Witnessing Genocide, Delayed.

23 Nov

Today, I walked the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. There on the grounds of mass graves where bones, skulls, and teeth still lie, I felt the weight of my own ignorance come down upon me.  Shreds of cloth from children’s clothing remained untouched as tree roots grew down around them.  In all the time it took for those roots to entangle clothing that was ripped from children’s bodies, I knew little to nothing of the travesty suffered by the Khmer people during the regime of “Democratic Kampuchea.”  Whatever I may have felt, I could not name it, and in some cases had trouble feeling it.  But if there is any grace in witnesses like me arriving too late, it is this:

Today, hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the atrocities suffered by the Khmer people over three decades ago. Some walked the Killing Fields like me, some heard stories from survivors around Cambodia and the world, and some watched the beginning of the UN-backed tribunals of three of the Khmer Rouge’s most powerful leaders. I was one of these hundreds of thousands. Together, in one day, we were witnesses to events that traumatized a nation, a trauma that still echoes in survivors and their family’s minds and bodies. This was today, and unfortunately for the Khmer people, this witnessing was many days too late.

The word witness plays a special significance here. During the four years of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (“Democratic Kampuchea,” 1975-1979), direct witnesses were primarily Khmer people. The borders of the country were shut down; foreigners were deported; non-Khmer ethnics were arrested and imprisoned; and diplomats were restricted to the confines of an abandoned capital city. To make matters worse, for many years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the UN recognized its government as the only legitimate government of Cambodia. Some have suggested that perhaps the UN and its supporters (including the US) can be partially forgiven, for they too were restricted in their access to Cambodia. The debate of responsibility can continue, and in the end we might realize that all of humanity is responsible for such a travesty, which is why I use the word witness with special emphasis.

As I silently moved around the mass graves of the Killing Fields in the heat of the midday sun, I realized that the suffering in my life might pale in comparison to the suffering of someone who watched his family burn around him, knowing that he, too, will burn, hang, bleed, starve, or be bludgeoned to death. But knowing my own suffering, as seemingly insignificant as it is, clarified for me how desperately I wish to avoid living through something like genocide. This is absolutely selfish, but it is this common selfishness that allows all of us to have compassion, to realize our common humanity. If we felt unscathed through suffering, with what motivation would we struggle against those who oppress others? What would drive us to protect each other from future atrocity?

Unfortunately, this was not the last genocide we have witnessed. There have been more since, and the suffering in Cambodia occurred well after the entire world witnessed the genocidal practices of the Nazi regime. Knowing all this could easily dissuade someone from making any effort to protect her fellow humans from a future act of violence against a population.

The excuses still abound. Today in Phnom Penh, Noun Chea, a major propagandist and powerful leader in the Khmer Rouge, stated that everything he did was for the benefit of his country – to protect Cambodia against any foreigners who wanted to destroy it, to help the Cambodian people become self-sufficient, to help the people build strength and power from within. As he put it, “to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wish to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the Earth.” Despite the rhetoric, we can easily see that his cause, liberating a nation from greed, was worthy in theory. But the resulting action of a worthy cause was that 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, and execution at the hands of Noun Chea’s revolutionary organization.  A worthy cause is no excuse, and nor is ignorance.

Even though I was not alive at the time, I am a part of this. We are each a part of the system that allows for atrocities to continually occur, and so the question remains: How do we become agents of change, even if we are unwilling to give up our day-to-day lives of comfort? I realized something in the Killing Fields today. The Cambodian people have given us a gift. Today, anyone with the means can visit Phnom Penh and visit the Killing Fields as well as sites like Tuol Sleng Prison. Much money and many resources have gone into these sites to expose the depths of Cambodia’s tragedy and educate the world in order to prevent something like this from happening somewhere else.

From today, we will watch the Khmer Rouge tribunals here in Phnom Penh progress.  While the truth may remain murky, we will continue to deepen our understanding of what happened. I encourage anyone who is reading this to take a moment and read about the tribunals. A simple search in Google News for “Khmer Rouge Tribunals” will give you the latest updates on the historic process we are witnessing today.  Let us all bear witness so that the future has at least some hope of freedom from fear.

One Response to “Witnessing Genocide, Delayed.”

  1. Courtney December 10, 2011 at 6:34 am #

    thank you for witnessing and sharing, Max.

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