rallies and other actions in the streets and public arenas, together demonstrate Sihanouk’s reliance on corporeal control the cultural arena during the period. The biopolitical policing of bodily movement was enmeshed with the geopolitical delineation of a “neutralist” and non-aligned position in the Cold War for Cambodia, which by 1964 included an increasingly anti-American stance, and also an escalating degree of authoritarianism.

Turning Point: The Power of Sihanouk and the Power of Cinema

The event of Preap In’s execution in 1964, and of its filming and public broadcast, has been described as a turning point in Cold War-era politics in Cambodia. Historian David Chandler, the preeminent Anglophone authority on the country, describes the years 1963 to 1966 as “the first act of the nightmare that terrorized Cambodia after 1970,” referring to the civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities—commonly referred to as genocide—which resulted in the death of an estimated two million people. Chandler specifically mentions outcry at the execution as being one sign that Sihanouk and his Sangkum Reastr Niyum (commonly translated as “People’s Socialist Community”) regime had begun to be seriously challenged.[24] We will recall that Soth Polin, the prominent novelist whose oppositional newspaper would later galvanize anti-Sihanouk sentiment, asserted that the Preap In execution film screening was the catalyzing moment at which he “began to hate Sihanouk.”[25] This demonstrates the event’s significance in igniting not only visceral disgust but also, in time, organized opposition, that led to Sihanouk’s downfall and the collapse of Cambodia’s non-aligned position.[26] Ian Harris, in his history of Cambodian Buddhism, characterizes the caging of the arrested Preap In, and his subsequent execution and its filming and broadcast, as “one of Sihanouk’s most outrageous and bestial acts, one that particularly appalled Buddhists,” and discusses this in the context of a growing sense at the time that “the Buddhist credentials of the Sangkum [regime] were beginning to look like nothing more than window dressing.”[27] Historian Justin Corfield asserts that “there can be few Cambodians who did not hear of it. It was a show of gratuitous violence that upset many people,” and further comments that “in one stroke, this film undid much of the good name that Sihanouk had had. It was the beginning of Sihanouk’s decline.”[28]

Taken together, these various accounts of the execution and its broadcast suggest that the event may be remembered chiefly as an important moment in the rising tide of anti-Sihanouk sentiment. So, while Sihanouk instrumentalized the cinema for political purposes, he was nevertheless clearly not able to maintain control over the meanings of the art form, or over the meanings of his film—and certainly he was not able to maintain control over audiences’ receptions of this film. Sihanouk had intended for his execution film to demonstrate his total control over his opponents; instead, the film turned his audiences against him, playing into the hands of his opponents.

As well as marking a turning point in anti-Sihanouk sentiment, the filming of Preap In’s execution nevertheless also embodied a forceful demonstration of the interlocking of the power of Sihanouk and the power of cinema. The event constellated several forms of power, including:

  • the power of Sihanouk, to disregard principles of law or fairness;
  • the power of cinema, to reach mass audiences, crossing class and urban/rural divides (as we will see in more detail, below);
  • the power of Sihanouk to control the power of cinema, by enforcing the screening of the execution footage and forbidding premature exit from the theatre; but also, and importantly,
  • the power of cinema, to solicit affective and political responses that went far beyond the control of the filmmaker, even of Sihanouk.

The execution film demonstrates not only Sihanouk’s political power—his ability to execute his enemies, without fear of reprisal—but also and simultaneously the power of cinema itself, to shock and outrage and disgust and warn. Importantly, the film did this both in the ways intended by Sihanouk, and also in ways and with consequences that ultimately went far beyond his control.

Filmed Execution “Setting the Scene” for Sihanouk’s Cinematic Oeuvre

That affective and political responses to the filmed execution of Preap In exceeded and contradicted those intended by Sihnaouk is significant, as the execution footage predates the Prince’s first forays into feature filmmaking. Indeed, coming as it did within the first half-decade of films being produced by Cambodians, we might imagine that the film of Preap In’s execution fundamentally shifted various Cambodian publics’ understandings of the power of cinema and of Sihanouk, and fused these mechanisms of power tightly together. It is for this reason that the film’s screening can be considered not only as an historical episode, but also as an aesthetic event. The film of the execution effectively “set the scene” for the Prince’s own filmmaking career, which began in earnest just two years later, in 1966, with his first feature-length fiction film, titled Apsara. Sihanouk would go on to make another twenty-one films during the 1960s, and altogether over 40 films in total over the following four decades.[29]

I have proposed that the significance of Preap In’s 1964 execution lay not only in its extravagant violence, and not even in the fact that it was filmed, per se, but rather in the distribution of that footage to every cinema in Cambodia, and its compulsory screening before every feature film for a whole month. This ensured, of course, maximum exposure for the film, which is significant given the special ability of cinema and other kinds of performance to engage mass publics that transcend class lines and urban/rural divides.[30]More than this, though, this enforced distribution demonstrated Sihanouk’s seemingly unchallenged, unilateral power over the cinema industry, and his awareness of the political and other values of that power.

As noted, cinema was a new industry in Cambodia at the time; an abbreviated history of the form provides a context for our more detailed consideration of the Cold War period. The first cinema was reportedly opened in Cambodia in 1909, with an audience of Europeans. By 1914, educated Cambodians were attending film screenings. Between 1917 and 1921, the French colonial authorities established a system for censoring what films would be permitted to screen. By 1920, travelling cinemas toured rural Cambodia, some of them owned and operated by Cambodians. American, Chinese and French films were screened. By the 1920s, foreign filmmakers were shooting films in Cambodia; most were official colonially-sponsored projects publicizing the wealth of French Indochina and its appeal for tourism. Most films were documentaries, but at least one feature-length fiction film was produced by a French director during the 1920s. Little is known of cinema during the 1930s. In 1941, Sihanouk—who had just been crowned King—bought a film camera. His experiments with this camera during the 1940s are considered the first films made by a Cambodian, although they were never publicly screened. The first film made by a Cambodian to be publicly screened was in approximately 1958, made by soldiers using military equipment. By the early 1960s, huge crowds attending films made by Cambodians confirmed the industry’s potential, and filmmakers received support from a special government department.[31] In 1960, a feature film titled Blooming Flower, Faded Flower made by two unnamed “Cambodian technicians, trained at the French Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris has been shown commercially at the Capitol Cinema in Phnom Penh.” Tep Chhieu Kheng, who was dubbed “Cambodia’s leading film critic,” heralded the screening as “First Steps in the Cambodian Cinema.”[32] Movie-going quickly became a favourite nationwide pastime for Cambodians of all classes.[33] From this brief sketch of cinema in Cambodia, we can observe that the form had a mass appeal in the countryside as well as in the city since at least 1920, with its popularity reaching a peak during the 1960s.

Sihanouk was not only the first Cambodian known to have made a film, albeit privately; he also dominated the cinema industry throughout the late 1960s through his own filmmaking and his patronage of film festivals and other events. According to Eliza Romey, who has conducted the only sustained study of Sihanouk’s cinematic output in English or Khmer, Sihanouk produced twenty-one films between 1960 and 1970, of which nine were documentaries and twelve fictions.[34] A consideration of his first feature-length fiction film, Apsara (1966) reveals the interlinking of political power and aesthetics, especially in light of other forms of political spectacle which Sihanouk orchestrated, and again with an emphasis on the flamboyant performance of physical activity—mobility—to an audience rendered immobile in the cinema.

Apsara features Sihanouk’s daughter, Princess Norodom Bopha Devi, as a star ballet dancer named Kantha. She has promised to marry a military pilot named Phally, played by Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak, but must abandon this romance in order to marry the much older military General named Rithy, at the insistence of her mother.[35]After their marriage, Rithy learns of Kantha’s love for Phally, and returns to his own former mistress, allowing Kantha to be with her pilot lover. Alongside this dramatic romance, the Cambodian air force engages in border skirmishes with Thailand and South Vietnam.

Visually, the film revolves around two paradigmatic images: an efficient, disciplined and technologically advanced air force, and also a series of luxurious modern spaces, both urban and rural. Long, wide-angle panning shots showcase the architectural designs of Vann Molyvann and others, and the wide boulevards and parklands designed by Lu Ban Hap and others. The cast of Apsara are attired in glamorous modern fashions, and it is filmed on location in Sihanouk’s various residences, appointed in a cosmopolitan mix of Cambodian and foreign décor, including a painting by Nhek Dim.

Apsara’s coupling of modern aesthetics with topical political and military matters is a neat encapsulation of the aestheticization of power in the era of Sihanouk’s rule over the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime. As film student Jessica Austin argues, the film “is as much a romance between Sihanouk and the idea of the modern nation-state as it is a romance between the two couples who appear together in just enough scenes to thread together the central love story.”[36]The comment is insightful insofar as it allows a registration that Apsara functions not as an allegory—a hidden political rhetoric disguised as superficial romance—but rather operates simultaneously as both a tale of “the idea of the modern nation-state” and also as a tale of two couples’ romance.

Many of the most striking scenes in Apsara—in terms of their pivotal plot function, and their visual affect—involve processional movement. The film opens with a sleek, imported car driving past the Independence Monument (designed by Vann Molyvann in the late 1950s,[37] , along Norodom Boulevard with its wide open spaces, streamlined modern concrete architecture and lush tropical trees, and then along Monivong Boulevard to the striking modernist compound of Chamkarmon, Sihanouk’s official residence. In less than a minute of footage, accompanied by a mid-tempo trumpet ensemble, the film’s opening scene establishes Phnom Penh as a city of well-planned grandeur, and the protagonist driving the car as a woman who will enjoy respect for her wealth, beauty and sophistication. Austin suggests that the appearance of the Independence Monument also alludes to “the history of colonialism and the struggle for liberation.”[38]It implicitly situates this history in a past that is firmly resolved. Political allusions continue in several extended sequences of military aircraft, orchestrated to proceed along a pristine runway, almost like performing machinery.

A second scene of processional movement is at Kantha’s wedding to General Rithy. Dozens of glamorous cars arrive to the wedding, their attractively attired occupants greeted by pristine and efficient valets. Images of new-model cars with attractive female drivers would have been familiar to some viewers from the publication of similar photographs in a Sihanouk-sponsored magazine, Réalités Cambodgiennes .[39] This repetitive procession is then echoed by these guests’ greeting of the bride and groom, in a modernized adaption of the typical Cambodian wedding tradition. We might imagine that the display of opulent wealth in such scenes would have transfixed its Sangkum-era viewers, very few of whom could enjoy such extravagance. Indeed, as Chandler observes, Apsara (as well as several of Sihanouk’s subsequent films of this decade) “reveal[s] the hothouse character of the Phnom Penh elite” and “depict[s] the raffish behaviour of Sihanouk’s circle. None of the films,” Chandler continues, “had any footage of ordinary people.”[40]

Although “ordinary people” do not appear onscreen, it is significant that the extraordinary “elite” people who do populate Apsara are choreographed to perform and move in a manner which is common and legible to an “ordinary” viewer, in its similarity to wedding customs, and especially in the many scenes of processional movement. Sihanouk depicts these “hothouse” elites—flaunting their extraordinary wealth while conducting the most ordinary of wedding rituals, in proceeding past the bride and groom—in a manner to which “ordinary people” could relate, at least insofar as the bodily movements themselves are familiar.

That Sihanouk repeatedly directed scenes of lavish yet relatable movement (in Apsara and in many of his other films) while the cinematic format demanded the audience’s immobility, may be understood as a way to at once distance himself (and his “raffish circle” of “elites”) from his viewers, as is proper for a semi-divine royal figure, and also to identify himself with those viewers, in an affective union. If we recall that the initial viewers of Apsara had just two years prior been effectively forced to watch the sickening film of Preap In’s execution, also while being (in Groys’ terms) “glued to his or her seat,” this dynamic of recurrent processional movement onscreen observed by immobile cinema-goers takes on additional gravity. Watching Preap In’s execution, we might imagine that viewers may have wanted to flee, but this would have been impossible. Watching the procession of guests arrive to the wedding in Apsara, viewers may perhaps have felt tempted to join in this movement, but instead we can presume that they remained still, perhaps almost as if allowing Sihanouk and his “raffish circle” to act on their behalf—all the while as the Cold War grew increasingly fiery in neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, prefiguring the explosion of violence that would soon engulf Cambodia as well.

The Role of Memory in the Historiography of Cold War-era Southeast Asian Culture

Astonishingly, given its avowed importance as a turning point in anti-Sihanouk sentiment, the actual film footage of Preap In’s execution appears to be lost. Neither Osborne nor Chandler were in Cambodia in 1964, and Chandler as well as Sihanouk’s devoted former advisor Julio Jeldres have said that they have never seen the film.[41]Both Chandler and Short have published a photograph described as “Execution of Khmer Serei prisoner, 1964”: the unnamed victim is almost certainly Preap In.[42]

Significantly, however, none of the major historians to have discussed this event are able to cite any primary sources, other than the retrospective oral testimony of Cambodians who recalled witnessing the broadcasts. There are no photographs of the event reproduced in any known surviving newspapers from 1964. We will recall that historian Milton Osborne, who returned to Cambodia in 1966, recorded the revulsion many Cambodians still felt, when remembering the screening two years prior,[43] and also that Chandler recorded discussions of the event among oral informants in the late 1980s.[44] The existence and forcefulness of these retrospective testimonies, gathered by Chandler some two decades later, suggest that the filmed execution continued to loom large in these survivors’ memories—although of course the effects of the civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities in shaping these memories should not be overlooked. There is some evidence of the event living on in some sections of what might be termed the public consciousness: in 2005, Prime Minister Hun Sen reputedly threatened to broadcast the film of the execution again as a rebuke to Sihanouk for meddling in current affairs, perhaps suggesting that he had access to the film at that time, and in 2007 anti-Sihanouk leaflets were anonymously distributed in the capital, under the name “Spirit of Preap In.” Yet, Hun Sen’s threat aside, there is no evidence to suggest that the film survives. It is not included in any libraries or archives with holdings of Cambodia-related audio-visual materials.

It is noteworthy that none of the major histories of modern Cambodia reflect upon their necessary reliance on secondary and retrospective sources in their account of Preap In’s execution and its filming. This is but one of many instances—and perhaps a relatively minor one, at that—in which significant historical events are accessible to historians of modern Cambodia only through memory, rather than through primary documents. In particular, the heavy reliance on oral testimonies offered by refugees and exiles after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime points to a great deal of unavoidably subjective reconstruction of events, through the intervening years of turmoil. Yet this is rarely addressed in standard histories of modern Cambodia, including of the Cold War period. While a significant body of scholarly literature engages with questions of memory in Khmer Rouge survivors,[45]this very rarely intersects with standard political, social and cultural histories. 

This historiography of Preap In’s execution film is not only a neat illustration of the larger situation of dependence on memory in many histories of Cold War-era culture in the region, but also resonates in discussions of art in the contemporary setting in Southeast Asia. Art so often becomes a matter of rumour and reputation,[46] just as the filming of Preap In’s execution becomes a site of speculation as much as of memory.[47]And this is especially so when dealing with histories of film screenings, the discussion of which is always necessarily dealing with traces and remnants after the fact, never with the “original” event.

On this latter point, performance theorist Randy Martin argues that “the shifting place of performance in the world can help us to understand how the very conditions for theoretical reflection are produced.”[48] The same could be said of the conditions in which historical reflection are produced. Martin points to the inherent reflexivity of performance—and, we might add, film screening—as a mode of representation that is fleeting, and that is dependent on an assembled audience. He posits that, “if performance not only produces images of life, but acts as the very mirror through which we reflect on life, then it is possible to study not only certain depictions of the world, but how the world is depicted.”[49] This discussion of Sihanouk’s filming of Preap In’s execution has argued that the event may be considered as a “performance” of power which acts as a mirror through which we reflect on death. The event brings alive the inseparable nature of history and historiography.[50]

In this image of death, the long afterlife of Cold War-era culture and “psychological warfare” can be discerned in memory; moreover, the force and weight of Sihanouk’s political power and cinema’s representational power are strikingly illuminated. They are conjoined and yet also competing.

Filmed Executions and Weaponized Drones

Preap In’s was but one among many politically motivated and state-sanctioned killings made into public spectacle. These have taken place throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, during the Cold War period, as well as earlier, and they also continue today. Also killed by firing squad in 1964, Nguyen Van Troi was the first publicly executed member of the Viet Minh communist forces in Saigon, and his execution was also filmed, although the footage was not screened as widely as Sihanouk’s film of Preap In. The example of Troi is notable for pointing to the historical moment of 1964 as one of turmoil and turning points not only within Cambodia’s national borders, but in the larger context of the Second Indochina War. Another example, from 1968, is the summary execution of Nguyen Van Lem. Although not filmed, a photograph of this point-blank shooting in a Saigon boulevard became one of the most iconic images of the American War in Vietnam.[51] Filmed executions are by no means unique to mainland Southeast Asia. Further afield, the former Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes was hanged to death in 1961, while being filmed. Nazi perpetrators had been publicly hanged in some of the earliest trials after 1945, with their corpses photographed and the images widely disseminated.

In the 21st century, filmed executions are perhaps most commonly associated with Islamist extremist militants, for whom digital dissemination of video is intimately linked with close-contact violence. However, it must be noted that by far the most prolific perpetrators of filmed executions in the 21st century are not Islamist extremists, but rather their attackers, the American army’s ever-expanding fleet of weaponized drones, which commit violence that is not close-contact but is of mass impact. These drones are often deployed by agencies such as the CIA, who operate without direct governmental oversight of the day-to-day activities of war; historians have recently argued that this historically unprecedented and morally unpopular method of waging officially undeclared (and largely unaccountable) warfare originated with the so-called “secret war” in Laos, which began in 1960, coinciding with (and closely related to) American efforts at cultural diplomacy and “psychological warfare” in Cambodia.

Drones combine the technology of filming with that of killing in a single, seamless unit.[52] Drones are thus a logical (and loathsome) extension—but also technological expansion—of the monstrous linking of political power with cinematic representation, seen in filmed killings, such as Sihanouk’s filming of Preap In’s execution. In drones, the remnants of the Cold War hover over us today, as ominously as ever.


I thank Seng Yu Jin for the invitation to write this essay, and for his helpful suggestions on an earlier draft. The essay expands on and synthesises parts of two earlier texts. The first, “Filmed Executions: A Short and Monstrous Case Study,” is a short essay commissioned by Kathleen Ditzig for a catalogue planned to arise from an exhibition she curated in Singapore, running from 25 January to 24 February 2019, titled State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters. I thank Kathleen for her always dazzling insights, and for enlivening conversations on the subject of this essay. The second text, “Modernity and Contemporaneity in ‘Cambodian Arts’ After Independence,” is my unpublished doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Melbourne in 2017. I thank my examiners, Ashley Thompson and Patrick D. Flores, as well as my supervisors, Edwin Jurriens, Lewis Mayo, and Nikos Papastergiadis, and most especially the eminent historian of Cambodia, David Chandler, for their perceptive and improving comments on that work.


  1. Milton Osborne, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1994), 162.
  2. David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution Since 1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 341 n.26.
  3. According to ongoing research being conducted by a collective of architectural and amateur cinema historians based in Phnom Penh, collectively known as Roung Kon Project. See [Accessed January 2019]. Anecdotal evidence I have gathered further suggests there was at least one cinema in most smaller towns, including Kampot, Kratie, Banlung, Kampong Thom, Kampong Som (Sihanoukville), and so on. For an evocative documentary cinematic account of film’s mass appeal before 1975, see Davy Chou (director), Le Sommeil d’Or (Golden Slumbers), produced by Vycky films, Bophana Production, Araucania Films, 2011.
  4. For an introductory summary, see: Ingrid Muan and Ly Daravuth, “A Survey of Film in Cambodia,” in Film in South East Asia. Views from the Region. Essays on Film in Ten South East Asia-Pacific Countries, ed. David Hanan (Hanoi: South East Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association, 2001), 93-106.
  5. I emphasize my own subject position in advancing this argument. I am a researcher who is specialised in Cambodia and the region, yet I am visibly foreign and enjoy various forms of privilege that inhere in my body, including my whiteness. I am a citizen of Australia and a resident of Singapore, both economically and militarily powerful states which actively invest in weaponized drone technologies. I seek to mobilize my position and privilege to make my study of Cold War-era Cambodia and Southeast Asia relevant to and useful for the understanding of and resistance to today’s military agendas. In describing the “ominous shadow” of the Cold War over the present, I stress its violent and threatening nature. Following Laura Ann Stoler, I resist metaphors which “[risk] rendering colonial remnants as pale filigrees, benign overlays with barely detectable presence rather than deep pressure points of generative possibilities or violent and violating absences.” Seeing the “remnants” of the Cold War as colonial in nature, and operating like other colonial remnants, I seek, with Stoler, to register the “temporal, spatial, and affective coordinates” of what she terms “duress…It may sometimes be a trace but more often an enduring fissure, a durable mark.” Laura Ann Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 5-6.
  6. Roger Nelson, “‘The Work the Nation Depends On’: Landscapes and Women in the Paintings of Nhek Dim,” in Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945-1990, ed. Stephen H.  Whiteman, Sarena Abdullah, Yvonne Low, and Phoebe Scott (Sydney and Singapore: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2018), 19-48.
  7. Letter to Major General Williams, Washington DC, 29 October 1959. United States of America National Archives and Records Administration (hereinafter USA NARA). RG 59/250/63/10/5-7, Box 5.
  8. Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: American in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 4.
  9. Robert McClintock, letter to George Hellyer, United States Information Agency (USIA), Washington DC, 12 July 1955. USA NARA. RG 59/250/51/26/3-4, Box 1.
  10. Confidential “Inspection Report: USIS Cambodia” by USIA Inspector James L. Meader, 27 March 1959. USA NARA. RG 306/490/42/13/7 Box 2.
  11. I explore the issues in this and the following paragraph further, in relation to dance, in: Roger Nelson, “Pathways in Performance (in and around Cambodia)?” Stedelijk Studies 3 (2015).
  12. US internal memo dated 14 October 1963. USA NARA. RG 306/250/67/19-20/07 Box 1. 
  13. Simon Creak, “Cold War Rhetoric and the Body: Physical Cultures in Early Socialist Laos,” in Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia, ed. Tony Day and Maya HT Liem (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2010), 103. See also: Simon Creak, Embodied Nation: Sport, Masculinity, and the Making of Modern Laos (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015).
  14. Creak, “Cold War Rhetoric,” 107.
  15. In a bestselling Khmer nationalist novel, first published in 1961 and widely received as a tribute to Sihanouk, author Suon Sorin writes that “in the pages of Khmer history, there had never been a king or any other hero who had gone out to do manual labour with his own hands, like His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk. Recently, His Majesty the Prince had even gone to do manual labour with his own hands in [the novel protagonist’s] own province…” See: Suon Sorin, A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land, trans. Roger Nelson (Singapore: NUS Press, 2019), forthcoming.
  16. Justin J. Corfield, Khmers Stand Up! A History of the Cambodian Government, 1970-1975 (Melbourne: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1994), 34. See also: Osborne, Sihanouk, 162.
  17. Osborne, Sihanouk, 163.
  18. See: Nelson, “Work the Nation Depends On.”
  19. Milton Osborne, Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1979), 57.
  20. Osborne, Sihanouk, 162.
  21. Chandler, Tragedy, 341 n.26.
  22. Boris Groys, “Iconoclasm as an Artistic Device: Iconoclastic Strategies in Film,” trans. Matthew Partridge [2002], in Art Power, (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2013), 73.
  23. Corfield, Khmers Stand Up, 34.
  24. Chandler, Tragedy, 122 and 133-137. This English rendering of Sangkum Reastr Niyum is also Chandler’s, although has now entered general usage.
  25. Chandler, Tragedy, 341 n.26.
  26. Most historians have long affirmed that the 1970 coup that overthrew Sihanouk and installed Lon Nol, giving rise to civil war, was backed by the US. However, the American Embassy in Phnom Penh recently issued a surprise denial of this, which in turn led to further accusations from their Chinese diplomatic counterparts—another instance of the Cold War’s continuing remnants today. See: Mech Dara, “Embassy Denies US Role in Lon Nol Coup d’Etat,” The Phnom Penh Post, 1 February 2019.
  27. Ian Harris, Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 153.
  28. Corfield, Khmers Stand Up, 34.
  29. For a detailed study of Sihanouk’s films, see: Eliza Romey, “King, Politician, Artist: The Films of Norodom Sihanouk,” unpublished Master of Arts thesis, La Trobe University, Australia, 1998.
  30. To observe that cinema has mass appeal is far from new. Rancière eloquently encapsulates this predominant view when he calls cinema “the people’s art of the twentieth century, the art that made it possible for the greatest number, for those who did not get into museums, to delight in the splendour of a light effect on an everyday décor, the poetry in the clink of a glass or banal exchange in a bar.” Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (London, New York: Verso, 2014), 137. I reiterate this claim about cinema’s broad reach here specifically in order to point to its links to the cross-class appeal of other forms of performance, which I have discussed in some detail in relation to dance, in: Nelson, “Pathways in Performance.”
  31. This summary draws on Muan and Daravuth, “Survey of Film in Cambodia,” 93-106. The authors draw primarily on colonial records in the National Archives of Cambodia, and also on oral testimony from artists and filmmakers recorded in the late 1990s. The same research is available in Khmer in: Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan, Kamnoet Kon Khmaer [The Birth of Khmer Cinema] (Phnom Penh: Reyum, 2009).
  32. Author unnamed, “Cambodian Film,” Cambodian Commentary: Review of Khmer Opinion 9 (June 1960): 32.
  33. The urban and rural craze for movies was driven not only by the novelty of Cambodian-made films and international imports, but also by affordable ticket prices, constant screenings, and an abundance of cinemas. This is described in many novels of the period, and evocatively remembered in the 2011 documentary film, Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’Or, produced by Vycky films, Bophana Production, Araucania Films), directed by Cambodian-French Davy Chou, the grandson of a prominent film producer before 1975.
  34. Romey, “King, Politician, Artist,” 19, 129-151.
  35. Details of the film’s cast are from Romey, “King, Politician, Artist,” 136-137.
  36. Jessica Austin, “Gender and the Nation in Popular Cambodian Heritage Cinema,” unpublished Master of Arts in Asian Studies thesis, University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, 2014, 77-78.
  37. Roger Nelson, “Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument and Vientiane’s Patuxai: Complex Symbols of Postcolonial Nationhood in Cold War-era Southeast Asia,” in Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World, ed. Laura Macaluso (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), forthcoming.
  38. Austin, “Gender and the Nation,” 78.
  39. See, for example: Author unnamed, “Voici encore quelques photos du concours d’élégance de Kep” [Here are some photos of the Kep beauty contest], Réalités Cambodgiennes, 7 June 1963: 12-13.
  40. Chandler, Tragedy, 153.
  41. Personal communications, 2015.
  42. Chandler, Tragedy, vi. Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004), xii.
  43. Osborne, Sihanouk, 162.
  44. Chandler, Tragedy, 341 n.26.
  45. See, for example, Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). For contextual discussion of memory scholarship elsewhere in Southeast Asia, see Roxana Waterson and Kwok Kian-Woon, eds., Contestations of Memory in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2012).
  46. “Figuring out who had a name, who had a reputation among other artists was also easy; the difficult part was figuring out what gave those artists that reputation.” Nora A. Taylor, “The Southeast Asian Art Historian as Ethnographer?” Third Text 25, no. 4 (2011): 485.
  47. I have avoided discussing the Preap In film in terms of trauma, although as an event that was sickening in its first viewing, and quite inescapable given its presentation in every cinema nation-wide, and has become literally unviewable thereafter, the footage may lend itself well to a psychoanalytic reading. For a discussion of the “lost” and thus equally unviewable photographic documents of political violence in 1973 and 1976 in Thailand, see Clare Veal, “Thainess Framed: Photography and Thai Identity, 1946-2010,” unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney, 2016, esp. Chapter 6.
  48. Randy Martin, “Dance and Its Others: Theory, State, Nation, and Socialism,” in Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, ed. André Lepecki (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 47.
  49. Martin, “Dance and Its Others,” 47.
  50. Writing of the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, one of the most-scrutinized artefacts of the Khmer Angkorian empire, Ashley Thompson argues for the “irreducibility of the partnership between history and historiography … the ultimate inadequacy of any initiative to establish the former in the absence of critical attention to the latter.” Ashley Thompson, Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 24.
  51. The black and white photograph was taken by photojournalist Eddie Adams of Associated Press, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.
  52. Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory, trans. Janet Lloyd (Great Britain: Penguin, 2015).

Roger Nelson is an art historian, and a curator at National Gallery Singapore. He was previously Postdoctoral Fellow at Nanyang Technological University. His research considers images, texts and urban spaces in relation to discourses of modernity and contemporaneity in Southeast Asia. He is co-founding co-editor of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, a journal published by NUS Press. Roger completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne, on ‘Cambodian arts’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He has contributed essays to scholarly journals including ABE Journal: Architecture Beyond Europe, Stedelijk Studies, and Udaya: Journal of Khmer Studies; specialist art magazines; as well as books and exhibition catalogues. He has curated exhibitions and projects in Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Roger’s translation of Suon Sorin’s 1961 Khmer novel, A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land, is forthcoming with NUS Press.