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Bruce Bialosky

The Killing Fields

For those who are under the illusion that there is salvation for Communist/Socialist governments.

During an otherwise very enjoyable vacation to Southeast Asia, we went to Cambodia. Not that Cambodia isn’t enjoyable — we visited their famous temples including the iconic Angkor Wat (best viewed at sunrise). One could think that coming all this way and not visiting the Killing Fields would be a shallow act. It was actually the first thing I asked about when we decided to visit the birthplace of Khmer Rouge.

One cannot necessarily foresee a mass murder of the kind that happened between 1975 and 1979. Especially when the killing was of a different kind. The Jews were different from the Germans, at least in the Germans’ minds. The Armenians were different from the Turks. This was native Cambodians murdering other Cambodians in unimaginable numbers. There were some minorities murdered, but they were not the focus.

It was an effort to emulate Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted purity. We learned that many of the soldiers ranged in age from thirteen to twenty years old, i.e., ripe for indoctrination. They were reminiscent of some of the youth used in Africa in the battle over diamonds. These anti-democratic governments begin to indoctrinate youth when they are tender and unknowing to create another wave of foot soldiers for their cause.

The Khmer Rouge had stupid, self-destructive policies. They forced redistribution of farmland causing destruction of production and mass famine. They were killing all the perceived intellectuals so they could have purity of thought. Killing a banker is one thing, but killing all the doctors is another. When the Germans killed Jewish doctors they still had non-Jewish doctors. These people were not even leaving doctors to care for themselves.

The psychology of mass murders like this is fascinating. Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners makes the case that ordinary individuals participated in murdering Jews because they got caught up in the fervor of the times. Thus, almost all of the German population was guilty of the genocide.

One has to wonder how people degenerate into this group think. I recently read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The novel tells the story of a young Black woman fleeing to the North. It does not cast all whites as bad by any stretch. The story tells of many brave souls who risked their lives to help transport fugitive slaves to the free North. If caught, many suffered the same fate as the Blacks they were aiding.

The Patrollers who chased the fugitives were a brutal breed. They were not much different in their behavior than the Nazi camp guards. This was a culture that was bred. It was a culture that was reinforced by others, much like Germans acted toward the Jews.

In Cambodia, a culture was bred where anyone suspected of not being fully in line with the repressive regime was deemed unworthy of living. We were told that the people were taken to the prisons where they were interrogated — particularly about whether or not they were working for either the KGB or CIA. Why the Khmer Rouge were so fixated on this baffles the mind. The prisoners were tortured until they ‘admitted’ their crimes and then taken to one of the killing fields around the country where they were shot dead.

There came a point where they were running low on bullets so they used a palm tree to murder their victims. Who would think palm trees would be such a diabolical weapon? For the small children (they exterminated many as they somehow thought if left alive, they would grow up to become enemies of the state), they just smashed their heads against the palm trees until they were dead. For the adults, they used the extremely sharp edges of the palm leaves to slit the throats of the prisoners and let them to bleed out. Quite a barbaric group.

The Khmer Rouge were not quite as organized or capable as the Nazis who developed the gas chambers and kept meticulous records of the murdered. The Khmer resorted to the Palm trees and kept very few records of the people they murdered. Thus, the estimates range between one to three million with the accepted amount being in the middle at two million, or 25% of the Cambodian population at the time.

Fascinatingly, the mass murdering stopped in 1979 when the Vietnamese army crushed the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot had sought guidance and aid from North Vietnam during the formation of his takeover of the country. Yet, they turned on him.

We visited one of the prisons located in Phnom Penh known as S-21. It is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The Khmer Rouge created these “security centers” throughout the country where they imprisoned and tortured the people before they were sent to be murdered. We had the good fortune to meet Norng Chan Phal who was is in a famous era photo where he was a naked nine-year-old boy. He was one of the few freed from the prisons. He is living with his wife and two daughters today. It was humbling.

It is quite evident that this country has yet to recover from the devastation of this mass murder forty years later. They are economically and developmentally behind their neighbors. That is what happens when you wipe out all the people with skills other than farming and murdering.

What happened here can never be forgotten like the other great mass murders — the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Armenian Genocide and the mass killings in the Soviet Union. We have to seek an understanding of what drives people to these extremes of cruelty.

One key to avoid actions like this is a free democracy with a free press. That is a beginning.