No money for nothing

November 21, 2012

It’s a nice feeling when you manage to find something you’ve been looking for for a long time. It happened to me last weekend, and I’m still quietly thrilled about it.

In 1975, as the Cambodian civil war was reaching its climax and Phnom Penh was about to fall to the Khmer Rouge, their political masters in Beijing decided to help put in place some of the necessary odds and ends that go to make up a civilised society.

One of the helpful things China thought the new shiny socialist paradise that was to be Cambodia would need was new banknotes. So they printed some for Pol Pot’s putative government. Available in seven denominations, from 100 riel down, they are things of beauty, watermarked with images of Angkor Wat, and featuring delicate intaglio engravings of heroic peasants labouring in the fields: planting and threshing and ploughing and harvesting and smiling as they strove to create the perfect society. Oh, and a bit of fighting too.

So Beijing printed them, and, once the Khmer Rouge had brutally sacked and emptied Phnom Penh, they flew them in and presented them to their communist cohorts. Who had rather different ideas.

In a move of breathtaking radical communist thinking, Pol Pot decided that his new society would start afresh, from Year Zero, and one thing they wouldn’t need was money. None. No private property, no commerce. No markets, no exchange of goods and services. No store of capital.

So the banknotes, presumably bales of them, disappeared into the void that was the Democratic Kampuchea, and were probably used as fuel for fires. No one knows for sure. Meanwhile, over the next few years, the Cambodian peasants did indeed labour mightily in the fields, some two million of them starving to death as the Khmer Rouge swapped their rice for Chinese weaponry.

So the Khmer Rouge money stood as an odd footnote to one of the greatest failed social experiments the world has ever seen.

I heard about the banknotes during a lecture given by a French academic a few years ago, where he showed a few notes he had found. “Occasionally,” he said, “some shows up at the Russian Market.” And I was gripped.

I quite like money, in an abstract sense, as well as the being-able-to-pay-for-stuff one. I used to have a one-hundred-trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote taped up above my desk, to remind me of something or other about capitalism. So I developed an intense desire to get me some Khmer Rouge money. And last week, I finally managed it.

At a tiny, dim and dusty stall tucked away in the Russian Market, a stern-faced old lady pulled a thin file from beneath the counter, and there they were: a full set of all seven, slightly the worse for wear, but indisputably Chinese-made unissued Khmer Rouge money. We haggled for a while, and both came away happy (she was better than me though).

A local framer put them in a beautiful double-sided frame for less than the price of a taxi from Oxford Circus to Shepherd’s Bush, in 24 hours, and now I’m just waiting for my landlord, the saintly Mr Sokha, to come up and put a nail in the wall. Which may take a while.

He’s almost certain never to have seen the stuff, and I wonder about his attitude when he finds out what it is. He was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge took over, and has presumably seen horror beyond imagining. I hope he doesn’t mind about it. If he does, I’ll buy him a pint. With US dollars, which is what we use here now.


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