On June 27th (2011) the four most senior officials of the Khmer Rouge regime went on trial in Phnom Penh – more than 30 years after they were driven from power.  Finally.  This is Case #2.  The first trial convicted one person – a former math teacher.   Nicknamed 'Duch', he was the regime's chief torturer and ran the Tuol Sleng torture centre which is now the Cambodian Genocide Museum.    He has publicly expressed remorse.  Not so this next group.  The trial is worth following for those wondering whether global institutions can bring war criminals to justice and prevent further catastrophes.

The Cambodian genocide is unique among genocides giving birth to a horribly desperate term – autogenocide.  The Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot set out to deliberately reduce the size of its population and attempt to create a self sufficient agrarian economy – harsher and more primitive than the romanticized Khmer kingdom eight centuries previously.  This meant killing anyone with other skills or education (including monks, doctors, teachers, mechanics) that might lead them to challenge this ruthless attempt to return to what they called year zero.  An unprecedented evil twist on genocide – a nation that turned on itself indiscriminately, madly (anyone could be outed as a traitor or imperialist spy.)  Paris educated Maoists they anchored a cloud of evil over Cambodia from 1975-79.

Here are numbers drenched in tears.

This UN sponsored Tribunal has limited resources.  The money is primarily available for the judicial proceedings but not for reparations.  Sadly, reparations, if available at all, will be financed through grant applications.

Genocides and mass slaughters remind us both of our capacity for evil; our capacity to morally justify our actions; and how rapidly it can spread and cascade among a population.

Based on my recent visit to Cambodia here are books and films I recommend not just for historical facts but more importantly for those interested in the nature of evil and how it plays out over generations.

Books

The Gate by Francois Bizot – Bizot was a young French ethnologist captured by the Khmer Rouge's Duch mentioned above and the only European to escape his interogations.  His unsparing account of his conversations with Duch, challenges Hannah Arendt's summary about the banality of evil. Highly recommended

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien – Vancouver raised but now Montreal based Thien explores the repercussions of being the sole survivor in your family of a traumatic event like the killing fields.  Set in Montreal, Vancouver and Cambodia, she deserves to win awards with her latest book.  Thien unveils the dreadful truth about evil and in doing so enhances our understanding. See also her companion website.

Stay Alive My Son by Pin Yathay.  A true account by a man who lost his children, wife, parents and extended family.  Except for a son he keeps looking for.  Now working as an engineer in France he was one of the first refugees to escape the killing fields. Well written and captivating.

River of Time by Jon Swain – a war reporter's account of the 70's in Indo-China (Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.)  Swain was in Phnom Penh at the French embassy with Bizot when the Khmer Rouge took over the city and country.

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin.  "This thing is true: time is no healer."  A Canadian woman and a Cambodian student meet in Montreal in the 70's.  The Disappeared explores this love story amidst the three decades aftermath of the Cambodian genocide.

Films:

The Killing Fields – hard to get but worth viewing.  Jon Swain the journalist mentioned above is one of the characters portrayed in this account of the early days of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Swimming to Cambodia -  Spalding Gray's sobering and captivating monologue about the Killing Fields. You can access  on U-tube.

Enemies of the People – this won a Sundance award last year. Profiles, Nuon Chea second in command of the Khmer Rouge who describes in some detail the rationale behind the killing.  Chea is one of the four now on trial in Cambodia.

A Perfect Soldier – 6 year old Aki Ra was indoctrinated by the Khmer Rouge, planting hundreds of landmines.  Today his mission is to eradicate all landmines.

Additional Resources

For a daily description and footage of the war crimes proceedings check out Cambodia Tribunal Monitor hosted by Northwestern's School of Law and the Cambodia Documentation Centre.

And finally see one of Pol Pots final interviews before his death in 1998, disavowing any responsibility for what happened under his regime.  Our capacity for moral justification is indeed immense.

Beauty and Darkness

Despite this darkness Cambodia is a country rich in beauty, past and present.  The temples at Anchor Wat are stunning expressions of beauty, spirituality, architecture, design and administration.  View this BBC documentary to see what the Khmer civilization is capable of.

 

3 Comments

  1. Richard Molyneux

    Hi Al,
    Hope you are well. I was a child when the Khmer Rouge were i power but I have for many years been inspired by Cambodian 60’s music before the holocaust. Enjoy this great track (released by Seattle’s incredible sublime frequencies’ record labelhttp://www.sublimefrequencies.com )http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ1QZnRXs58 (going straight to you!!!!)
    Much love,
    Richard

  2. Richard Molyneux

    Al, I wrote a long lament and it seems to have vanished. But this is a great example of pre Pol Pot horror. Wonderful Cambodian music!!!!!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ1QZnRXs58

  3. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Richard – the music is very cool – thanks for bringing it to my attention. Have you read The Disappeared – one of the main characters is a Khmer musician. Important Cambodian singers and bands are mentioned throughout.
    Very best
    Al

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