The Khmer Rouge
By John Pilger
30 January, 2004
"It is my duty,"
wrote the correspondent of the Times at the liberation of Belsen, "to
describe something beyond the imagination of mankind." That was
how I felt in the summer of 1979, arriving in Cambodia in the wake of
Pol Pot's genocidal regime.
In the silent, grey
humidity, Phnom Penh, the size of Manchester, was like a city that had
sustained a nuclear cataclysm which had spared only the buildings. Houses,
flats, offices, schools, hotels stood empty and open, as if vacated
that day. Personal possessions lay trampled on a path; traffic lights
were jammed on red. There was almost no power, and no water to drink.
At the railway station, trains stood empty at various stages of interrupted
departure. Several carriages had been set on fire and contained bodies
on top of each other.
When the afternoon
monsoon broke, the gutters were suddenly awash with paper; but this
was money. The streets ran with money, much of it new and unused banknotes
whose source, the National Bank of Cambodia, had been blown up by the
Khmer Rouge as they retreated before the Vietnamese army. Inside, a
pair of broken spectacles rested on an open ledger; I slipped and fell
hard on a floor brittle with coins. Money was everywhere. In an abandoned
Esso station, an old woman and three emaciated children squatted around
a pot containing a mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over a
fire fuelled with paper money: thousands of snapping, crackling riel,
brand-new from the De La Rue company in London.
With tiny swifts
rising and falling almost to the ground the only movement, I walked
along a narrow dirt road at the end of which was a former primary school
called Tuol Sleng. During the Pol Pot years it was run by a kind of
gestapo, "S21", which divided the classrooms into a "torture
unit" and an "interrogation unit". I found blood and
tufts of hair still on the floor, where people had been mutilated on
iron beds. Some 17,000 inmates had died a kind of slow death here: a
fact not difficult to confirm because the killers photographed their
victims before and after they tortured and killed them at mass graves
on the edge of the city. Names and ages, height and weight were recorded.
One room was filled to the ceiling with victims' clothes and shoes,
including those of many children.
Unlike Belsen or
Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng was primarily a political death centre. Leading
members of the Khmer Rouge movement, including those who formed an early
resistance to Pol Pot, were murdered here, usually after "confessing"
that they had worked for the CIA, the KGB, Hanoi: anything that would
satisfy the residing paranoia. Whole families were confined in small
cells, fettered to a single iron bar. Some slept naked on the stone
floor. On a school blackboard was written:
1. Speaking is absolutely
2. Before doing something, the authorisation of the warden must be obtained.
might mean only changing position in the cell, and the transgressor
would receive 20 to 30 strokes with a whip. Latrines were small ammunition
boxes labelled "Made in USA". For upsetting a box of excrement
the punishment waslicking the floor with your tongue, torture or death,
or all three.
This is described,
perhaps as never before, in a remarkable documentary, S21: The Khmer
Rouge Killing Machine, by Tuol Sleng's few survivors. The work of the
Paris-based Khmer director Rithy Panh, the film has such power that,
more than anything I have seen on Cambodia since I was there almost
25 years ago, it moved me deeply, evoking the dread and incredulity
that was a presence then. Panh, whose parents died in Pol Pot's terror,
succeeded in bringing together victims and torturers and murderers at
Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum.
Van Nath, a painter,
is the principal survivor. He is grey-haired now; I cannot be sure,
but I may have met him at the camp in 1979; certainly, a survivor told
me his life had been saved when it was found he was a sculptor and he
was put to work making busts of Pol Pot. The courage, dignity and patience
of this man when, in the film, he confronts former torturers, "the
ordinary and obscure journeymen of the genocide", as Panh calls
them, is unforgettable.
The film has a singular
aim: a confrontation, in the best sense, between the courage and determination
of those like Nath, who want to understand, and the jailers, whose catharsis
is barely beginning. There is Houy the deputy head of security, Khan
the torturer, Thi who kept the registers, who all seem detached as they
recall, almost wistfully, Khmer Rouge ideology; and there is Poeuv,
indoctrinated as a guard at the age of 12 or 13. In one spellbinding
sequence, he becomes robotic, as if seized by his memory and transported
back. He shows us, with moronic precision, how he intimidated prisoners,
fastened their handcuffs and shackles, gave or denied them food, ordered
them to piss, threatening to beat them with "the club" if
a drop fell on the floor. His actions confront all of us with the truth
about human "cogs" in machines whose inventors and senior
managers politely disclaim responsibility, like the still untried Khmer
Rouge leaders and their foreign sponsors.
Panh, whose film-making
is itself an act of courage, sees something positive in the mere act
of bearing witness and, speaking of the prisoners, in "the resistance
[that is] a form of dignity that is profoundly human". He refers
to the "little things, these unsubstantial details, so slight and
fragile, which make us what we are. You can never entirely 'destroy'
a human being. A trace always remains, even years later ... a refusal
to accept humiliation can sometimes be conveyed by a look of defiance,
a chin slightly raised, a refusal to capitulate under blows ... The
photographs of certain prisoners and the confessions conserved at Tuol
Sleng are there to remind us of it."
It seems almost
disrespectful to take issue at this point; but one must. For too long
Pol Pot and his gang have been an iconic horror show in the west, stripped
of the reasons why. And this extraordinary film, it has to be said,
adds little to the why. When Pol Pot died in his bed a few years ago,
I was asked by a features editor to write about him. I said I would,
but that the role of "civilised" governments in bringing him
to power, sustaining his movement and rejuvenating it was a critical
component. He wasn't interested.
The genocide in
Cambodia did not begin on April 17 1975, "Year Zero". It began
more than five years earlier when American bombers killed an estimated
600,000 Cambodians. Phosphorous and cluster bombs, napalm and dump bombs
that left vast craters were dropped on a neutral country of peasant
people and straw huts. In one six-month period in 1973, more tons of
American bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during
the second world war: the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The regime
of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did this, secretly and illegally.
files leave little doubt that the bombing was the catalyst for Pol Pot's
fanatics, who, before the inferno, had only minority support. Now, a
stricken people rallied to them. In Panh's film, a torturer refers to
the bombing as his reason for joining "the maquis": the Khmer
Rouge. What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed. And having
been driven out by the Vietnamese, who came from the wrong side of the
cold war, the Khmer Rouge were restored in Thailand by the Reagan administration,
assisted by the Thatcher government, who invented a "coalition"
to provide the cover for America's continuing war against Vietnam.
Thank you, Rithy
Panh, for your brave film; what is needed now is a work as honest, which
confronts "us" and relieves our amnesia about the part played
by our respectable leaders in Cambodia's epic tragedy.
© John Pilger