Opinion: Comrade Duch and Cambodia’s sorrow

BOSTON — Class and economic differences have all but vanished from the world today as a basis for war and extermination. With the failure of Communism the world has settled back to more traditional forms of aggression based on blood ties, tribe, ethnicity and religion. But most of the 20th century was plagued by class war, the most extreme example being the fate of Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.

The conviction of Kiang Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, for crimes against humanity in Cambodia last week was a clear case of justice delayed being justice denied. Commandant of the notorious Tuol Sleng torture and extermination center in Phnom Penh, a converted school house, Comrade Duch oversaw the excruciating deaths of some 17,000 people during the Cambodian Holocaust more than 30 years ago. That his sentence was less than life in prison is a blow and a mockery to those who suffered during those terrible years.

The great Khmer civilization memorialized by the temple complex known as Angkor Wat ended almost a thousand years ago. Since then Cambodia has been in a long decline, squeezed, as Cambodians like to say, between the “tiger and the crocodile — a prisoner of geography between Thailand and Vietnam. From time to time one or the other has taken advantage of Cambodia’s weakness to invade.

For a while, during America’s Indochina wars, Cambodia seemed a fortunate land. Prince Norodom Sihanouk managed to balance both the external and internal forces of left and right to keep his country out of the fighting that engulfed the other two former French colonies, Laos and Vietnam. Mercurial and eccentric, Sihanouk seemed to lead a charmed life, writing sentimental songs, starring in his own movies and often summoning members of the diplomatic corps to the palace to play bit parts. “Shadow over Angkor,” a spy thriller produced and directed by Sihanouk in the starring role was my favorite.

One time, in the late '60s, some American soldiers on a river craft strayed up the Mekong too far and were captured in Cambodia. Sihanouk had them thrown in prison in Phnom Penh and an international incident was in the making. After inviting the world press in to watch, Sihanouk defused the situation by freeing the Americans in a public ceremony — but not before he had sent his tailor around to the prison to have them fitted for white cotton suits which they wore upon the occasion of their release.

But the Vietnamese were using the eastern fringes of his country to fight the Americans in Vietnam, and the Americans began to bomb them. Sihanouk, as part of his high wire act, knew about and encouraged both. The ides of March 1970, saw the right-wing coup that finally overthrew Sihanouk while he was on a trip abroad. I have never seen convincing evidence that the Americans engineered the coup, but they certainly encouraged and took advantage of it. The new leader, General Lon Nol, tried to take of the Vietnamese by sending his pathetic army — soldiers wearing magic scarves and amulets and chanting Buddhist prayers — who were decimated, and Cambodia descended into bloodshed and barbarity that overshadowed even that of Vietnam.

The peasantry in the countryside were organized by leftists into the anti-Lon Nol Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer.” There has never been a political movement quite like it for its twisted ideology and savagery. You could say it was an extreme version of China’s Maoist revolution. But it was so extreme, and so self-destructive that it put Mao to shame. Like the “jacquerie” peasant revolts of 14th century France, the Khmer Rouge were more interested in burning the chateaux and murdering the inhabitants than ruling a country.

Led by half-educated school teachers who had taken the ideals of the French Revolution and Marx to heart, it turned into an auto-genocide after it defeated Lon Nol and took over the country in 1975. As did the French after 1789, the Khmer Rouge declared their own “year zero,” and the tale of how they emptied the cities and turned the entire country into a rural labor camp has been oft told.

Whereas other genocides of the 20th century before and since, the Armenians, the Jews, Bosnians, were based on race or religion, the Cambodian genocide was based purely on class. And class was so narrowly defined that anyone with spectacles could be classified as an enemy and murdered.

I first learned how extreme the Khmer Rouge were while the war still raged with Phnom Penh. A few towns were held by Lon Nol’s forces while the rest of the countryside was in Khmer Rouge hands. A North Vietnamese advisor to the Khmer Rouge had defected to Phnom Penh and I went to see him. Hanoi at first had seen the Khmer Rouge as a leftist ally, and he was sent to help organize them politically. But he said they had no real idea of Communist thought, didn’t understand that you only killed people selectively as political examples, and were killing indiscriminately. He fled for his life.

Almost all the Cambodians I had known were killed during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule before the fed-up Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the horror. And no one who has since visited Toul Sleng, now a museum to man’s inhumanity to man, can help but be affected by the rows and rows of photographs of the victims. Duch had them all photographed and kept careful records of their tortured confessions, their crude cells still stained with blood when I visited. The look of utter horror and hopelessness of the victims staring into the camera is heartbreaking.

If you want to see where the ideals of the French Revolution via Karl Marx ended up in the 20th century go and see the batteries hooked up to bed springs in the sordid cells which Comrade Duch oversaw half a world away.