Magazine article USA TODAY

Tears (and Hope) for Cambodia

Magazine article USA TODAY

Tears (and Hope) for Cambodia

Article excerpt

RECENTLY, I TOOK a RESPITE from my concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which I left simmering in the crockpot while I was revisiting the Kingdom of Cambodia. Most people visit Cambodia for a brief trip to Siem Reap to experience the magnificent ancient temples at Angkor Wat, the symbol adorning its flag. Some visit the capital city, Phnom Penh, and are saddened by the mass graves, torture camp, and execution center. Cambodia has a haunting physical and emotional landscape and there is an intangible something about these inspirational people that lures many visitors back.

The prolific and feared Khmer Angkor Empire that extended over Southeast Asia was transformed by years of civil and border wars and French protectionism, but the biggest change of all was imposed by a native Khmer, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, under the guise of creating an equal society. Pol Pot led the Communist Khmer Rouge who overthrew the sitting Khmer Republic and renamed the country "Democratic Kampuchea."

Within hours of victory in 1975, armed soldiers began herding the 2,000,000 residents out of Phnom Penh. Pol Pot assured them they could return. Instead, the Khmer Rouge razed it, along with other cities and towns. The residents were forced into the countryside to work collective farms up to 18 hours a day on meager rations. Villagers' houses were burned to ensure they could not return. Pol Pot destroyed anything that represented capitalism and pre-revolutionary society, including hospitals, schools, Buddhist temples, and hotels. The goal supposedly was to return to "Year Zero" with a rice-based economy and a single agricultural class.

To that end, Pol Pot immediately murdered the educated and those who wore glasses or had a high forehead (signs of intellect). Others were imprisoned in tiny cells and tortured "to confess" to "prerevolutionary lifestyles and crimes," which usually included some kind of free-market activity. The reward for a "confession" was execution or life in a labor camp for "reeducation." Ironically, in 1979, the Vietnamese freed the Cambodians from their twisted leader when they extended their border war. All told, Pol Pot killed 2,000,000 to 3,000,000--at least 25% of the population--through murder, starvation, or disease. …

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