The Arrest of Nuon Chea- Terror is an Old Hat
Today if one hears the name “Khmer Rouge”, it may no longer mean any thing to most people. Yet to read this morning of the arrest of Cambodia’s’ most senior surviving Khmer Rouge ideologist Nuon Chea, or "Brother No 2" brought back memories. Nuon Chea was arrested and charged with crimes against humanity yesterday - three decades after the murderous communist regime left 1.7 million people dead through starvation, overwork and execution. The Taliban whom we love to hate and Sadaam Hussein might figure on the list of despised regimes along with North Korea but it is too early for history to pass rankings on them.
I have heard from those of my parents’ genareation about the cruelty and atrocitities of the Japanese in those parts of Asia that were in their control. Films and books like the Bridge on the River Kwai capture this very well. But in the post World War II era, if there has been an instance of systematic and brutal genocide in Asia, this happened in Cambodia in the 70s. We hear so often of right wing extremism and religious fundamentalism that we might have forgotten that there is also Left Wing fundamentalism and what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years was nothing but an instance of ideology run amok in a totally ghastly way. What the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians), a term ironically coined by then king Norodom Sihanouk did in Cambodia makes India’s extreme left wingers and the Maoists of Nepal look benign.
The Khmers began well displacing the US backed puppet regime of Gen. Lon Nol. The US backed regime itself was so disliked that the Khmer Rouge troops were initially welcomed. In fact, it was only after the American intervention in Cambodia that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began to win wider support. From a badly organized and poorly equipped force of less than 5,000 men in 1970, it grew to be an army of around 70,000 when, in April 1975, the Lon Nol dictatorship finally collapsed.
Soon however their ideological Puritanism came to the fore front. Through the Khmer Rouge’s vision of an agrarian society it tried to take Cambodia back to the middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost, and whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.
This vision of an agrarian society had no place for any one who could not work the farms and so academics, professionals , bureaucrats, teachers were all bundled into trucks and driven out of town , basically the capital city of Phnom Penh and driven out into the countryside. Basically all people who could read and write were suspect but since that could not be easily discerned, any wearing spectacles was caught and picked up on the understanding that any one who wore glosses presumably needed to read some thing and had a desk job. By the time the Khmer Rouge was deposed by a Vietnamese backed faction of the Communists – (Hun Sen, the Prime Minister today was the foreign minister in the Vietnamese backed regime), a whole generation of intellectuals had been wiped out leaving Cambodia bereft of practically every kind of professional.
The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities. Family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. The regime tampered with the religion, culture, customs, language and even the calendar by starting a new era called year zero
Over the years, although political stability of sorts has returned to Cambodia, the scars are not yet effaced. Hardly any one has been brought to trial. Most of the top leadership has died and those who have been arrested, the trials are very far from being complete- part of the reason being that there are very few Cambodian judges left and the UN sponsored tribunal has to have judges conversant with the French system of jurisprudence which is prevalent in the country and the government has to approve of the judges chosen. The arrest of Nuon Chea, a now obscure but once powerful symbol of terror reminds us that the war against terror is not a new one. The tools and methods of the past were different but the end result was the same –suffering, misery and decimation. And what is scarier, if you dig deep enough, hovering in the background, you will find the long shadow of a super power….. Usually the same familiar super power.
Tags: Khmer Rouge , Superpower , Hun Sen , Lon Nol
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