TOPICS : Lessons from killing fields of Cambodia

Alex Hinton

When the Khmer Rouge victoriously entered Phnom Penh 30 years ago, many people greeted the rebels with a cautious optimism, weary from five years of civil war that had torn apart their lives and killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. During the nearly four years following that day — April 17, 1975 — Cambodia was radically transformed. Freedoms were abolished. Religious worship was banned. Contact with the outside world vanished. In the end, more than 1.7 million of Cambodia’s 8 million inhabitants perished from disease, starvation, overwork, or outright execution in a notorious genocide. Now, 30 years after the Khmer Rouge came to power in a time of war and terror, we — who also live in a time of war and terror — would do well to consider what lessons can be learned from the Cambodian genocide.

Pol Pot and his fellow ideologues believed that the “science” of Marxism-Leninism had provided them with the tools to eliminate capitalist and imperialist oppression. The “all-knowing” Party would catapult Cambodia toward communist utopia. Like that of other genocidal ideologues, the Khmer Rouge path to this future was strewn with the bodies of those who did not fit this vision. Today, in an era of new fanaticisms, the Khmer Rouge remind us that vision needs to be tempered with humility and toleration of the sort that inspired people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and, now in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

For the Khmer Rouge, grandiose and unrealistic visions led to failures, failures suggested subversion, perceived subversion fuelled paranoia, and paranoia sparked purges and the “purification” of the masses. In our age of terrorist fear, as suspect Arabs and Muslims vanish, are tortured, or held without trial, the Khmer period cautions us about the dangers of political paranoia. The enemy within, too often, turns out to be ourselves as we violate the rights of others.

The Khmer Rouge established an elaborate security apparatus to identify and eradicate the “impure elements” threatening the purity of the revolution. Some of these class enemies were killed immediately; others were imprisoned and tortured. It utilised a wide range of torture techniques that have echoes today. Now, as we learn more about Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and sites of rendition, the violent practices of the Khmer Rouge warn us that the information extracted through torture is highly unreliable and that those who turn down this dark path start to resemble the evil they are pursuing.

One of the most startling aspects of meeting perpetrators of genocide is how ordinary they often are. In their path to evil we catch reflections of ourselves. Most of us have, at some point, used stereotypes and euphemisms, displaced responsibility, followed instructions better questioned, succumbed to peer pressure, disparaged others, become desensitised to the suffering of others, and turned a blind eye to what our government should not be doing. These sorts of things are going on right now in the war on terror. Thirty years later, the Khmer Rouge teaches us difficult lessons about ourselves and the world in which we live. Such understanding can help us become more self-aware, humble, tolerant, and let’s hope, willing to act in the face of evil. — The Christian Science Monitor