Douglas Levine tells us of his recent visit to Cambodia at at NRO Online.
I went to Cambodia primarily to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. They were built in the 12th century, when Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire and the largest city in the world, with a population of one million. I had first read about Angkor Wat in a Buddhist-art class in 1972. By then, Angkor Wat was off limits to foreign visitors, shrouded in mystery and veiled by war. By some miracle, it and the other temples in the region were untouched by the long years of war. Several hundred years of neglect in the jungle have taken a toll, however, and in recent years many foreign universities and governments have sent experts and aid to help in the restoration of these spectacular wonders of the ancient world.
The other reason to visit Cambodia was to see the killing fields. During their five years in power, the Khmer Rouge killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people, out of a population that had stood around 10 million. This didn’t come to light until after the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh. Pictures of piles of bodies and bones, reminiscent of Auschwitz, began to appear in the world press. Since then, many details have emerged about the Khmer Rouge’s killing spree. Everyone refers to this as the Cambodian genocide.
But calling these murders “genocide” troubles me.
Cambodia is now and was then one of the most ethnically unitary countries in the world: 95 percent of all Cambodians are ethnically Khmer; the remaining 5 percent include Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Hmong, Cham, and others. And 95 percent of all Cambodians, of whatever ethnicity, are Buddhist. Most of the killings were Khmer on Khmer, although the Khmer Rouge did also target Cambodia’s very small Cham Muslim minority.
The term “genocide” historically refers to the mass extermination of a race or ethnicity, as with the Turks and the Armenians, or the Germans and the Jews, or the Serbs and the Bosnians. It doesn’t seem to fit what happened in Cambodia, except for the scale of the slaughter.
He has a point. The UN convention defines Genocide as: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such
Note that economic and political groups are not listed. They were removed from earlier drafts because the communist Soviet Union had murdered millions in political and economic groups in the previous 20 years and they were not going to put themselves in trouble or limit future policy options.
The Communist Khmer Rouge was only doing what had been specifically excluded from the definition.
Why then do Cambodians and the world call the mass murders by the Khmer Rouge “genocide”? I can think of several possible reasons.
However, I suspect that the most important reason for the usage worldwide is that many people in the international media, international agencies, and international NGOs (not to mention academia) are reluctant to face up to the crimes committed by Communism in the name of equality. To do so might call into question the weight attached by them to equality as the most important social value and undermine the multicultural faith that evil is predominantly the product of inequality, racism, ethnic hatred, or religious fanaticism. That cannot be permitted, so such crimes must be either ignored or mislabeled. And, of course, the remaining Communist regimes in the world are only too happy to cooperate in characterizing the killing fields as the products of irrational paranoia on the part of Pol Pot and his gang rather than the perfectly rational result of the quest for perfect equality.
The Khmer Rouge leadership has been charged and tried for Genocide. It seems the Khmer Rouge left documents where they mentioned by name several sub-groups that are protected by the convention, totaling a few percent of those killed. Gregory H. Stanton of Genocide Watch seems very excited at finding a technicality to charge the Khmer Rouge with Genocide. This however only obscures the source of the tragedy. It was not a crime of racial or ethnic hatred, but a calculated policy to implement a political program.
To prevent recurrences we need to understand the actual sources and recognize that nice sounding political programs, not racial or ethnic hatred, that can only be implanted with gross human rights violations, are the problem. It is always necessary to look beyond the idealistic explanation; and ask can this actully promote, and be implemented with, respect to human dignity and human rights.
Death by Government
Never Again and Again and Again
Rwanda and Darfur Compared
UN Convention on Genocide
What is Genocide
R J Rummel's Power Kills site
My Genocide posts
5 months ago