different from many other genocidal events," observes Adam Fifield,
author of A Blessing Over Ashes, a new book about a Killing Fields
refugee coming of age in America
and Cambodia. "It was genocide driven not by racial or religious hatred
but by an ideology that had been icubated so fervently that it became
the Killing Fields *
February 11, 2009
Twenty-five years ago, two
weeks before the fall of Saigon, the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh fell
to the Khmer Rouge, beginning the period known as "the Killing Fields."
Despite the popular book and movie by that title, what really happened during
the three years of Khmer Rouge rule is not widely known.
Few Americans realize that close to two million people died, that none of the
perpetrators have been brought to justice and that the United States helped
bring about the crisis that lead to the Khmer Rouge takeover.
What that means is that the lessons of the Killing Fields, unlike the lessons of
earlier tragedies like the Nazi Holocaust, have yet to be understood.
Cambodians themselves are having a hard time using those lessons. For the
country's school children, the history of the three-year period is usually
"Kids can't really accept what happened and are sort of inclined not to
believe it, that we could treat each other that way," says Susan Cook,
director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University, which is working
to document who died and how. "Schools aren't making a concerted effort."
"The problem is how to teach it in a politically-correct manor that is not
going to look bad," says Mark Levy, a former reporter for the
English-language Cambodia Daily.
As the United Nations and the current Cambodian government discuss whether to
try Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity, more attention is being
given to what actually happened during the Khmer Rouge years.
"It's different from many other genocidal events," observes Adam Fifield,
author of A Blessing Over Ashes, a new book about a Killing Fields
refugee coming of age in America and Cambodia. "It was genocide driven not by
racial or religious hatred but by an ideology that had been icubated so
fervently that it became insanity."
The madness began as soon as the city fell on April 17. Shortly after their
victory, the Khmer Rouge forced the evacuation of 2 million people from the city
to the countryside, on foot. The wounded were forced out of hospitals to make
the trek; some of them were wheeled out on hospital beds.
What happened next, and until 1978, was a shock to nearly everyone.
"I expected that there would be some killing," says Vicchyka Shelto. She
was among the first Cambodian refugees to reach the U.S. from a Thai refugee
camp, after a daring escape from Phnom Penh on April 17 in the plane of her
then-husband, a Cambodian air force officer. "But I didn't know that the
Cambodian people would suffer genocide. That's the kind of thing I did not
That's because little was known of the leader of the Khmer Rouge, a
Paris-educated communist named Saloth Sar, who went by the nom de guerre
"Pol Pot." According to Cook, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge "thought they could
reorganize a society to bring it backwards in time to a state of agrarian
The Khmer Rouge, or "KR," attempted to completely transform Cambodia overnight,
by organizing the country into farming cooperatives, demanding total devotion to
the state and wiping out any remnants of the old regime.
That meant shutting off all
contact to the outside world, eliminating loyalty to friends or family, emptying
the cities, eliminating the Buddhist religion, and creating a fearsome central
authority, the "Angka" or "organzation," that punished any deviation with
torture and death.
If a person knew a foreign language, had worked for the French or Americans, or
dared to express feelings of love to your husband or wife, he or she was a
Sayon Soeun, who works for the Cambodian Mutual Aid Association in Lowell,
Mass., was separated from his mother in one of thKR labor camps and never saw
"My real name and real age I don't know," he says. Whatever his age, he
did hard labor in the camps and trained to be a soldier. He watched soldiers
slit people's throats for alleged transgressions.
"I witnessed that every day of my life in my childhood while training to hate
people, to hate my family," said Soeun.
The estimates of dead have ranged from a low of 100,000 to a high of 3 million.
The Yale program has arrived at a number of 1.7 million, which is supported by
While the genocide targeted minority ethnic and religious groups like the
Vietnamese, Chinese and the Chams, a Muslim people, the Killing Fields was also
unique in that it was largely an act of "auto-genocide." Cambodians did the
killing and the dying.
"That's why Cambodians will tell you that their genocide is worse than any
other genocide in mankind, because they did it to themselves,"says Levy.
The scars of the Khmer rouge regime linger in Cambodia and in the victims who
emigrated to the U.S. At Khmer Health Advocates in Hartford, Conn., Cambodians
get help dealing with the demons.
a high rate of depression, of post
traumatic stress disorder," said
Mary Scully, a nurse in the program.
People in the 45-55 age group are
particularly susceptible: it's like
they've aged prematurely, often
developing ailments like diabetes ten
years younger than most people.
Copyright 2009 CBS. All
The physical problems are interwoven
with psychological traumas: when stomach
ailments prevent Killing Fields
survivors from eating, they get hunger
pains. Those pains remind them of life
in the camps, and they are unable to
Underneath the suffering is a thirst for
"In twenty years I've probably heard
two people who wanted revenge. People
mostly wanted answers: 'Why did they do
this to me?' 'Why did they kill so many
people?'" says Scully. "The
'whys' are as big art of it."
Some hope an international war crimes
tribunal can help answer some of those
Cambodia and the United Nations have
been unable to agree on who should
control such a trial— Cambodian courts
or international judges—but UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
reported progress when they discussed
the potential for a trial last week.
However, the truth could be
uncomfortable for a lot of people
outside Cambodia. A lawyer for Ta Mok, a
Khmer Rouge military leader who could be
tried for war crimes, has threatened to
subpoena Margaret Thatcher, Ronald
Reagan, Henry Kissinger and three former
United Nations secretary generals to
answer questions about their countries'
support for the KR insurgency.
After the Vietnamese invaded and threw
out the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. government
supported the non-communist partners in
a coalition army of which the Khmer
Rouge was part. And world powers allowed
the Khmer Rouge's delegate to occupy
Cambodia's United Nations seat even
after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown.
Because Vietnam was America's enemy,
critics say, the Khmer Rouge were
treated as friends.
"There's a lot of embarrassment to go
around," says Sydney Schanberg, who
covered the Cambodian civil war for
The New York Times."We haven't
learned that the truth is the cleansing
The truth is that U.S bombing of
Cambodia killed many thousands, long
before the Khmer Rouge had a chance to.
"The first phase of the genocide,
from 1969 to 1975, was pretty brutal,"
said Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor and
longtime critic of the role of U.S.
policy in the Cambodian tragedy. "By
mid-1975, when the Khmer Rouge took
over, most of the country was pretty
much a wreck."
Undeniably though, what Pol Pot's
legions did was different: the
obliteration of a culture and death of
perhaps million souls.
"That is true evil," says
Schanberg, but adds, "we didn't
commit it but we, all the gret powers,
provided the engine that helped create
As for Cambodia itself in April, 2000,
it's not clear how or whether the
anniversary will be officially
remembered. The country itself is still
wounded from the war. Phnom Penh bears
scars of battle, the countryside is
littered with land mines, and the Khmer
Rouge slaughter of a generation of
educated people has left a nation mired
"None of the many Cambodians I have
spoken to in the past few weeks has even
mentioned it," reports Rich Garella,
an author working in Cambodia on a book
about the country's contemporary
politics. "It almost coincides with
the New Year on April 13 this year, so
that might be mitigating it."