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Genocide and After in Cambodia

Genocide and After in Cambodia

By Atharva Pandit

Edited by Shabhavi Singh, Senior editor, The Indian Economist

Genocide is an act of mass and ritualistic killing.  This can be considered as a mild way to define what genocide actually refers to. It is something which is insanely inhuman, and makes us doubt the existence of sanity in human beings. At the same time, it confirms our belief in the evil that exists in the human nature. Mindless evil. History provides us with enough fodder to know that man can be a pretty dangerous animal when circumstances force him to become one. The Armenian genocide was the start of the modern study in the subject, and it has continued to thrive with the on-going purges in Myanmar and Iraq. In the midst of this, History left us with examples such as Rwanda, Bosnia and, of course, Cambodia.

 Cambodia is one of those small, land-locked regions which has a past weighing greater than the country can grasp. On Thursday, 7th of August, a UN-backed tribunal tried to bring in some kind of a closure to that past when they handed out a life term for two of the leaders of the Communist faction of Cambodia which brought hell on earth with their regime from 1975 to 1979. Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea alias Brother Number Two, were those “intellectual” France-returned youths who started a Maoist revolution in their country under the leadership of Pol Pot alias Brother Number One, a supremely vicious human being who ordered and sometimes even over-looked the killings of over 1.7 million of his fellow countrymen, wiping off almost half of the Cambodian population. Pot, who was born Saloth Sar, had been learning in France on a scholarship where he leaned left with the notion of bringing revolution in the form of agricultural utopia. The Khmer Rouge was formed in 1968, and began to promote itself at the grassroot level. Their cause gained momentum with the US bombing of rural Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and more and more people joined the Communist faction. With the mobilization over, on April 17th 1975, two years after the West stopped paying any attention to Viet Cong; Cambodia fell into the radical Communist hands. The people of Cambodia rejoiced- at last they had a government without corruption. But what they were being offered was something worse, a lot worse than they could ever imagine. Once the Khmer Rouge cadre gained power, they forced everyone in the capital, Phnom Penh, to leave their houses, leave the luxury, and adapt the agricultural life. The intellectuals, and that included anyone who was spotted wearing spectacles were to be simply wiped off. If you happened to be someone who has visited foreign shores, you also happened to be someone who features on the Khmer Rouge hit-list. Those who could read and write were to be killed off, except some which would come handy to the regime. Being a doctor or a professor was enough to get you slaughtered. The rest were to be pushed into concentration camps, where the prisoners were chained to each other while sleeping and one had to ask for the guard’s permission if he/she had to turn in his or her sleep. But that’s not the worst of it- the S-21 Prison, headed by Duch (pronounced as “Dock”) was the most notorious camps of them all. Here, Duch and his comrades would torture prisoners with innovative techniques (pulling fingernails out, extraction of teeth, waterboarding, electric shocks, caning) and force them to confess that they work for the CIA or the KGB, names the prisoners were probably hearing for the first time in their lives. Once the confession statement was written down carefully, the prisoner was to be killed. Only seven of the thousands and thousands of prisoners held up in S-21 survived. Those were the mindless days one talks about while talking about genocide, and they never even graced the pages of international news. It took a movie, Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, released in 1984, to bring to attention the hell which Cambodia went through.

 The Cambodian genocide has had far-reaching effects in the country, as well as the World in general. Today, those who participated in the genocide, as Khmer Rouge cadres, those who shot their own countrymen for an absolutely pointless and worthless utopia, those who didn’t even know what Communism meant and those who today are not even minutely ashamed of their past, or even entirely aware of the magnitude of their crimes, live as neighbors along with those who suffered, whose entire families were wiped off, who witnessed the killing of their parents and children in front of their own eyes, and remained alive to suffer in silence. The nation has that unnatural feeling of being in a Kafkaesque world, or even worse. The best job one can find today in Cambodia is to deactivate millions of mines which are spread all over the country, especially in the hilly terrain where the Khmer Rouge planted them during their reign of terror. Deactivating those mines is the best paid job around, and of course, also the most dangerous one. Prostitution is rampant, and agriculture doesn’t pay off. Phnom Penh looks like a sad underground city in pictures and videos, carrying with it the heavy past it bears witness to. The city has a museum which is peppered with pictures of the dead, and skulls of the victims are piled high as both a monument of memory and the reminder of a bloody and shameful past. At least one in ten Cambodians has a physical defect, and many survivors also carry with them the psychological burden of having survived an atrocity where millions of their countrymen didn’t. Genocide not only creates a massive load of bodies, but also a  massive burden on the society of that nation, a burden which gets heavier as years pass and the future begins to look bleak (an exception to this theory is Rwanda, where, in the aftermath of a genocide which was horrific even by African standards, the country has made great strides in the fields of Economy and Social balance under the leadership of Paul Kagame).

 Justice has arrived in Cambodia, but a little too late. The two accused who were awarded a life term have crossed into their 80s, and most of their lives have been spent either in slaughtering innocents, enjoying special positions in governments or living in villages bordering Thailand (so that they can quickly flee when the international commissions come for them) under the care of their wives and mistresses and surrounded by land mines and a crumbling rural economy. The person behind the genocide, one of the darkest chapters in the history of the post-World War 2 world, “Brother Number One”, died in 1998, without serving his part of the punishment. Today people of Cambodia, mostly the Khmer Rouge cadres, worship Pol Pot and visit the place where he lies buried. Ironically, they offer him capitalist products like Coca-Cola and other foreign-made soft drinks in what they call their “pilgrimages”. Apart from Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, only Duch who was one of the countless participants in the purges was prosecuted after a journalist was able to track down his location deep in the jungles of Cambodia. All this is a stark evidence of the failure of international human rights commissions. They are more interested in creating scandalous statements than actually fighting for justice. The tribunals which international bodies appoint and the governments of the countries have fallen under the axe of state-sponsored mass killings (the current Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen was himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, which explains his reluctance to pursue the whole case). The only possible positive regarding the whole case is the prosecution of mass murderers belonging to the Left, unlike other such cases wherein those at fault were the far-right nationalist organizations and their members which participated in the purges. (Read: Bosnia).

 Cambodia struggles and so do countries which have been subjected to the relatively modern wrath of genocide. The science of these mass killings, the science which would explain to us what prompts neighbors to turn on neighbors, is still developing and will continue to. Meanwhile, the job of human rights commissions and the UN is to convert their motto of “Never Again”, coined after the cleansing in Rwanda, into reality. This should put an end to the continuation of governments turning against their own people, and making way to the creation of fresh killing fields, thus dehumanizing the general history of the World.

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