Monday 2 July 2012

A lesson for Iraq in Cambodia

By Muhammad Cohen

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's Khmer Rouge mass murder sites affect visitors in different ways. For me, it meant weeping throughout and being unable to reconcile the contrast between massive, deadly brutality on display and the seemingly gentle, friendly Cambodia of today.

Cambodia does itself and the world a great service by preserving the memories of the millions that died during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge reign of terror under the leadership of Pol Pot. Both Tuol Sleng, the prison known as S-21, and Cheoung Ek, the so-called Killing Fields, remain powerfully evocative even after the passage of decades. But their most important modern day lesson may be waiting to be learned 6,500 kilometers (3,900 miles) away in Iraq.

Some displays at the two sites are positively chilling. At CheoungEk, 15 kilometers south of capital city Phnom Penh, a Buddhist stupa towers over the site's 129 mass graves. The bottom level of the stupa holds clothing from the estimated 20,000 people executed and buried there.

The next eight levels hold skulls from victims arranged by estimated age, many showing signs of fatal blows with shovels or ax handles - favored by the Khmer Rouge as an execution method because it saved bullets. The top eight levels contain bones sorted by type. Paths throughout the two hectare site, once a peaceful mangosteen orchard, still reveal bone fragments and teeth peeking through the soil.

The Khmer Rouge converted Tuol Sleng Primary School and Tuol Svay Prey High School in central Phnom Penh into Security Office 21. The S-21 museum preserves classrooms turned into cells, pieces of the chalkboard still intact; the wire woven into nets across the exterior hallways to prevent inmates from attempting suicide leaps; and metal beds rigged with shackles and car batteries for interrogations.

But the most haunting feature of S-21 are the inmate photographs, row upon row of black-and-white head and shoulder identification shots. Beyond the vacant eyes of the subjects, the portraits are a monument to the banality of evil. The people who took these photographs, developed them, catalogued them, and filed them were simply bureaucrats doing their jobs.

What's too often lost in the use of "banality of evil" is that the banality in no way excuses or explains the evil, which took place on an unprecedented scale in Cambodia. Some two million Cambodians out of an estimated population of 7.3 million perished under the Khmer Rouge regime. By proportion of the national population, that's way more than Stalin, Hitler or Mao murdered, making Pol Pot the all-time leader in mass murder.

Of course, no one kills that many people alone, and that's another incredible thing about visiting those tragic sites in today's Cambodia. Everyone you meet around town seems so pleasant and cheerful, it's hard to fathom how these same people or their parents could have been party to such atrocities.

Examples such as the Soviet gulags, Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist purges, and the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, underline that no nationality, ethnic or racial group has a monopoly on massive scale inhumanity.

Setting the stage
What's also fascinating is that the Khmer Rouge didn't commit murder in the name of religion or ethnicity or nationalism. It was just politics. That's another indication that genocide can happen anywhere when the political conditions are right, as they were in mid-1970s Cambodia.

For centuries, the country was caught between more powerful neighbors, Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west. Then in the 1960s, Cambodia got caught in the middle of the American war in Vietnam. American planes bombed North Vietnamese bases inside Cambodia, also inflicting massive collateral damage on civilians.

Following General Lon Nol's 1970 rightwing coup that ousted king Norodom Sihanouk, US and South Vietnamese troops crossed the border, pushing North Vietnamese forces further into the interior. More civilian casualties resulted and Cambodia's politics became more deeply dividing.

The US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 weakened Lon Nol's government and strengthened the Khmer Rouge. In April 1975, with Phnom Penh surrounded and American aid ended, the government surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.

Academics still debate to what extent the US extension of the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia helped or harmed the Khmer Rouge's cause. The same can be said about the Vietnamese troops. What's clear is that foreigners fighting on Cambodian territory brutalized the population and helped unravel the country's social fabric, paving the way for extremism and tragedy.

A political void following the ouster of a long-serving leader, foreign troops fighting their own war as an away game, and, a neighbor anxious to take advantage of the turmoil - standing amid the mass graves, it seems apparent that Cambodia's past could easily represent Iraq's future.

The American invasion destroyed the political fabric of Iraq (some would argue of America, too). The invaders destroyed Iraq's government, the ruling party, and the army. The country plunged into greater chaos and factional fighting than Cambodia ever suffered before the Khmer Rouge triumph.

Iraq's traditional unfriendly neighbor Iran used the opportunity to fill the power vacuum. According to some, Iran sent in its own operatives. As a bonus, Iran can play the religion card with Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority that had been suppressed under Saddam Hussein, who favored the Sunni minority.

The presence of foreign troops fueled an insurgency that forced Iraqis to choose between sides in a fight they didn't want. The violence led to further polarization. It also stunted political growth. Reminiscent of post-coup Cambodia, the government is massively corrupt and largely distrusted.

The withdrawal of American forces hasn't solved Iraq's political problems, just as America's withdrawal from Vietnam didn't lead to Cambodian reconciliation. It was two years after the Americans left Vietnam that the Khmer Rouge came to power and commenced their killing spree.

August marks two years since American combat troops left Iraq. Stay tuned - and hope that in this world vastly more connected than in 1975, genocide can't happen again.

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America’s story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his blog, online archive and more at

No comments:

The influence of institutional factors in Cambodian universities