Interest in the decade-long, UN-backed tribunal against ex-Khmer Rouge leaders spiked in August, when the Phnom Penh court announced it would hear testimony of rape and forced marriages under Pol Pot.
Of course, “spiked” is a relative term; over the following few months, one major American outlet gave it one article. The Khmer Rouge regime, probably the most totalitarian in modern history, killed about 1.7 million people in the late 1970s through execution, overwork, starvation, and disease. Stalin, Mao, and Hitler each killed far more people, but no other government has managed to destroy a nearly quarter of its own population.
Pol Pot, “Brother Number One,” died in 1998, and trials of his inner circle started in 2006. Most top Khmer Rouge officials have died or been ruled unfit to stand trial. Lawyers for the top two remaining, Nuon Chea, 90, known as “Brother Number Two,” and head of state Khieu Samphan, 85, have dragged out the tribunal for a decade by invoking the “just following orders” defense or asserting their innocence. Both have already been sentenced to life for crimes against humanity and now face more charges relating to genocide and other crimes.
Outside of Cambodia, the whole bloody mess—the horrors of the regime and the agonizing tribunal process—has largely disappeared from public view, except for occasional articles on sex trafficking or the corrupt and repressive government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge officer.
But what happened 40 years ago in Cambodia is still relevant, and the violence of the Khmer Rouge might be nearer than we like to admit. If the only question is, “How could the Khmer Rouge be so evil?” then it’s easier to dismiss the regime as a relic of the Cold War. But perhaps a better question is, “Why are we all not more like the Khmer Rouge?”
Radha Manickam survived the Khmer Rouge regime and witnessed some of its worst atrocities. He was 22 and a devout Christian when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, following a five-year civil war with the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic. The communists immediately drove the entire population of the cities into the countryside at gunpoint to dig canals and tend rice paddies.
It was the beginning of a stunningly tyrannical scheme to forge the “new socialist man” and turn Cambodia into an agrarian Marxist utopia. Pol Pot planned to “restructure” the individual completely and force society into new, collectivist patterns. “Angka,” the name of the communists’ revolutionary organization, attempted to “temper” people by controlling every aspect of life. Khieu Samphan, for example, said that even thoughts were unacceptably private: “To become a true revolutionary, you must … wash your mind clean.”
Democratic Kampuchea was a debacle from the beginning. Out in the cooperatives, despite—or rather, largely because of—an ideology that held Angka to be infallible, the workers who avoided execution as reactionaries were soon collapsing like cheap tents. Manickam ended up on mobile work crews, digging canals by hand and plowing rice fields. He witnessed executions, his weight dropped to 90 pounds, and at one time or another he ate bark, tree roots, and leather to survive. By the end in 1979, his father and five of his seven siblings had died of disease or starvation; another sibling was beaten to death.
On many work sites and in villages, loudspeakers continuously blared songs extolling Angka’s superior wisdom and provision. Over time the music blended into the background, like the sound of the wind. One song featured children’s voices: “Because of Angka, we have a long life ahead, / A life of great glory / Before the revolution, children were poor and lived lives of misery … Now the Glorious Revolution supports us all.” After the deaths of his siblings, it struck Manickam as much worse than a cruel irony.
One song, looping endlessly, celebrated how the people’s hearts were warm, despite the cold winter, because they were free from capitalist control. Manickam especially hated that song on chilly mornings when he stepped into the cold waters of the rice paddies. “My heart’s not that warm,” he’d grumble.
He wasn’t alone in mocking Angka quietly to himself. Even some farmers who had supported the Khmer Rouge revolution muttered their displeasure with satirical revisions of Angka’s favorite slogans. “Before, we cultivated the fields with the heavens and the stars, and ate rice / Now we cultivate the fields with dams and canals, and eat gruel,” went one. Another: “since Angka has enlightened me, I have become more and more of an idiot.”
One evening in December of 1976, Manickam was threshing with his work group, flipping rice stalks with a pitchfork as a tractor drove over them. He listened as the young soldier supervising the work improvised some lyrics to the tune over the loudspeakers: “Living under Angka’s leading is painful, living with Angka’s ration is painful, we are starving, it’s like being in hell.”
Manickam could hardly believe his ears. “I hear you, brother, and I agree,” he thought, “but are you serious?” He kept flipping the stalks. After a couple of verses some of Angka’s child spies gathered quietly behind the soldier. One clobbered him on the back with a bamboo pole and the rest joined in with fists and clubs. “You’re a traitor to Angka!” they screamed. “You have betrayed Angka’s trust!”
They tied his elbows behind his back and hauled him off to the cadres. The next day, Manickam heard, the soldier ended up buried in a termite hill.
The soldier had done much more than commit mere disloyalty. People didn’t have to believe Angka’s lies for the revolution to continue. As long as they acted as if Angka really was all-knowing and infallible, as long as people lived the lie, totalitarianism continued.
With a few mocking verses this soldier had punched a hole Angka’s façade and exposed the system for what it was: a fabrication, a deceit perpetuated by thieves and destroyers. When he could no longer live within the lie, when he dared to act and speak according to reality, he showed that it was possible to do so. Once that started and spread, Angka would have been finished. The soldier threatened Angka itself, and so he had to die.
Those years are seared into Manickam’s memory. He took me on a tour of Cambodia in 2014, and as we drove through the countryside he’d point out a canal, for example, and say, “I helped dig that.”
For those of us without such firsthand experience, his story is a grim reminder of just how repressive supposed utopias necessarily become, and how alluring is the vision of a perfect society. Pol Pot promised that when every hint of capitalist individualism had been burned away, Khmer society would be absolutely equal and wonderfully prosperous, freed from the chains of capitalist cars and jewelry and education. That’s what justified the mass murder.
The argument of totalitarians “is always the same: only new violence can drive out previous violence,” wrote Khmer Rouge survivor Rithy Panh in The Elimination. “The previous violence is hideous and cruel. The new violence is pure and beneficent; it transforms (not to say transfigures).”
Islamic jihadists use the same rationale, and in rhetoric strikingly similar to that of the Khmer Rouge. “We fight you,” according to a recent edition of ISIS’s English magazine Dabiq, “not simply to punish and deter you, but to bring you true freedom in this life and salvation in the Hereafter, freedom from being enslaved to your whims and desires as well as those of your clergy and legislatures and salvation by worshiping your Creator alone and following His messenger.”
To believe that only a few particularly weak and vulnerable minds could ever fall prey to such ideas is to ignore history and even the present. Our fallen human nature leaves us longing for a perfect world but unable to reach it; add a splash of hubris, and previously unthinkable violence suddenly becomes thinkable. It’s foolish to imagine people in our society—or any society—are somehow immune to the lure of utopian visions.
One former prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, a French academic, testified at the trial of “Comrade Duch” how shocked he was to discover that Duch had personally beaten prisoners. That’s when François Bizot realized his error, as journalist Thierry Cruvellier reported. Until then Bizot had “believed that we were—that I was—on the right side of humanity; that some men were monsters and, thank heaven, I could never be one of them.”
But Bizot saw in Comrade Duch “a man who looked like many friends of mine: a Marxist who was prepared to die for his country and for the Revolution. … I saw that this monster was, in fact, human, which was just as disturbing and terrifying.”
Those surprised by the human capacity for evil don’t yet know themselves; as Solzenhitzyn famously observed, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
But it’s also true that those terrified by the discovery have not grasped the grace of God. Manickam survived until the communist Vietnamese kicked out the Khmer Rouge in January, 1979, following Pol Pot’s repeated provocations. Manickam and his wife had been thrown together in a forced mass-marriage ceremony in 1978; after a month they discovered they were both Christians, two of the few hundred still alive in Cambodia at the time.
Ironically, the single most totalitarian act the Khmer Rouge imposed on them—a forced marriage—became their greatest source of hope and strength. It renewed their faith and made it possible to believe that their suffering had a purpose.
They escaped to the Thai refugee camps on the border in 1980, came to the U.S. in 1981, and eventually made their way to Seattle, where they raised five children. Today Manickam has a ministry to Khmer churches in the Pacific Northwest and Cambodia. Once I asked him what it all meant. He can’t explain the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge, but he believes that out of naked evil God produced something good: the opportunity to minister to his countrymen. “If I hadn’t stayed in Cambodia,” he said, “I wouldn’t know the pain of the people.”
Les Sillars teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College; his book telling Manickam’s story, Intended for Evil: A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith, and Courage in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, was published November 1 by Baker Books.