Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lessons from the Killing Fields

Name me the country that doesn’t have skeletons in its closet! Sadly, the United States has a dark legacy of slavery and ethnic cleansing.  We all know the story of Germany some seventy years ago.  Cambodia, tucked away in Southeast Asia far from international eyes, likewise has a closet full of skeletons—more than its fair share in fact. You'll find them under garden plots, pineapple plantations, rice paddy fields, and inside a high school that was once an Examination Center but has now become a museum of evil. I'm of course referring to real skulls and bones, victims that still give silent testimony to one of the most evil regimes of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist regime led by a small group of ideologues, turned Cambodia into a hell on earth.  Over 1.5 million people lost their lives from murder, torture, starvation, disease, and fatigue—in the name of a bold new society of happy agriculturists unfettered by capitalism and the West’s pernicious influence.

Be wary of those in power who seek to destroy the past and refashion society completely anew if conditions are “right.”  They will ultimately have anyone who benefited from the ancien régime executed, come up with new slogans and banners promoting their agenda, create a one-party system, enforce censorship of the press, erect reeducation centers to inculcate the utopian future, and socially engineer the youth to carry on the dream for future generations. Pol Pot and his cronies acted like kids in a candy store, taking advantage of their power and anonymity to implement ambitious and impractical ideas without regard to tradition and culture. Edmund Burke would have been horrified. On the French revolutionaries (heroes to the Khmer Rouge leadership we might add), he writes: “Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” No doubt one could draw countless lessons about the dark side of humanity and international politics from the killing fields of Cambodia.

The Cambodian genocide reminds us to take the words of diplomats and journalists with a grain of salt. Reporters with a leftist bent initially praised the Khmer Rouge as peasant revolutionaries finally bucking the evil legacy of Western colonialism. They would of course eat their words later, when the gruesome facts emerged. The way the United States dealt with the aftermath of the genocide teaches us a time-honored truism about American diplomacy: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The Vietnamese, traditional foe of Cambodia, invaded Cambodia and essentially stopped the genocide. However, the communist regime of Vietnam was our enemy, and we were still sore over a bitter and unsuccessful eight-year war with them. So we recognized the murderous Khmer Rouge as representatives of Cambodia at the United Nations assembly because they, like us, hated the Vietnamese.