After years of violence in the outer provinces of Cambodia, a communist revolutionary party which came to be popularly known as the Khmer Rouge finally captured the seat of the Cambodian government by storming the capital city of Phnom Penh, which began a horrifying reign of terror from 1975 to 1979 that would take millions of innocent lives.
Founded by Pol Pot- a native Cambodian who, as a student in France in the 1960s, became a devout student of Marxist philosophy- the Khmer Rouge sought to purge Cambodia of all Western/capitalist influences, transform it into a classless, agrarian society, and restore the glorious days of the ancient Angkor Empire.
Systematic genocide was the means to this end. Anyone and everyone suspected of being a threat to this vision- guilty or not- was murdered. Former government officials and workers, business owners, ethnic minorities, city dwellers, teachers, the educated, or literally anyone suspected for any reason whatsoever were butchered. Even those who wore glasses, and thus suspected of being educated, were put to death. The rest of the country was forced to build Pol Pot’s warped agrarian dream, forced into lives of back-breaking manual labor in the stifling heat of the Cambodian sun, and often succumbed to exposure, starvation, or disease.
Families were torn apart. Children were forced to kill parents or watch as their parents died, and “Angka” (The Organization) became the new parent. Pot Pot not only sought to create a new Cambodia, but also a new human being, a new Cambodian, free from traditional familial ties and obedient only to Angka.
In 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese, the blood of over two million Cambodian lives was on Pol Pot’s hands. He later died of natural causes in 1998, never having to account for any of his crimes.
On both my visits to Cambodia we visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, a memorial site where mass graves containing the remains of nearly 9,000 murdered people were discovered and excavated. In the center of the site stands a Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 skulls of the victims who were killed and buried there.
Remains of those who were murdered still surface to this day, and during my second visit, my daughter and I found two small ribs still in the ground, recently uncovered by the heavy rains.
Walking through those green fields that still bear the depressions left by the uncovered mass graves, you find yourself filled with a sense of horror, sorrow, and grief, of course, but I felt something else- an overwhelming sense of confusion.
How on God’s green earth can this happen? I can see how a man can become so wicked in his philosophy that he can plan or account for the murder of millions. I can see it because that’s just theory, it’s in his head, but how does the man who carries it out- the actual soldier who hears the pleas and the screams- how does that man murder scores of men, women, and children night after night after night? How can any human being come to a place where they take babies by the ankle, beat them against a tree, and throw their bodies into a hole filled with corpses? …I could not understand.
I read a few books on the Khmer Rouge and its leaders, trying to find the answer. No one is born a genocidal murderer so how can any man- much less the thousands who physically carried out this slaughter- go from a relatively sane person like you or I into one that can brutally kill so many?
I grew frustrated because no book really gave the answer, but one day my wife gave the only real answer I found so far: It’s just evil. Who can really understand it?
Evil. Demonic. That’s what it was. Period. No amount of psycho-babble can fully explain the horrors inflicted by the Pol Pots, Adolph Hitlers, Joseph Stalins, or Mao Zedongs of the world. They were evil men controlled by the evil one, and as long as men have existed and reject the God of love they will always exist. ..And there will always be more to come.
I still don’t understand it, but maybe that’s a good thing.