Lessons from Killing Fields of Cambodia - 30 Years On

By Hinton, Alex | The Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Killing Fields of Cambodia - 30 Years On


Hinton, Alex, The Christian Science Monitor


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. All of the city dwellers were sent to live and work in the countryside, joining the peasantry in one of the most radical revolutions in history.

During the nearly four years following that day - April 17, 1975 - Cambodia was radically transformed. Economic production and consumption were collectivized, as Pol Pot and his circle mobilized the entire population to launch a "super great leap forward." The labor demanded was backbreaking, monotonous, and unceasing.

Everyday freedoms were abolished. Buddhism and other forms of religious worship were banned. Money, markets, and media disappeared. Travel, public gatherings, and communication were restricted. Contact with the outside world vanished. And the state set out to control what people ate and did each day, whom they married, how they spoke, what they thought, and who would live and die. "To keep you is no gain," the Khmer Rouge warned, "To destroy you is no loss."

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. I offer four suggestions in the spirit of George Santayana's oft-cited words "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

* The vision thing: 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, perhaps now in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

* The enemy within: For the Khmer Rouge, grandiose and unrealistic visions led to failures, failures suggested subversion, perceived subversion fueled paranoia, and paranoia sparked purges and the "purification" of the masses.

After Pol Pot's clique ordered the eradication of "hidden enemies burrowing from within," terror and death became commonplace. …

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