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Weblog :: Archives :: April 2012
The Killing Fields 23.IV.2012 07:25
It is written in the book of Isaiah that to all God would give 'within mine house and with my walls a place and...an everlasting name.' This was the inspiration for the name of the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, for those who meet their ends in mass graves often die twice: once when their lives are taken from them, and again when their identities rot away until their bones cannot be separated from those who met their ends beside them. At the memorial stupa in Choeung Ek, the best-known of Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields, these bones are piled 17 levels high, the skulls of thousands of these victims staring out at you at eye level, testifying wordlessly to Man's inhumanity to Man.

And though they can never return to their families, their survivors work tirelessly to prevent this second death - to preserve, as in Jerusalem, at least a shred of the identity of each person, so that the very last of them does not disappear from this earth. For it is all but impossible not to be dwarfed by the enormity of the crimes committed during the disastrous Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, and thus to reduce its victims, as in Stalin's famous dictum, to a mere statistic. One cannot conceive of even the 17,000 victims of Choeung Ek, yet that was but one of many execution sites, which together claimed more than one and a half million sacrifices to the cause of 'revolution'. Even here, the remains of only 9,000 have been recovered, and each rainy season the ground, endlessly churning, swells and casts up yet more skulls, teeth and bones: no rest for these men, women and children, even decades on.

The only consolation that, like so many totalitarian regimes, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, preserving the name of each man trucked here to meet his end. As in the case of Hitler's Germany, the bureaucratic process belies an institutional awareness of the enormous moral outrage being committed, so full of small lies ostensibly to deceive the victims, but partly to allow the criminals to deceive themselves. As people were hacked to death in Choeung Ek - bullets too precious to be wasted on such tasks - the sounds of revolutionary songs and diesel motors played to drown out the screams of the dying, to keep up the pretence that this was, perhaps, merely a military base. To allow all but those present to keep up a denial, willing or subconscious, of what was truly happening. And even if it happened here, perhaps it was just one - not one of hundreds of such sites that destroyed almost a third of the country's entire population.

And, as one looks upon the empty pits, and at the bones and shreds of cloth, and the undisturbed ground that has yet to reveal its victims to the light, the most disturbing thought occurs: that the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, not the guards but the ones who gave the orders, thought of themselves as on the side of good. How can you separate out the lust for power in the mind of a man who believes he is assisting in the birth of an ideal society? And, conversely, how many of those we know personally that think of themselves as 'moral' are simply following a system of rules that happens to lead to the fulfilment their own desires? It is not evil to think this way - merely human - and the greatest achievement of civilisation is to take us away from this bloody patrimony. Its extreme, the terrible utopian visions of men like Pol Pot, claim to encompass humanity but deny the human - and the Khmer Rouge slogan expressed this perfectly in its attitude to each of its victims: 'to keep you is no gain; to kill you is no loss.'

Louis XIV famously said "l'├ętat, c'est moi" - I am the state. But the utopian dictator claims an even larger authority - he does not rule over the people, he is the people. His interests, or the Party's, are the people's, and if one of the people should oppose them, well he was really opposing his very self, like a cancerous cell destroying its own body. And so, such a polity fights constantly against the very human beings it claims to be saving; every revolution devours its young. And this remains true of every power that tries to shape a society: the Americans trying to remake Vietnam in their own image said 'we must burn the village to save the village' - that if their lives did not confirm to the ideal vision, they were meaningless, and therefore forfeit.

And speaking of the same Americans, thanks to them, China, the UK and others, Pol Pot and his murderous regime held a United Nations until 1993, for 14 years after Cambodia itself was free of them. Why? Because Cambodia had been liberated by the Vietnamese, in alliance with the Soviet Union, and put "People's Republic" in its name. The Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split are far more important than the lives of some insignificant peasants. How can one mere life compare to the glorious society being created by the Khmer Rouge? How can one mere life compare to the struggle against global Communism which threatens to engulf us all? And Pol Pot died comfortably under house arrest, and only now are some of his associates being prosecuted for their crimes, immune for years from prosecution because we did not like those who might prosecute him. And as for the human beings caught in the middle - well, what could be more human than to deny others their humanity?

Phnom Penh, Cambodia Kh

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