Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day One, Year Zero: the Fall of Phnom Penh, 1975

April 17th marks the anniversary of the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history: the fall of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975. 

 The evacuation of Phnom Penh

The politics of Cambodia were hopelessly doomed by the machinations of its ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who would sell himself to a variety of allies depending on how that might benefit him – capitalist, monarchist, communist; French, American, Chinese – it didn’t matter as long as he saw an opportunity to balance and survive, all in the midst of one of the more heated portions of the Cold War: the Second Indochina War of the late 1950s until 1975.  Most people in the US recognise it as the Viet Nam War, involving US forces in South Viet Nam fighting the insurrection and invasions from North Viet Nam, but it encompassed a much larger area, including particularly Cambodia. 

Sihanouk’s political prostitution contributed significantly to the ever more wildly swinging pendulum of internecine conflict engulfing the country.  In 1970, during an international series of visits that ended in China, he was deposed by his pro-American prime minister, Lon Nol.  Sihanouk then threw in with the Chinese-backed leaders of the Khmer Rouge in exile, then returned to Cambodia to rally troops in the countryside to their cause and fight the civil war which gripped the country from 1970-1975, ending with the fall of the capital.  He remained its titular head and expected to retire as some royal public relations czar after the Khmer Rouge came to power, but managed to escape the country during a state visit overseas in 1979.  As a demonstration that history has no sense of justice, he remains alive to this day in Pyongyang, North Korea. 

The fall of Phnom Penh foreshadowed the more well-known fall of Saigon less than two weeks later (on 30 April), but the results overshadow most of history’s more egregious genocides.  (I do not use the term ‘genocide’ lightly here, as has become the increasingly common use of the word among the Left, who drop such terms as ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, and ‘genocide’ in a knee-jerk way that dilutes the real meaning of the words to practically homeopathic extremes.) 

The leaders of the Cambodian Communists were primarily middle- to upper-class students who had studied in France, picking up the extreme anti-colonial and anti-western vibes of the French Communists, the most disciplined of the western Communist parties.  Leaders such as Pol Pot ( Saloth Sar) wanted to go beyond the worst examples of Communist revolutions, beyond Marx who insisted on a revolution from the workers of a developed economy, beyond Lenin and Stalin who added an agrarian base, beyond Mao Zedong who dropped the revolution to a base of peasants.  Upon the declaration of the Khmer Rouge government, the Angkar – the ruling body of members unknown to the public – began a movement that would result in the devastation of the nation, in a return to a primitive society that they could build up from a base of nothing, starting over with year Zero. 

The cities were totally evacuated, its citizens marched to the countryside for ‘re-education’ and work on farms.  These internal exiles of middle-class, educated and westernized people – in bitter irony the same as the rulers of the Khmer Rouge – were styled the ‘New People’ by the regime, as opposed to the more genuine ‘Old People’ of the uneducated peasants, and were executed or simply worked to death in monumental numbers.  Anyone who spoke foreign languages, had an education, or finally anyone who simply wore glasses, were systematically executed in numbers that demanded increasing efforts to maintain.  There simply wasn’t enough ammunition to handle the numbers, so many of them, already starving and weak, were simply hacked to death with pick-axes.  The estimated number of deaths in this country of then slightly over 7 million vary widely, depending on the chaos of the beginning, the type of death and how specifically deliberate the cause of death (deaths by starvation continued for years in a ripple effect).  Some place a strangely low estimate of 750,000, but the number clearly tops 2 million, and I figure that the number ultimately comes closer to 3 million.  Pol Pot himself put the figure above 800,000, and his deputy Khieu Samphan put it at over 1 million.  Death camps such as Tuol Sleng and Cheung Ek processed untold thousands, and a 5-year joint study of mass graves by the Documentation Center of Cambodia and Yale University estimated that deaths from executions alone totaled 1,386,734 victims.  That same study went on to estimate that executions accounted for between 30% and 50% of the death toll, meaning a total of between 2.5 and 3 million.  This was in keeping with one of the party mottos in reference to the New People: “To keep you is no benefit.  To destroy you is no loss.”

 A memorial to the millions, at Cheung Ek

The numbers and justifications for the purges increased in fervor and frenzy as is usually the case in wholesale massacres like this.  Opponents of the regime, and later suspected opponents, and finally anyone who could become an opponent, were systematically eliminated.  An early example is Hou Yuon, described as an immensely popular, brilliant, and charismatic leader (“truly astounding physical and intellectual strength”), who became an early critic of Pol Pot and the Angkar, foretelling the extremes to come.  (Upon entering Phnom Penh and discovering that the city was being divided in sectors to be run by cadres from different areas of the country, he whimsically remarked “It’s Berlin!”)  He, along with thousands that day, simply vanished shortly thereafter.  One story that demands credence is that he protested the treatment of some of the evacuees and was talking to them sympathetically, when he was shot and his body thrown into the Mekong.

A survivor of the death camps, Dith Pran, went on to write The Killing Fields, made into a movie in 1984 in which the Cambodian actor who portrayed him, Haing Ngor, also a survivor, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Americans are commonly criticized by the Sophisticati of the Left for wanting to export the odd and unique idea of freedom to foreign cultures, as if the diverse peoples are incapable of morphing themselves into a reflection of the US government.  They almost deliberately fail to understand that it is not the structure of the American system but the concept of individual liberty that is so important for people world-wide.  How many more Rwandas, Iraqs, Somalias, Bosnias, Chinas, Soviets – Cambodias – are the world to endure before we finally plow over the killing fields?

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