Report From Cambodia

I have now moved on from Việt Nam to Cambodia. Slow and sometimes no internet service have made it difficult to keep up with my usual type of posts about domestic U.S. issues; but we can look upon that as an opportunity to record some information and observations from half way around the world.

Here in Cambodia, the focus of tourism is mainly on two things: (1) the incredible 9th to 13th century temples and other structures located among the jungles in the center of the country, going by the general name of Angkor Wat, and (2) the story of the “killing fields” genocide of 1975 to 1979. For photos of several of the better-known of the temples, go to Mrs. MC’s Instagram posts at DenieDM. I will focus on the story of the killing fields.

Perhaps because of the original application of the word and as a result of its etymology (“geno” derives from the Greek for “race”), we tend to think of genocides as involving the mass killing of people of one race or ethnicity by those of another race or ethnicity. Prominent examples include the holocaust (murder of Jews by German Nazis in the early 1940s), the Rwandan genocide (murder of Tutsis by Hutus in or about 1994), the Armenian genocide (at the hands of the Turks in the period of about 1915 to 1920), and so forth.

The Cambodian “killing fields” genocide of 1975 to 1979 was not one of these. This was mostly (although not entirely) within one ethnic group — and a small ethnic group at that — known as the “Khmer.” When the killings started in 1975, there were fewer than 8 million Khmer in Cambodia (and not too many more outside). Four years later, the population of the country was well under 5 million. Historian Ben Kiernan has estimated the number murdered at 1.7 million. Others place the number at between 2 and 2.5 million. Most died in actual one-on-one executions, although there was also plenty of mass starvation. Literally everyone lost multiple friends and/or family members.

When you learn of such a thing, you can’t help asking yourself, “Why?” What could possibly motivate a people — not to mention a people so universally nice and friendly as the Cambodian Khmers — to do such a monstrous thing? Recognizing that causation is a very complex subject and that a series of events can have many causes, it is still true that in every version of the Cambodian genocide that I have found the causation story comes back to the same thing: ideology. In this case the ideology was communism, that pernicious European quasi-religious idea that somehow got taken up in the twentieth century by various Asians as the preferred route to utopia. New dictator Pol Pot got it into his head to impose a “pure” form of Maoist communism, which involved getting rid of all vestiges of capitalism and forcing everybody into a collectivized agrarian economy. Before the killings even got going, the entire populations of the cities and most villages were marched out forcibly into the countryside and resettled. From The Culture Trip:

[After Pol Pot assumed power in April 1975] residents were immediately rounded up and sent to the countryside as part of the communist regime’s plans to create an agrarian society. Personal possessions were confiscated, money abolished, family ties severed and the almighty Angkar [political police] set the brutal laws, which saw the population sent to work the land under appalling conditions.

How did they decide whom to kill? The basic concept was, anybody who did not subscribe perfectly and in every respect to the ideological script, or who was suspected even a little of less than perfect loyalty to the regime. As the genocide got going, the criteria came to include anyone who had achieved any success in life, however minimal: every owner of significant property, every professional, every entrepreneur, every academic, every teacher. From Wikipedia:

The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals.

According to information I got from one of our local guides, at the end of the “killing fields” period, there remained in Cambodia only about 40 medical doctors, 52 university-level teachers, 200 high school-level teachers, and 2000 elementary school-level teachers. These people had survived by lying low and not admitting who they were. The country had been substantially set back to the stone age.

The main tourist site relating to the “killing fields” is called Choeung Ek, located just a few miles outside downtown Phnom Penh. Today it would seem like a rather nice smallish park, if you didn’t know what had happened here. In the space of maybe 10 acres or so, it is said to contain about 100 mass graves, each holding the remains of a little less than 100 bodies on average, about 9000 in total. That doesn’t seem like a lot out of about 2 million slaughtered. Where are the rest? It turns out that this is one of some 388 such sites spread across the country. Unlike the Nazis, who concentrated their mass killings in a handful of wholesale extermination camps like Auschwitz, these people did their killings at retail. There is a spot at Choeung Ek where adults were executed by being forced to kneel down blindfolded before getting swatted in the head with a hoe; and another spot with a large tree that was used for killing children by bashing their heads against the trunk.

Remarkably, it was Việt Nam, then run by the communist successors to Ho Chi Minh, that intervened beginning in 1979 to oust Pol Pot. But civil war continued in Cambodia through the 1980s. A peace accord signed in Paris (of course) in 1991 brought in a transitional UN peacekeeping mission for a couple of years, followed by restoration of a form of “democracy.” I have not attempted to figure out how real the democracy is, but it is clear that a single party (Cambodian People’s Party) has run things ever since. Also, King Norodom Sihanouk was restored to the throne in 1993. He has since been succeeded by his son.

To look around, the country today seems extremely peaceful and pleasant. Prosperous? Not so much, although the people are clearly hard-working, and rapid change is observably under way. Per capita GDP is a very low $1390, per all of the World Bank, IMF and UN. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have small numbers of modern hotels and a handful of modern high rise buildings — every one of them post-dating the year 2000. The Heritage Foundation ranks Cambodia today at number 106 on its Economic Freedom index (which is actually substantially better than Việt Nam at number 141). But Cambodia scores particularly low in important areas like government integrity (16.7 out of 100) and property rights (37.4).

Other than the few areas oriented to international businesses and tourists, the cities and countryside look quite poor. The large foreign-owned factories that dot Việt Nam are not evident here, at least where we have been. As one indicator of the level of income, a local guide says that approximately 60% of farmers still use cattle instead of tractors to plow their fields. The degree to which the fling with communism left Cambodia impoverished would be a terrible crime against humanity even without the killing of the 2 million people for no purpose.

If you think about it, it is not hard to come up with plenty of examples in human history of mass killings motivated not by inter-ethnic animus, but rather by some kind of mass hysteria that attaches to ideas or ideologies, religious or otherwise. In the U.S., the Salem witch hysteria of 1692-93 would be one example, although only about 20 people ended up being executed for alleged witchcraft. The 1793-94 terror following the French Revolution is an example of a mass killing driven by non-religious ideology, although it would probably be fair to call the ideology quasi-religious, both in its fervor and in its demand for adherence to strict orthodoxy. About 40,000 people are thought to have been directly killed, some 2600 of them by the Paris guillotine alone. In more recent years, the biggest non-ethnic-based mass killings are obviously the enormous numbers lost to communism in the Soviet Union and China, said to be in the range of 25 million each. In both these cases, the large majority of the deaths came from forced starvation rather than direct execution, but there were plenty of direct executions as well. I’m not sure that makes any real difference. Pol Pot claimed the Soviet and Chinese examples as precedents justifying his conduct.

In most places at most times, the genocidal impulse of humans somehow stays suppressed. Then suddenly, in certain places, it springs forth. The absence of checks and balances on government power seems to be a necessary if not sufficient condition. Most likely, the genocidal impulse, driven by hatred based on ethnicity or ideology, is always there, waiting for its chance. Evidence of this impulse lurking in our own United States is not hard to find. As an example, I would cite the recent outpouring of hate toward the Covington High School boys (something you have undoubtedly followed much more closely than I have been able to do). Or consider this January 25 piece from Kevin Williamson at NRO, “The Kulaks Must Be Liquidated As A Class.” Williamson’s specific subject is Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal for a wealth tax, aka asset forfeiture. Excerpt:

When the socialist schemes of Joseph Stalin et al. foundered, they blamed the “kulaks,” i.e. those who had enjoyed the “unmerited accumulation of riches.” There was never any real definition of a “kulak.” Basically, if you had one cow and your neighbor had two, he was a kulak. Stalin announced the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” as a necessary precondition for the progress of his program, which was, like Kamala Harris, “for the people.” Dekulakization (раскулачивание) was responsible for the deaths of about 5 million subjects of the workers’ paradise.

In Cambodia, the “kulaks” ended up being essentially everyone with an education beyond the 8th grade.

Could the U.S. have done anything to prevent or ameliorate the Cambodian genocide? I seriously doubt it. And in any event, by 1975 the U.S. had been exhausted by its experience in Việt Nam, and had zero appetite for trying to rescue the Cambodians from their folly. I suspect that a substantial plurality of Cambodians, if not a majority, initially supported Pol Pot, not to mention that he had large financial backing from the Soviet Union and China. A massive U.S. military intervention would have been very unlikely to score an easy win and quickly establish market capitalism in the country. The Cambodians had to learn their lesson by bitter experience. In their case, it has been unbelievably bitter.