ASEAN leaders

ASEAN’s leaders always have to do this at each summit. For extra nerd points, name the country each one is from! (Here’s a hint for #2.) Image source: Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines

In the name of unity, strength, and expanded markets, countries have been banding together into regional unions since World War II destroyed colonial empires and discredited old-fashioned international relations. The European Union (EU), with its common currency, multi-armed bureaucracy and regional parliament, is the most famous of these, and justly so — it’s the world’s 2nd-largest economy (or #1, depending on whom you ask) and has its own foreign relations. But there are other regional unions, too, with their own distinctive identities and cultures.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN; pronounced asean, not eizien) is probably the 2nd-most important of these, even though only Southeast Asians and foreign policy wonks seem to know about it. But it’s an increasingly relevant and interesting group, so it’s high time for us to check it out.


Image source: ASEAN UP

Southeast Asia, above all else, is characterized by its diversity. Thanks mostly to its geography — with most of its people living on a series of islands scattered around the sea and the long Malay Peninsula being the only land link with the river-based kingdoms on the mainland — Southeast Asians went through most of their history without a sense of common identity or much interest in their neighbors. The Khmer Empire and, later, Siam might have dominated the mainland, and Srivijaya and Majapahit may have dominated the islands, but there was no pan-Southeast Asian identity until recently. Even religiously, the region isn’t on the same page: the mainland is fervently Buddhist while the islands mostly prefer Islam. The Philippines was converted to Christianity by Spain; Vietnam has its own religion strongly influenced by China.

The colonial era gave Southeast Asia a new sense of identity simply because almost everyone was colonized. India, to the west, was dominated by Britain; China, to the north, remained independent. Southeast Asia came under British, Dutch, French, Spanish, American and Portuguese rule. That marked it off from the rest of Asia, but it still didn’t do much to unify it. The real dawn of a sense of “Southeast Asia” came during World War II, when the region was finally unified by Japan. Even then, “Southeast Asia” was a term mostly used by foreigners.

In the postwar period, though, some Southeast Asians began to see common links and interests among them. The big concern then was Communism; Communist insurgencies plagued most of the area’s new countries after the war, and Indonesia had one of the world’s biggest and most active Communist parties. A Communist regime took power in North Vietnam in 1954 and went on to destabilize and interfere with its neighbors. The innately conservative leaders of Southeast Asia were worried about social unrest, economic collapse and an impending Commie takeover. America threw together a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 to guard against this, but it only included Thailand and the Philippines (the rest were all foreigners!) and never amounted to much. Besides, after the struggle against colonists and Japan, Southeast Asians were eager to throw off foreign domination.

There were other impetuses behind the group’s formation. Indonesia and Malaysia went to war in 1963 over who would get northern Borneo. Malays in southern Thailand launched an (ongoing) insurgency in the hopes of secession. With the Communist threat looming, Indonesia’s new dictator, Suharto, was annoyed at the thought of petty squabbles like these distracting local leaders. He wanted to focus on the Communist threat and purged his country’s Communist party in 1965. He was the figure behind ASEAN’s creation in 1967.

Beyond the political motivations, ASEAN’s founders also had economic ambitions for their new union. It was meant to promote trade links and eventually create a common market for local goods. The original members — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — all had close links with the global economy and often their old masters and wanted to promote openness and cultural exchange. Tariffs were gradually reduced and protected sectors opened up until a free trade area was declared in 1992. (Meanwhile, tiny Brunei joined in 1984.) These ambitions ran into some difficulties due to basic economic realities, though: like the rest of the developing world, Southeast Asia is mostly rural, and depends on commodities and raw materials for its foreign exchange. It buys manufactured goods in return. This led it to try tricks like industrial investment projects involving components from different countries in ASEAN; they didn’t turn out very well.

Meanwhile, Communism was indeed held at bay (although the extent to which ASEAN was responsible for this is dubious). North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and Communists took over Laos and Cambodia, but the results were stagnant, and none of the Communist insurgencies elsewhere in the region ever caught on. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Communist countries of Indochina had no leg to stand on. They opened up their economies, privatized many of their state-owned enterprises, and reversed collectivized agriculture. In the late ’90s, ASEAN’s old enemies joined the club, implicitly endorsing its liberal agenda. In a move that surprised many, even Myanmar, a non-Communist but closed, repressive, and impoverished country, joined in 1997. This makes ASEAN almost complete, encompassing all of Southeast Asia except East Timor.

ASEAN regularly holds summits and meetings of its members’ ministers, and occasionally meets with important foreigners (Americans, Indians, Chinese), but its meetings have a reputation for being staid, boilerplate and overall uneventful. But it made headlines recently for finally inaugurating the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015… on the very last day of the year.

The economic community was a long time in coming, although few predicted that it would actually come together in time. It aims to forge ASEAN into a single market and production base, encourage competitiveness and equitable development, and further integrate Southeast Asia into the global economy. And indeed, 70% of trade in the region is tariff-free. There are international rail, road, and energy infrastructure projects. The standards for some skilled positions have been unified, creating a common labor market and giving employers access to a broader base of talent.

To get the community going in time, though, involved a bit (O.K., maybe a lot) of fudging. Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s Minister of Trade & Industry, described ASEAN as “Like the swan, we do not always move forward. We sometimes go in rounds – but always gracefully.”

Non-tariff barriers to economic integration remain, from language tests for those skilled workers to quotas. There are still lots of protected sectors, even ones that are supposed to be open to competition across ASEAN — Indonesia protects its airlines, for example, and Malaysia shields its car industry. Except in Indochina and the Singapore area, few of ASEAN’s international transport links have come to fruition. The ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline are only half-complete.

Southeast Asia’s biggest businesses tend to have cozy ties with the state, either via what’s called “crony capitalism” (as in Malaysia) or through state-owned enterprises (as in Vietnam). Industries are still in their infancy and governments feel obliged to protect them. Most of Southeast Asia’s businesses are small or medium-sized and can’t compete on a global scale. For all these reasons, ASEAN leaders only enact trade reforms when they want to. Intra-ASEAN trade still doesn’t make much economic sense, either. Singapore has been the local trading hub ever since it was founded in 1819, so it has been in the forefront of the drive to liberalize trade, but other countries trade more with China, Japan, or the West. Most Southeast Asian economies are part of a manufacturing chain with China, and there’s only so much lowering trade barriers can do.

As a result, ASEAN has developed its own culture of taking it easy and not enforcing the standards it sets. There is no penalty for breaking the rules. Unlike the EU, there is no political requirement — it started as a dictators’ club, and countries like Thailand and Vietnam are still staunch authoritarians. There is virtually no Brussels-style bureaucracy, just a small secretariat in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia, ASEAN’s giant) with 400 employees and a budget of $17 million. ASEAN values consensus and harmony and avoids criticizing its members. This has led many (perhaps most) foreigners from writing it off as toothless.

Although ASEAN is primarily an economic union, it also has a big political component, which is why such a weird collection of economies has grouped together in the first place. It has been caught in the geopolitical tremors caused by the rise of China. Many of ASEAN’s members (Vietnam and the Philippines, and increasingly Malaysia and Myanmar) are worried about China’s growing assertiveness and its arrogance in diplomacy with the region. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, are embroiled in a dispute with China over the sea and islands between them and have been visibly drawing closer to America in response. But everyone also has close business and diplomatic ties with China and is nervous about too sharp of a break. Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, in particular, are very poor and heavily dependent on China for infrastructure projects and development aid. When Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summit in 2012, Chinese pressure kept the group from issuing its usual joint statement. The same thing happened with a defense summit last November.

Part of the problem is a lack of leadership. France and (especially) Germany are the clear leaders of the EU, but history, geography and the aforementioned culture of consensus mean that the 10 countries of ASEAN rotate the chair each year and have equal power. Indonesia, with 40% of the area’s population and by far its biggest economy, would seem to be in a better position than Germany to dominate, but it lacks a history of imperialism, has a culture of diplomacy and persuasion, and is mostly inward-focused anyway. In fact, it’s been shown up by the small city-state of Singapore, which has a large, professional, English-speaking and culturally savvy diplomatic corps, a vision of economic and cultural integration, and a multiethnic composition that keeps nationalism out of the way. Thailand has been distracted by its political problems; Vietnam is a rising star catching up with the bigger economies, but still mostly focused on internal development and its relations with China and America.

This lack of cohesion, enforcement mechanisms, common culture, and failure to hold itself to strict standards has led foreigners to dismiss ASEAN as only a “talking shop” for heads of state to get together and compare notes with. It’s definitely nowhere near as coherent as the EU and doesn’t present much of an obstacle to Chinese ambition. If ASEAN wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, it will need to unite a little more.

I personally do not share the Western consensus of dismissal of ASEAN. It definitely has its problems, as I’ve pointed out, but sometimes I think the comparison with the EU gives rise to unrealistic expectations.

The EU has a fundamental common heritage and a shared trauma of conflict to pull it together. ASEAN lacks this. Myanmar’s people speak different languages, worship different gods, and have different cultures from, say, Filipinos. If ASEAN had stricter rules and standards, it would not have grown as fast as it did. ASEAN’s leaders welcome the club because they are treated fairly (as they perceive it) and face no overt pressure.

ASEAN’s founding declaration emphasizes things like “collaboration… on matters of common interest” and “assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities.” It’s meant to provide for closer links between its members, which helped prompt a sense of common identity and gradually spread the ideal of open borders and free trade among its members. In this sense it has made great strides since its founding. When ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it can look back on decades of peace, economic dynamism, and the successful integration of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — some of Asia’s poorest countries when they joined in the ’90s. No, it doesn’t have a common currency, but how could it? The gap between Myanmar (with $23 billion in trade) and Singapore (with $783 billion in trade) is just way too big.

Europeans also need to keep in mind that Asia has different cultural values. Democracy and public participation is not cherished as highly, especially not among the governing classes. Consensus and community are important. Cracking down on troublemakers and trying to clarify its culture and goals might alienate some members and even drive them out. ASEAN prefers to lead by example. It may lead to cheating and frustratingly slow progress, but I’m not convinced that it’s an ultimately ineffectual style. With the EU now mired in crisis and mutual hostility, ASEAN may even have something to teach the rest of the world.

ASEAN flag

The ASEAN flag. Guess what the bound stalks represent. Image source: World Flag Database


South China Sea

Image source: The Economist

The rise of China has unsettled much of the world and especially its neighbors, since like most rising powers it’s making its newfound strength and influence felt overseas. Chinese investment in Africa is so substantial at this point that it’s propping up entire countries. The Chinese alliance with Pakistan is tighter than ever, and China wants to build an oil pipeline across Pakistan to open up a backdoor route for its precious oil supply. China’s support for North Korea keeps that rickety regime erect despite international fury over its temper tantrums and crime. China’s hatred for Japan flares up from time to time through territorial disputes and complaints about Japan’s handling of its own war history.

But most of all, it’s the dispute in the South China Sea that disturbs the region, since more than anything else it shows that China wants to be the regional hegemon (dominant power) and doesn’t care who stands in its way. Let’s look at how this dispute flared up and consider whether it’s serious.

East Asia is fundamentally different from, say, Europe, because of its geography. The area is much bigger and more spread out. China takes up the bulk of the landmass, India most of the rest. Aside from the 5 countries of mainland Southeast Asia hanging underneath China, the rest of the countries are islands and peninsulas separated from each other and with very different histories and outlooks. In the center of Southeast Asia, though, is the South China Sea, which connects China with Vietnam, the Philippines, and, at the southern end, Borneo. It’s always been a very important stage for trade, since it’s easiest to approach China from the south (unless you’re northern nomads). It’s also how China has historically projected its influence over Southeast Asia. Chinese trade binds the region together, and Chinese settlers play important roles all over Southeast Asia, including in Vietnam and the Philippines, the main South China Sea countries. But for the most part, the countries ignored each other; there was never a Chinese imperial expansion southwards into Southeast Asia.* The countries mostly developed according to their own rhythms and cultures.

BUT… There are two groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, and both of them are far enough away from land to make them hot-button issues to fight over. The Paracels are located between China and Vietnam. The Spratlys are pretty much in the middle of the sea (but pretty far from China). (Both of these groups have other names in local languages, which I won’t use here to be neutral.) To be blunt, it’s unclear who controlled these islands in premodern times. Most likely, it was nobody; they’re far from land and mostly of interest to passing fishermen. But there are overlapping claims and conflicting historical records that have fueled an ongoing dispute.

The disputes have raged on and off throughout the 1900s, but the stakes have risen in this decade as the countries around the sea have gotten more aggressive in defending their claims and sailing into the troubled waters. All involved are guilty of a certain degree of stubbornness, unrealistic claims, and arrogance, but one country has rattled more nerves than anyone else. I’ll bet you can guess which one.

Going by pure geography, China has a fairly weak claim to the sea — it has a smallish coastline along it and it’s far from the Spratlys. It does have historical records claiming the islands, but without settling them it’s hard to prove a strong connection. Also, China’s conception of foreign relations was a bit different in the imperial era; it saw itself as the only country that mattered, with most others as tributaries or satellites, and claimed places that would be surprised to be considered Chinese today.

Sand 1

Chinese dredgers expand a reef in the Spratly Islands, and widen its entrance, from 2012 to 2015. Image source: Center for Strategic and International Studies


But China has a strong claim in another category: raw military strength. Where once the occasional Chinese fishing boat sailed, coast guard ships patrolled instead. Now the Chinese navy roams the sea, intimidating other navies and muscling them out. (It kicked South Vietnamese soldiers off of the Paracels in 1974 when their country was falling apart and North Vietnam was too dependent on Chinese help to object.) Its navy has occupied Scarborough Shoal, a shoal not very far from the Philippines, since 2012, after reneging on an agreement for both China and the Philippines to pull back. An airstrip and city administration (that governs maybe a thousand people) has been built on Woody Island in the Paracels. The navy has been engaged in large-scale dredging operations in the Spratlys for the past 2 years, most likely to make the shallow atolls and inlets there into full-fledged islands, capable of housing…?

It should not be too hard to understand why this territorial dispute is the hottest one China’s involved in now. Look at the map above. China’s claim is by far the most aggressive, covering 90% of the sea. It basically restricts the other countries around it to their own narrow coastlines. It’s the equivalent of a big guy coming over to a table ringed by squabbling customers and scooping up all the food there. What makes matters worse is China’s haughty attitude toward the complaints it gets: it both thunders that there is no dispute to talk about and explodes when foreigners are found in “its” waters. China’s aggression has united the other countries in opposition to it, and they regularly complain about Chinese maneuvers in the region’s various forums. These never go anywhere and often degenerate into bickering and bad blood on all sides.

Why is China — and for that matter, everyone else — acting so assertively? In part, it’s nationalism. After enduring a century of humiliation by unexpectedly stronger foreign powers, China is determined to carve out a bigger place for itself in the world, and the South China Sea is a tempting target. Heck, it even has China’s name on it. Nationalism is a powerful force in other countries as well, and it makes it hard for any government to back down when it looks like it’s being pushed around. But the South China Sea is also a vital passageway, even more so now than before. Europe and East Asia are 2 of the world’s most critical economic regions, and most of the maritime traffic between them passes through the South China Sea (1/3 of all maritime traffic in the world, actually). Arabia and Iran are also west of China, and that means their precious, precious oil passes through the South China Sea. 80% of China’s oil comes through these waters. Finally, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources. There’s a medley of fish swimming through the ocean to tempt Asia’s seafood lovers, but also a bounty of oil and natural gas. China estimates up to 130 billion barrels of oil might lie under there.

The military aspect of this whole conflict is what makes observers increasingly nervous. The Chinese navy easily outclasses all of its rivals in the area. All the dredging and land-expansion could be put to use for military purposes. If the Paracels and Spratlys are turned into Chinese naval bases, China would be able to project its power into Southeast Asia and engage in a bit of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Its attitude has basically been to ignore international law (it didn’t even show up in court last year when the Philippines sued it over its claims and activities) and rely on force to get its way. Since it’s way stronger than any of its rivals, this is a dangerous tactic. It’s pushed the members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the region’s multinational grouping) closer together than ever before – but that still might not be enough to face China down.

So what stands in the way of China exerting mastery over the waves? America, the post-World War II guarantor of stability in East Asia. America, despite its close alliance with the Philippines, doesn’t officially take a position in the dispute. But its attitude has tilted it decidedly against China. It wants to preserve freedom of navigation in the sea, which basically means letting its ships sail through it unhindered. A UN convention backs it up on this, but China claims the area around the Paracels and Spratlys as its territorial waters and harasses any ships that sail through them. This hasn’t stopped America from doing so in the past year, even though the diplomatic reaction from China was fierce. America has also sided with ASEAN in the regional forums that it can participate in. (Awkwardly, America itself hasn’t even ratified the UN convention on this.)

This does put Southeast Asia in an awkward position, though. As angry as it is at China and its “What are you gonna do about it, punk?” position, it can’t reasonably stand up to it. China is the dominant power in the region, after all. It has become East Asia’s economic dynamo. It has major commercial ties and investment throughout Southeast Asia. As galling as it may be, Southeast Asia would probably rather cede the sea than risk war over some sand. ASEAN’s M.O. has always been to emphasize geniality and commonality rather than address conflict, and it doesn’t have many levers to pull against China. All it can reasonably do is rely on America — and despite what some Americans say, its interest in the region is debatable, whereas for China it’s a core national interest.

Whether China actually seeks to dominate Southeast Asia as an imperial power is in doubt. It could just be trying to secure shipping lanes and planting the flag in a few specks of sand in the middle of the sea. But countries with growing economies and increasing worldwide investments tend to take steps to secure those investments with force. The relevant historical analogue here might be America itself 100 years ago. In 1898, it threw Spain out of its last colonies in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico. It then colonized Puerto Rico, set up a naval base in Cuba, and instigated a revolt in Panama so it’d be allowed to build a canal there. The Caribbean Sea became “an American lake” – a sea patrolled by the American navy, which was used to back up American investment in the Caribbean’s islands and even attack them when they didn’t do what America wanted. Along with America’s annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, that was how the US took its first steps toward becoming a superpower.

Of course, at the time the US had presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, who crowed about American supremacy and took active steps to subjugate the Caribbean and Central America. China has steadily preached noninterference in foreign matters and denies any imperial intentions. After moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014 provoked anti-Chinese riots, it’s come to realize the costs of its aggression and has been trying recently to present a kinder, more understanding face to Southeast Asia. It might not be too hard for China to portray America as the aggressor in the conflict – or, you know, for the US to actually be the aggressor, given its record.

The South China Sea dispute is a complicated issue. Figuring out how to untangle the overlapping claims and defuse the roiling national pride there would not be easy. (I haven’t even mentioned Taiwan, who also makes China’s expansive claims on the grounds that it, as the Republic of China, made the same claims back when it controlled China. Even though it doesn’t really border the South China Sea now.) It’s also important to recognize that China already is the dominant power in East Asia, and Great Powers usually look after their strategic weaknesses and hot spots carefully. But the international consensus, even outside of Southeast Asia, is that China is behaving aggressively and even imperialistically. Its coded message seems to be that might makes right. Its refusal to even discuss the issue screams that it lacks regard for its neighbors, some of whom (like Vietnam) have historic distrust of China already. For all the misgivings Southeast Asia collectively has about American military power there, it’s obviously leaning towards America in the overarching Sino-American showdown. (Vietnam has been noticeably cozying up to it, and the Philippines is welcoming American forces back there after a 2-decade absence.) The American-led international order has served it well since World War II, and China is an unknown, and somewhat worrying, factor.

So when America speaks of “pivoting” or “rebalancing” its attention towards East Asia, the South China Sea is definitely an area of concern. Like Ukraine, it’s not an issue America (or anyone else) really wants to inflame into open war, but also like Ukraine, America sees it as an important test of its will to stand up to cocky, unfriendly rising powers. Unless someone backs down, open war is what it might come to.

*The exception being Vietnam. There was also a Chinese invasion of Java at one point, but it failed and that was when China was under Mongol rule anyway.


Image source: Associated Press

Image source: Associated Press

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.