A Bomb in the Ethical Jungle

Nuon Chea, the mass murderer, told the court he needed a hat.  The air conditioning was making his head cold.  After a five minute deliberation, permission to retrieve the hat was granted.  Hundreds of eyes followed the octogenarian, former Brother Number Two under Pol Pot, as he tottered out of the glassed-in court room on the arm of a bailiff, returning shortly with a blue and white wool cap pulled defiantly low over his eyes. 


I watched him sit back down and tried in vain to muster the anger, the outrage that the occasion deserved.  Nothing.  This man was partially responsible for the murder of over 2 million innocents.  Nothing.  Dumb disbelief.  That’s everyone at Brown University 40,000 times over.  I stared harder.  No matter what statistics my reason brought to bear, I couldn’t understand it.  How can I grapple with genocide when it is so deeply personified?  When it is sitting 50 yards from me complaining about a head cold? 


I look around at the hundreds of others seated near me in the gallery and wonder how they’re faring.  Every seat in the room is filled.  Khmer school children, Buddhist monks, reporters from every major foreign news outlet, older Khmers, relatives of those killed, have all come to this administrative building 40 minutes outside Phnom Penh to witness the first day of preliminary hearings in what many are calling the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg.  Sitting next to me is a bespectacled, be-scarfed correspondent from Le Monde, scribbling furiously in a notepad and fulfilling all the requisite stereotypes.  Outside the media’s hosting a circus.  All the photographers barred from the gallery snap photographs of the building’s drab exterior while journo-types prowl, cat-like, for an interview.  History is being made and they are not going to miss a footnote.  Inside, I listen in on my headset as the Khmer is translated into English.


On trial in Case 002 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are four former top leaders in the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for causing the deaths of an estimated 2.2 Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 in a merciless, ludicrous attempt to establish a Marxist-Leninist agricultural utopia.  Case 001 tried and convicted Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), director of the regime’s infamous S-21 prison, from which only seven of the 14,000 imprisoned managed to escape alive.  After three years and almost 80 million dollars, the ECCC took its first steps towards enacting justice against the Khmer Rouge and vindicating the regime’s victims.  Duch was sentenced to 19 years in prison, absurdly lenient but still an effective life sentence for the swiftly aging maniac.  Now Case 002 has gotten off to a halting, controversy-ridden start, and it may be years before a verdict is reached.  Being tried along with Nuon Chea are Khieu Samphan, 79, former Khmer Rouge Head of State, Ieng Sary, 85, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs, and his 78-year-old wife Ieng Thirith, former Minister of Social Affairs.  The sheer feebleness of the aging autocrats lends a degree of surreality to the proceedings.  While the bench wades slowly through a list of procedural matters, Ieng Sary shuffles to the bathroom with the help of his walker.  At one point, Ieng Thirith appears to fall asleep in her seat.  The mantra “Never Again” feels blunt and opaque here.  The question I’m asking, that I can’t stop asking, is: “How, Ever?”   


Misplaced idealism, latent class warfare, the time-worn hubris of dictators.  Paranoia, loathing, blatant hypocrisy (the Khmer Rouge elite who made it their mission to massacre the educated, urban, “new people” and return the country to “Year Zero”, were very careful to disguise the fact that many of them had been educated in Paris.  Ieng Thirith, for example, was a Shakespeare scholar at the Sorbonne).  Sadly, the study of genocide was inaugurated long before the Khmer Rouge first came to power.  Many of the explanations for their atrocities seem all too familiar, fulfilling so well our general rubric for genocide that they have an almost desensitizing effect.  Murderous autocrats exploited misplaced political ideals in a quest for personal gain?  It is, at first glance, maddeningly predictable.


I will not, in this blog post, attempt to devise my own explanations for the unfathomable violence of the late 70’s.  Many of the above factors were probably instrumental causes.  And yet, the terror perpetrated during the Pol Pot years was unique in a way that still manifests itself, everyday, in Cambodian society.  This was not Hutus killing Tutsis or Nazis killing Jews.  Under the KR, Khmers were killing Khmers.  And as much as we’d like to imagine that genocide comes to a clear end, that victims and perpetrators separate and move on, when the regime fell Khmer Rouge cadres and labor camp detainees moved back to the same streets in the same villages.  Cambodia and Cambodians had to pick themselves back up again, even if that meant holding hands with the enemy, or at least acquiescing to rebuild alongside them.  For better or worse, Cambodia never fully tore itself apart.  And in the years since the Vietnamese army toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, zones of political and ethical ambiguity have grown up around this fact.


Many former Khmer Rouge, low enough in rank to maintain some degree retroactive deniability, now occupy positions of power in the Cambodian government.  Prime Minister Hun Sen, the controversial leader who has dominated Cambodian politics for nearly three decades, was himself a member of the Khmer Rouge, although he denies being anything more than a foot soldier.  During the Pol Pot years he fled to Vietnam to join forces that would later depose the Khmer Rouge, halting the genocide but continuing with injustices of their own against the Cambodian people.  Due, perhaps, to his history, Hun Sen has publicly called for a halt to all trials after the completion of Case 002.  Allegations abound that Hun Sen’s government has put pressure on the court not to pursue Case 003, and in June judges at the tribunal rejected formal requests from British co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley for further investigation in the case, in what many see as another step towards a long-planned dismissal.  In the 20 months the investigation has been open, judges failed to examine a number of alleged crime sites or even question the suspects, former KR naval commander Meas Muth and air force commander Sou Met.  The former now lives a cushy retirement in Battambang province, giving regular donations to his local Buddhist pagoda (more irony: the KR banned all religion and persecuted those accused of worship).  Until recently, the latter was a top commander in the Cambodian army.  Investigation into Case 004, intended to prosecute unnamed mid-level KR cadres, is unlikely even to begin.  Government officials have repeatedly stated that exhuming those skeletons could “spark unrest” and “plunge the Kingdom back in to Civil War.” 


And so it goes: history gets buried and the feathers of the powerful remain unruffled.  Stability and justice are pitched as mutually exclusive.  All a testament to how deeply Cambodia’s past is in embedded in its present.


A friend of mine also interning at the Phnom Penh Post brought this fact to light several weeks ago, while we were sitting at a bar in down town Phnom Penh.  Some background: born in the United States to an American mother and a Khmer father, his family moved to Pursat, Cambodia when he was two.  He returned stateside at the age of six, settling in Lowell, MA, one of two major hubs for Cambodian immigrants in the US (the other being Long Beach, CA).  There, his father became the first Khmer elected official in America (Lowell City Council) and my friend slowly forgot how to speak Khmer.  He now attends an American liberal arts college.  Over beers he told me about his father.  During the Khmer Rouge years he was placed, along with thousands of others, into one of the regime’s forced labor camps where workers (slaves) were supposed to grow rice and build infrastructure (poured-concrete of the classically Leninist ilk) in a burst of inspired proletarian do-gooding among comrades.  What they got instead were meager rations, arbitrary beatings, and backbreaking toil.  Many of his family members were killed before the regime finally fell in 1979.  In the chaotic years that followed, he made money smuggling various goods across Cambodia, from Thailand to Vietnam and back, all by bicycle.  With bands of Khmer Rouge and itinerant bandits roving the Cambodian countryside, the multi-week trips were always risky.  Fast forward two decades and the man has made a new life for himself in the states.  He is now the head of a Khmer-American community center in Lowell as well as a committee that gives educational scholarships to poor Cambodian students.  Next year he has plans to run for a seat in the state of Massachusetts House of Representatives. 


Next my friend told me about his uncle, a former Khmer Cadre who has also moved to the US (in this case, Long Beach).  “Yeah I only found out last year,” he says.  At first I don’t believe him.  “What’s he like?”  My friend shrugs, “…nice guy.”  I don’t get it, so I start asking questions.  Does he talk to your father?  Does he talk about his past?  How awkward are family barbeques?  Yes, no, not very.  “It’s really not a big deal,” he tells me.  We both agree that shit’s crazy.  My initial analysis ends there, paralyzed by shock and confusion.


But many Cambodian family trees are similarly gnarled.  Brother turned on brother during the Khmer Rouge’s paranoid purges of imagined “subversive” elements, but once the fighting ended they were still family.  Faced with the impossible task of moving on, perhaps some have enacted on a small-scale what Hun Sen’s government is using its corrupt leverage to enact nationally.  That is, to choose familial stability over dredging up past wrongs, to swallow memory for the sake of harmony.  This begs the troubling question: do people here really want to forget?  It’s hard to say, and many Khmers would probably have a hard time providing a clear answer even for themselves.  But while my friend’s family chose the path of tacit reconciliation so that life could be lived, it seems the nepotistic ruling party is advocating a similar amnesia in order to protect its own members from judicial scrutiny, scared that a widening scope of justice would mean a fall from grace, and political predominance.


Last weekend, this friend and I, plus another intern buddy from the Phnom Penh-based Southeast Asia Globe, decided to a do a multi-day trek through the remote Cardamom Mountains, a vast swath of as yet untouched forest in the country’s southwest.  I won’t go into too many details, but this is the stuff my ten-year-old dreams were made of.  It required us taking a five hour drive to an unmarked dirt road turnoff that took us twenty pot-holed kilometers up to a river where we hired a boat to ferry us upstream just to get to the village where we’d begin the trek.  It was a sleeping in hammocks in the middle of the jungle, eating military rations of dried fish and rice three meals a day, admiring- breathtaking-scenery-while-picking-the-insatiable-leeches-off-your-ankles kind of trip.  Along with us we had a guide, Somnang, and a cook, Seang Ny.  Somnang, an irrepressible 25-year-old former poacher who goes by the name Lucky, was one of those instant-friends, always laughing and bounding around.  His English was impeccable, although I did impart a few new words, among them “s’mores” and “buffalo”.  Seang Ny, 44, was of another generation.  Stolid and cheerful, he spoke no English.  Between cigarettes, he remarks to us off-hand (through Lucky’s translation) that he’d been a soldier in the Cambodian Royal Army.  It doesn’t really register.

 483 Somnang

Later that night we sit around the camp fire trading war stories.  Lucky and I talk girls, Seang Ny talks bombs.  Slowly it comes out that he had been fighting Khmer Rouge in these very mountains as late as 1999.  Far from disbanding in 1979, the Khmer Rouge fled to the country’s remote West which they controlled sporadically for decades, continuing the violence until finally succumbing to factionalism and penury in the 90’s.  Even today, the Thai-border town of Pailin remains a haven for ex-KR cadres, Cambodia’s version of Argentina for the Nazis, except that it’s only a six hour bus ride from the capital.  This means that when I was in 3rd grade at Solomon Schechter Day School, the man sitting across from me was throwing grenades into the forest, sometimes fighting at night with only a flashlight.  The next day we are hiking through a field where Seang Ny says his battalion fought 70 Khmer Rouge soldiers.  We hike in silence for a moment then Somnang turns back to me laughing and says, “Watch out for land mines!”  Haha.  I walk directly in his footsteps, praying that Lucky is not a misnomer.

On our final day we pass an otherwise unremarkable patch of dirt in a thicket of tall grass.  Seang Ny points.  “On that spot I shot a Khmer Rouge soldier,” he says.  “Bazooka…amputated both legs.”  We look down at the spot he’s pointing to.  It’s just dirt.  How could any of this be real?


At one point I ask Seang Ny, through Lucky, whether he knows any former Khmer Rouge.  “Yes”, he tells me, “my neighbor.”  I ask him if that is strange and he tells me no, they are friends.  It is also likely that they fired rounds at each other in the swamps and fields we are now walking through.  Somnang pipes in with a clichéd, but logically infallible aphorism: “people are people.”  The conversation is left at that. 


These are just a few examples of the countless miniature ethical entanglings, the political paradoxes, the incredible feats of inter-personal adaptation that have sprung up in a country forced to internalize bitter and convoluted memories.           


And most of them show that Lucky was right.  People are people.  The victims of KR atrocities were people, as were their murderers.  Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in writing about the Holocaust, has suggested that, “The most frightening news brought about by the Holocaust and what we learned about its perpetrators was not the likelihood that ‘this’ could be done to us, but the idea that we could do it.”  We, humanity, united in our endless malleability.


Tour books love to extol Cambodia as “a land of contrasts”, probably spouting something about “the transcendent beauty of Angkor Wat and the harsh realities of the killing fields.”  What they don’t understand, and what Cambodians seem to innately, is that these are not contrasts, they are two sides of the same human coin: a bottomless capacity for violence and hate coupled with an equally infinite ability to forgive and reconcile, to grab a beer with your neighbor after the war. 


To call what the Khmer Rouge did “human” is by no means to condone it.  They were responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in history, and each should be held morally responsible for the murder of innocents.  They deserve our harshest condemnation.


But for an American who grew up learning about the difference between right and wrong, freedom and tyranny, coming to Cambodia can be a devastating and confounding experience.  In Cambodia you are taught a lesson we seem often to forget: right may be different from wrong, but they both come from the same place. 




To my (few, if any) readers:  I apologize for the length of this post.  I am not a disciplined blogger.  I’ll try to keep subsequent posts shorter and more frequent.