After 35 years, the first Khmer Rouge mass murderer has been convicted in Cambodia. We’ve all heard of the killing fields of Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge murdered between one and two million other Cambodians. It was one of the worst periods of mass murder in history. It was the Chinese Cultural Revolution gone crazy. The Khmer Rouge, in attempting to bring about an agrarian utopian society, sought out and murdered anyone with an education, and anyone associated with them.
I remember following news reports of the carnage in this far away land, and wondering how such a thing could happen in a society. After Claire and I bicycled the length of Cambodia near the end of our In Search of Shangri-la tour, I am even more puzzled, and not a little disconcerted.
While the Cambodians are not as laid back as Lao, or as industrious as Vietnamese, they were friendly. Though not as outwardly happy as the irrepressible Lao, they were reasonably outgoing. And yet, some of the older Cambodians we saw must surely have been murderers. The Khmer Rouge were peasants, and we traveled through the rural countryside at twelve miles per hour, bought food from them at markets and street restaurants, slept in their guest houses. We smiled and received smiles in return. And yet, there was a pall of uncertainty for me, as I watched a landscape roll past, a rice small field that just might have been a killing field.
The Image most people have of the killing fields and mass graves, are of one central location near the Capitol, Phnom Penh. But, the killings took place in villages across Cambodia and the mounded mass graves still stand above the rice paddies, sometimes marked by simple concrete altars festooned with flowers and incense. Someone remembers and makes offerings to the gods, offerings of remembrance, and perhaps a hope that such a thing never happen again. It is an eerie sight to see the rice people working their fields so close to the bones of those killed there.
The reason Cambodia has been so slow to begin the process of justice escapes me, but I am not Asian. I didn’t grow up working dawn to dusk fighting the vagaries of nature, just to have a bowl of rice. From what we saw in Laos and Vietnam, Southeast Asians tend toward forgiveness. They hold no grudges against the former enemies in what they call the American War. Perhaps the Cambodians have passed on opportunities for justice all these years because they are either forgiving, or they are guilty. Now a generation is coming of age with no memory of those times. Perhaps the justice beginning now will educate them.
If such a gentle people were capable of those atrocities, what society is not? If Cambodians could become so divided that they began murdering other Cambodians, could we? How far must civil discourse erode before “the other” is so reprehensible to deserve killing?
For more on Cambodia go to New Bohemians, In Search of Shangri-la