Humans have certainly committed many horrible atrocities against themselves. Stories of the Mongol campaigns of the 1200s are horrifying and barbaric. The systematic genocide of the Jews and Gypsies by Nazi Germany is world-infamous. I personally consider the conquest of the Americas by Europe and the subsequent subjugation and destruction of its native peoples as the greatest tragedy in human history.
While it may not have been carried out on the same scale as these larger atrocities, and while it may have only lasted a few years, and while its effects were rather limited, the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s outranks the others in its cruelty, its mindlessness, and arguably in its horror. It may have come to an end 36 years ago, but in many ways Cambodia still lurks underneath its shadow.
Cambodia is traditionally overlooked by outside powers. Despite the glories of its medieval Khmer Empire — epitomized by the magnificent ruins of Angkor — it is today a small, poor backwater overshadowed by its big neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. It was colonized by France in the 1860s but mostly neglected in favor of Vietnam. It was a humble country based around rice farming and fishing, with only one city, Phnom Penh. While Vietnam had a turbulent mid-1900s — World War II, the war for independence, the “Vietnam War” against America and its allies — Cambodia mostly passed out of French control peacefully, with its king, Sihanouk, providing continuity.
But all was not well. Cambodia’s farmers were cut off from the outside world — no decent roads, no electricity, primitive means of communication. The Mekong River, a major Southeast Asian artery that cuts right through the country, gives it a unifying thread, but people on the fringes eked out subsistence lives on small farms. The country was governed by an anachronistic feudal monarchy out of step with the changes taking place elsewhere. Although King Sihanouk was popular, rural resentment at the oppressive elite in Phnom Penh boiled hot. A grassroots insurgency against the French in the 1940s merged into a Communist movement under Vietnamese influence.
By the 1960s Cambodia was fighting a full-scale civil war. Sihanouk tried to keep his country out of the war raging in Laos to the north and South Vietnam to the east, but allowed Vietnamese Communists to infiltrate east Cambodia, where they encouraged the Cambodian Communist movement. This was the so-called “Khmers Rouges” (Red Khmers; Khmers are the ethnic group of Cambodia), who appealed to desperate farmers hopeful for a better future. In 1970 discontent at Sihanouk’s neutrality-but-not-really erupted in a coup, and a forthrightly pro-American government took power. This meant the US could bomb and attack Cambodia with impunity, and it did so ferociously. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians died, Cambodia’s already shoddy infrastructure was ruined, and the Communist movement only grew as the US stopped being a distant oppressor and became a daily menace. As in South Vietnam next door, the Communist guerrillas overthrew the government in 1975.
Then came history’s best example of an already terrible situation getting even worse.
Convinced that Phnom Penh’s corrupt elite were one of the roots of Cambodia’s evils, the Khmer Rouge hurriedly evacuated the city when they entered it, emptying it into an eerie ghost town within days. Well-educated, urban families were marched on foot out into the countryside with few supplies. The same happened in Cambodia’s other two big towns, Siem Reap and Battambang, on a smaller scale. Everyone was forced onto giant communes in the countryside and worked all day. Food was rationed out by the Khmer Rouge, and people were kept at permanent hunger level. Mass indoctrination preached the glories of Communism, the bright future destined for Cambodia, and the virtues of an agrarian lifestyle.
But for the most part, the Khmer Rouge brought Cambodia only death and despair. The elite who didn’t make it out in time were killed. Thousands died in the evacuations. Intellectuals were killed. Anyone with a French education was killed. Foreigners were killed. Any dissenters were killed. The sick and old were killed. The madness ramped up, and up, and up, until perfectly innocent people were denounced on made-up charges (like “spying for the CIA” or KGB) and tortured until they confessed. Old political scores were settled, of course, but soon new ones were found or invented.
It was a grisly, sickening experience, one that exceeds other genocides for two reasons. One was how primitive it all was. Cambodia remained starved of resources, so using guns to carry out the murder was rare and merciful. In Rwanda, the genocidal Hutus used machetes to kill their victims; the Khmer Rouge used farm implements. In the notorious “killing fields,” prisoners were more or less beaten to death in agonizing pain. The second reason is that unlike other genocides, the Khmer Rouge didn’t target a specific ethnic group. Minorities like the Chams and Vietnamese in the southeast were wiped out, making Cambodia unusually homogeneous for a Southeast Asian country, but Khmers were not spared their rulers’ wrath. Before long even poor farmers, the group the Communists were supposed to be helping, were being slaughtered. It was a genocide directed against the government’s own subjects. “To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss,” was the friendly taunt of the Khmer Rouge soldier.
By 1979, ordinary Cambodians were denouncing their friends and family to the commune guards just to stay alive. Pol Pot, the mysterious head of the government, spoke of bringing Cambodia to a “Year Zero” so it could begin again without its corrupt French influence. There’s no telling how much longer this insanity would’ve gone on if he hadn’t dumbly picked a fight with newly reunified and resurgent Vietnam. South Vietnam is former Cambodian territory, and a Khmer minority remains near the border. In order to bring them back into his gruesome fold, Pol Pot invaded Vietnam. It backfired miserably, with the Vietnamese counterattacking and driving the Khmer Rouge out of power by 1979.
Cambodia’s genocidal nightmare was over, but sadly it still wasn’t out of the woods. The Khmer Rouge merely retreated into the north and continued a guerrilla insurgency, something it was very used to. Vietnam stayed as an occupying force, which was condemned internationally and cut Cambodia off from desperately needed foreign aid. But the massacres were over, and Cambodia could begin the long process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. In the end, 2 million people had died — 1/4 of the whole population. What had begun as an emulation of the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” had morphed into something far more twisted and incomprehensible, and with far worse effects on the country and the national psyche.
It’s been 36 years since the Khmer Rouge regime, but Cambodia still sees its effects. Many visitors talk of a ghostly pallor pervading the country, a perpetual sense of unease, a sort of haunting at the recognition of Cambodia’s wasted potential. Some of it might be hyperbole, but there’s no denying that post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant among the older generation. You don’t survive something that drastic without permanent mental and psychological damage. And although it’s not directly connected to the genocide, land mines remain buried in remote Cambodian fields, and their victims are common sights.
Like other victims of prolonged war and internal disorder, Cambodia today is a country picking itself back up. Its infrastructure remains shoddy and basic, but thanks to foreign investment and aid it’s being steadily improved. Bomb-ravaged Phnom Penh is thriving again. Tourists flock to its riverside promenade, the beaches at Sihanoukville, and the impressive ruins of Angkor. Despite a clash with Thailand in 2008, Cambodia is now a member of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a regional grouping that promotes consensus, harmony and economic ties. Opportunities for ambitious Khmer youth are emerging, although many opt to go elsewhere for steady work.
But the shadows of the Khmer Rouge remain. In part this is because the regime’s prisons and the killing fields remain as memorials to the millions that died there. Children are taught about the slaughter and open discussion about it is permitted. In part it is because the Khmer Rouge lingered in Cambodia’s jungles into the ’90s, fighting off the government and trying to keep the flame of Communism alive without Chinese support. But mostly it is because Cambodia has never really come to terms with the disaster and never seriously tried to analyze why it happened.
In large part this is because although Pol Pot and a small ruling clique instigated it, it was a nationwide catastrophe. The killings, torture, and slave-like labor were committed by ordinary people in black uniforms. Ordinary people themselves turned into killers in desperate attempts to protect themselves. Like other societies put into extreme, life-or-death situations, Cambodia resorted to evil deeds just to survive. It is hard to figure out who to point the finger of blame at.
This hasn’t stopped the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia from trying. Created in 2006 by the UN in cooperation with the Cambodian government, it has tried the highest-ranking members of the old regime. The proceedings have renewed interest in Cambodia’s suffering and brought many chilling stories out of the closet. They are broadcast on TV and attract packed audiences. Yet like most trials, they have gone on, and on, and on, with only 3 convictions to show for it: “Duch,” the commandant of Tuol Sleng, the prison in Phnom Penh; Nuon Chea, a prime minister and ideologue; and Khieu Samphan, a president. Ieng Sary, the government’s foreign minister and Pol Pot’s closest associate, died in 2013 before being convicted. His wife, Ieng Thirith, minister of social affairs, was excused for being crazy and died this August. (Pol Pot himself died in 1998 while still fighting in the jungle.)
3 is good enough, says Hun Sen, the current dictator. He was always uncomfortable with the courts, partially because they’re partly foreigners passing judgment on Cambodians, partially because so many Cambodians have pasts tainted by the genocide. Hun Sen himself, as a good example, was originally a Khmer Rouge, but defected to Vietnam when things got crazy. There may be skeletons in his closet that he doesn’t want exhumed. There are probably skeletons in the closets of other officials. Hun Sen had allowed the court to proceed with the understanding that only these high-level scourges would be nailed, but this year the court has moved on to a naval commander responsible for killing some unfortunate tourists who sailed into Cambodian territory and another prison commandant, this time in the northwest. Neither has yet been arrested.
To be fair, that the tribunal is happening at all is in itself a remarkable achievement. Partly it reflects how heinous the Khmer Rouge’s crimes were, but it’s also in Hun Sen’s interest to broadcast how horrible they were, since he was the one who liberated Cambodia from them (or rather, the Vietnamese army that installed him liberated Cambodia). Focusing on old misdeeds also distracts attention from current misdeeds, from the usual corruption to extrajudicial killings and suppression of the opposition. Sure, Cambodia may still be a repressive, authoritarian place, but at least it’s not a genocidal Communist totalitarian hell. Other countries (China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan……) have gone nowhere near as far in introspection of the genocide and prosecution of its perpetrators.
And many Cambodians, especially the young generation, are tired of fixating on the Khmer Rouge and their 4-year reign of terror. It may have been an absolute, sickening nightmare, but it was also in the past. Cambodia has come a long way from that era. It may still be a poor country dependent on foreign aid, with only one real city and an overwhelmingly rural population, but it now faces the usual questions faced by Third World countries — how to develop without lapsing into a neocolonial relationship. It is at peace and relatively stable. Foreigners may linger on the genocide — something I’ve contributed to with this post — but many Cambodians are eager to let bygones be bygones.
As long as it never, ever happens again.
Ironically, people actually take holidays in Cambodia now. Especially South Koreans.