Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cambodian Killers

Note: I'm back in Thailand, but I want to say something about the 10 days or so that we spent in Cambodia in March. Also, I added new photos of the Water Festival to the previous post.

Imagine seeing a human skull.
Not an ancient skull. Not some fossil in your anthropology class. No, a very recent human skull, belonging to a woman who was murdered thirty years ago with a blunt force blow to the head.

Now, imagine seeing two of these skulls. Both belong to murder victims.

Now imagine four.

Imagine eight.

Imagine, if you will, an entire platform, six feet by six feet, blanketed in skulls. End-to-end.

Had enough? We’re not done yet. Now picture 17 of these platforms, stacked vertically from the floor to the ceiling, like some grotesque bookcase. Now imagine that every single platform is covered in skulls.

The platforms that are at eye-level have only one layer of skulls, for the benefit of the viewer. The shelves below and overhead have mounds of skulls, two feet thick. Skulls piled haphazardly on top of skulls on top of more skulls.

Signs hover over each section of the platform, labeling the skulls “female, age 20-40” or “male, age 40-60” or “female, age 10-20.”

Welcome to Cambodia. Home to one of the worst genocides in recent memory – the indiscriminate slaughter of 3 million people from 1975 to 1979. Half as many people died in Cambodia thirty years ago as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust sixty years ago.

Yet we never seem to hear about Cambodia. We never read books on it, or study it in school, or watch movies about it, or hear pop-culture references to “Khmer Rouge” the way we hear pop-culture references to “Nazis.”

Some people say we hear more about the Holocaust because it happened in the “civilized” world, in Europe. But the genocide in Cambodia was 1) carried out by Paris-educated elites, and 2) extremely “civilized.” Every victim was photographed, numbered, and documented in exquisite detail.

So here's a primer on what happened 30 years ago:

The Khmer Rouge – French for “Red Khmer” – was founded by Paris-educated Cambodians who sympathized with Marxism and Leninism. They fantasized about creating a utopian Cambodia in which everyone is a farmer.

In their ideal society, there would be no labor divisions or social stratification. Everyone would plant and harvest the land. Each person would be allotted about .85 kg of rice a day, and the rice surplus would be taxed by the government and exported to other countries. The money generated from these exports would pay for imports of farm equipment and machinery. There would be no education; there would be no need for it.

Even if that theory could have worked, it would have had some massive downsides. A society where everyone is "equal" and "works with the earth" is a society devoid of poets, artists, lipstick, popsicles, magazines, music, restaurants, chocolate, books, videos, and finding your favorite pair of really warm winter socks.

In practice, the Khmer Rouge's "agrarian utopia" economic theory couldn’t pan out. The people couldn’t harvest enough rice to feed everyone. The rice tax had to be paid first, and the meager leftovers didn’t provide enough food for the workers. Thousands starved to death.

The tax, they said, was necessary for buying farm equipment. Without that equipment, even less rice might have been produced, and even more people might have starved to death. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

A social stratification grew between the lifelong farmers and the city-slickers. The city-slickers, less talented with the land, quickly became viewed as second-class citizens and as worthless, inexperienced farmers whose presence was more a burden than a blessing. This only added to their malaise, which began when they were forcibly ousted from their city homes and displaced to a farm.

The government assigned only nominally-trained people to work in medical clinics. Thousands with illnesses and injuries died at the hands of these untrained medical workers.

This disasterous economic situation would have been bad enough by itself.

But to make matters worse, the Khmer Rouge decided that it wanted to crack down on anyone who might be bold enough to oppose their communist ideology. The people who were most likely to do that, they decided, were the educated ones – the privleged class, who had the most to lose.

So they began summarily rounding up every learned person in the country – teachers, doctors, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who wore eyeglasses.

First, they tortured them. They tied them to beds and beat them with steel rods. They hung them upside-down until they lost consciousness, then dunked their heads in cold water to revive them, then hung them upside-down again, repeating this cycle until the prisoners went crazy. They forced them to live in solitary cells and blocked their ability to commit suicide as a means of escape.

The torturers extracted a forced “confession” in which, under severe duress, the victims accussed neighbors of allegedly bad-mouthing the government’s policies.

Once they “confessed,” however accurate or inaccurate their information, the torture stopped. And the killing began.

To save the cost of bullets, the KR forced the victims to line up on their knees in front of a mass grave. They struck the victims in the back of the head with a heavy blow, murdering them by blunt force. They pushed the body into a mass grave – these sites became known as Killing Fields.

From 1975 to 1979, the KR killed a whopping 3 million people, out of a total population of 7 million.

Many Cambodians, scared of getting killed, decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. They enlisted to work for the government, as torturers and executioners, in the hopes that this would spare their own lives.

That tactic failed. The paranoid and suspicious KR leaders began executing their own executioners. They increasing suspected their own staff of harboring secret anti-communist ideals. Their goal was to wipe out every living teenager and adult, whose minds have already been tainted by capitalist ideals. Then they could re-start a new society of babies, who would grow up learning nothing but communism and agrarianism.

They nearly succeeded.

Today, walking around in modern Cambodia, its evident that just about the entire population is under 30. As we walk down the streets, ride buses, and eat in restaurants, we rarely notice anyone older than we are.

One of the beggars I saw was the most pathetic-looking human being I have ever laid eyes on.

In India, you see some extremely pathetic beggars; people so crippled by disease that they have to crawl on all four (or three) limbs, clutching their begging bowls in their mouth. But even India didn’t prepare me for this.

Cambodia has almost no beggars. Most would-be beggars have been killed. But the few who live are extremely disfigured. The heartwrenching beggar that I saw had half his face melted off and one eyeball gouged out. I don’t remember how many limbs he had; I was too repulsed to count.

But what’s magical about Cambodia is that everyone is smiling. I mean, truly smiling – beaming from the heart. Grinning so wide they have crinkles of laughter around their eyes.

Why they smile, I have no idea. How they’ve found reason or hope in this crazy world, I can’t explain. But you look at the smile of a Cambodian, knowing that literally every family has lost at least one person to the genocide, and you can’t help but think that every stupid little problem in your own life is a hollow figment of your dark imagination. If these people, who have every reason to frown, can find reason to smile, there’s no excuse why we all can’t be grinning.