Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Yesterday or the day before, I'm not sure which, marked the 30th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge's takeover of Phnom Penh. (I'm sure you threw a party with popcorn, Coke, party favors, all the fixings, to celebrate the whole shebang). Anyone who has spent anytime in Cambodia can tell you: In some respects, everything's different; in others, it's as if the whole murderous reign happened only last year, or last month, or even last week.

Last night at Panasastrasa University, New York Times and former Washington Post journalist Elizabeth Becker, the author of When The War Was Over (the first book I read and probably the best book I've read on the Khmer Rouge), gave a short lecture, followed by a rather lively, animated discussion. Her talk centred around her memories of Phnom Penh during the early seventies, when Cambodia was in the midst of a civil war, before Pol Pot and his homicidal gang took over the country. She actually met Pol Pot, interviewed him, but this was before anybody knew that he was 'Pol Pot'; she got chills just from the encounter, but even she did not know the depths to which his regime would eventually descend. She spoke of how literate Cambodians used to be, the spirit of goodness and generosity that they exuded and that she still found here, embodied by the owner of the Monument Books bookshop, who was trying to be a good and honorable man in a society drenched in corruption. It was her first visit here in ten years; she was sickened by the wealth that exists hand in hand with the grinding poverty.

During the q and a session following the lecture, a recurring theme arose: blame. It was ultimately, and almost eloquently, expressed at the end of the question session by a Khmer university professor, who wondered: Why aren't we focusing blame on the U.S.'s role? The UN? China? They are culpable; they played a role in Cambodia's demise.

In some respects, he's absolutely right. And the young Cambodians were right to applaud so feverishly and approvingly whenever anybody mentioned the Vietnamese or Americans that needed to be held accountable. Question after question centred on: ______ is to blame, and _________ is at fault.

And yet...

Elizabeth Becker made a point that I agree with: Cambodia's tragedy of the 1970s was, at its core, a Cambodian tragedy. It was an internal civil war. Other countries share blame, as does the UN; indifference and collusion have their own sentences of guilt.

But there's a trend in Cambodia that is natural, understandable, but not, in the end, acceptable: the pointing of fingers. It's the Vietnamese fault. It's the Americans fault. It's the UN's fault. It's China's fault. Even now, many Khmers are worried that Vietnam still wants to invade Cambodia. Even now, politicians somehow expect the US to save the day here to atone for their past sins, while Becker made clear: You know what? The US just, doesn't, care. Cambodia is too small, too insignificant, too politically worthless in the grand scheme of things; it's the Rwanda and the Sudan of Asia, to a certain extent. Cambodia is Asia's baby now, and besides, America, as the lone superpower, will, by necessity, do whatever it wants; you can blame till the cows come home. If the US wants to invade a country, it will do so; if the US wants to bomb the shit out of a country, like it did in Cambodia, searching for Vietcong, it will do so. It is not fair and it is not right and it is, like it or not, the way that the world works; for Cambodians to expect America to accept blame is pointless, politically naive, and futile. The country is rooted in the past, which is fantastic for religion and culture and fatal, absolutely homicidal, for advancement and moving forward.

And this ceaseless, even relentless desire to blame outside sources overlooks and underestimates the degree to which this twisted revolution arose from the Khmer people themselves. The Germans have accepted responsibility for their Nazi, wartime past, moved on, and the world, more or less, has forgiven them; Japan has yet to accept blame for their own WWII atrocities, and their ongoing textbook and ocean-border disputes with China are a sad testament to how wartime resentment can linger. And fester. I don't think that Cambodians have even begun to come to terms with their own role in their own descent. (I'm not blaming them, believe me; this country has suffered and suffered. I think their fears and concerns are valid and necessary -- but not helpful, not realistic.)

As Becker also pointed out, this country so desperately needs a Khmer Rouge UN Tribunal (which will, hopefully, begin soon), because if the Cambodian Khmer Rouge can get away with mass murder then, of course they can get away with corruption now. If the government can get away with slaughtering innocents for years on end, of course they can get away with stealing land that doesn't belong to them.

There is an unexamined, festering wound in this country that has not been healed, and until the Cambodians who masterminded the massacres (those still left alive, at any rate) are put on trial and put in prison, the lesson of 1975-1979 will be: We can kill whoever we want, and get away with it.

And if that's the case, then the corruption will continue, and so will the pointing fingers, looking for someone, anyone, to take the blame.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. I thought the same thing. Look in the mirror. Painful as it may be.