‘ “Your father has a big belly! He must have stolen people’s food and so he was a capitalist!”, said a man who intruded my home without cause. My father was dragged out and carried away in a truck. I have never heard of him again.’, said in one testimony of a victim of the massacres under the Khmer Rouge. His tragedy was shared by million others during the short rule of the Khmer Rouge period, and we must not fall into fallacy expressed by Stalin: ‘A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic‘. Each death is a tragedy and a million deaths – a million tragedies, and a million testaments to the horrible crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.
Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, Cambodia gained independence from France but was immediately dragged into Cold War as the Vietnam War was raging at her border. Under Sihanouk, the de facto king of Cambodia, Cambodia initially stayed neutral, but increasingly tilted to the left. Possibly with some US help, Sihanouk was ousted and a new republic was proclaimed. It was to be a short-lived republic. Sihanouk was determined to fight back and the civil war soon depleted the resources and destroyed the economy. US aerial bombing made the matter worse. Khmer Rouge was waging a guerrilla warfare for years and finally saw their chances. On 1 January 1975, Khmer Rouge launched their offensives and cut off the supplies of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. By April, the republic surrendered. On 17 April, the Khmer Rouge marched triumphantly into the city. The nightmare began.
Khmer Rouge was led by a man called Pol Pot, who came from a well-to-do family and studied in Paris in his youth. He came back to Cambodia as a denatured national communist who had a nightmarish vision of transforming Cambodia into a primitive agricultural society, restoring the glamour of the Ancient Angkor. To accomplish that, his very first order was to expel people from Phnom Penh, because they were the corrupted city-dwellers who must be ‘reformed’ to become the ‘new people’. Cambodia must be cleansed of all the capitalist germs. Wearing glasses was a symptom of artificial intelligence and hence an ‘enemy of the people’. Many near-sighted people were therefore executed.
Today visitors to Phnom Penh went to Tuol Sleng (Museum of Genocide) and Choeung Ek Memorial (The Killing Field) as ‘tourist attractions’. Visiting historical sites often gave a sense of remoteness and distance, as if what happened in history had little bearing on current life. This was plainly not true in Tuol Sleng, a high school used as torture camp by the Khmer Rouge. Our guide – a kind middle-aged woman – told us, with calmness, that during those times, she was a refugee in Vietnam. Before she fled to there with her mother, her father and brother were forced to work in fields. One night, they never came back and would never do. As one estimate puts the death toll at around 1.7 millions, the tragic story of our guide is the norm rather than exception.
Tuol Sleng housed many ‘political prisoners’, who were tortured, forced to disclose names, and finally killed. The former high school was redesigned and many cells were built inside the spacious classrooms. Prisoners were taken out for routine torturing until they confessed as agents of FBI and then disclosed their associates, and even family members. Since no regime can hold power by pure forces, people must be kept in constant psychological terror and have their energies diverted to mutual denouncements. Details of the torturing can be read in the first-hand account of Chum Mey (one of the twelve known survivors of Tuol Sleng). A few paintings, some bloodstains on the ground, and cabinets full of human skulls suffice to illustrate the terror.
Tuol Sleng was only one of the execution centers. Khmer Rouge executed people in many killing fields, and one of which was in Choeung Ek, situated at the outskirt of Phnom Penh. It is hard to believe the present tranquil field to have been a scene of bloody executions. Years ago, unsuspecting visitors might have stumbled upon some bones, found one or two skulls and then discovered massive graves. The memorial exhibited over 8000 skulls. During that time Khmer Rouge had scarce resources and ammunitions were expensive. They devised cheap but efficient way of killings: throats were slashed against the sharp and jagged ridge of the palm trees. To prevent the offsprings of the parents revenging (or as the Cambodian and Chinese idiom puts it – ‘cut the grass and pull the root’), little infants were banged against the trees, often in front of the mothers. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers of the field kept producing deafening revolutionary songs and music – not for celebration but to cover the victims’ horrible cries, so that incoming prisoners would not have heard them. The deeds committed can truly be qualified as ‘crimes against humanity’.
One may be surprised to find that the people who committed themselves to these monstrous crimes were highly educated people. Most of the Khmer Rouge leaders, like Pol Pot, studied in Paris in their youths. Khieu Samphan, the prime minister of the Khmer Rouge regime, received a doctorate from Sorbonne. Ieng Sary, the foreign minister, was a history professor. His wife, who was also charged for crimes against humanity, majored in Shakespeare at Sorbonne, and subsequently worked as professor of English. They were obviously highly intelligent people but yet they were bent to fulfill their vision at whatever costs. Education and reasons are no bar against a person already infected and poisoned with a distorted worldview.
This phenomenon also happened in Russia. Thanks to his brother’s failed assassination attempt on the tsar, Lenin was denied admission to St. Petersburg University but was allowed to self-study for his law degree. He self-taught and duly passed the exams. Stalin, often being looked down and later derided by his opponents as a ‘grey blur’, received top grades for all his subjects in a school that recruited the best minds of Georgia. It was without questions that other Russian revolutionary leaders like Trotsky and Bukharin were highly intelligent. Just like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leaders, they used their brilliant minds to accomplish a dystopian vision – one that requires a colossus of human sacrifices.
Similarly in France, massive terrors were committed under the grand and enlightened terms of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ during the French Revolution. The numberless deaths under the efficient guillotine are too well-known to be recounted. A less well-known but equally gruesome is noyades: prisoners were locked in hulk and then drowned en masse.
The revolutions and massacres in France, Russia and Cambodia showed that rationality is only a thin veil of the human mind. It is easily torn and trashed when the passion runs high. Or it can be bent down and become the obedient servant of any strongly held and self-justified vision. Notice how rationality and intelligence are used to devise ingenious methods for cheap and efficient killings: slashing throats against ridge of palm trees, killing by guillotine and drowning in noyades.
Fortunately, this kind of situation can not last long, because it contains the seeds of its own destruction. At home, Pol Pot grew so paranoid that he started to execute some of his close comrades. He was living under the constant fear of a potential Vietnamese invasion. He decided to strike first and invade Vietnam. This was to be a disastrous move. The Vietnamese army quickly defeated the Cambodian forces and rolled into the Cambodian territory. Pol Pot fled and the other Khmer Rouge leaders followed. After four years of indiscriminate killings, the regime finally collapsed.
Sihanouk came back to power. Pol Pot spent the rest of his time hiding in the jungle. He was later interviewed and remaining unrepentant, he said “Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.” He died at age 72, without ever being tried for his crimes. For better or worse, his comrades live longer, and so they can face their trials which were close only a year ago. Shortly before their trials, Sihanouk died and is succeeded by his son, Sihamoni. The scars that Khmer Rouge left on Cambodia are long and deep. A whole generation was either dislocated (for fleeing to Vietnam) or had at least one of their family members injured or killed. Tourists in Angkor Wat would have seen groups of people having their legs or arms amputated but playing traditional Cambodian music for donations. They were the victims of land mines planted indiscriminately by Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia remains a young nation struggling to get up from her feet. Corruption is rife. At Poipet, a Cambodian town on the Cambodia/Thailand border, a man in uniform offered me a quick pass for 20$. Last month, protesters questioned the recent prime minister election but faced gunfire from police. Cambodia’s future remains unsettled.
Extended reading: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, Khmer Rouge A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival and Survivor: The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge genocide