Saturday, January 10, 2009

Memo from Cambodia

by Christopher Moses

In recent weeks Nicholas Kristof has used two powerful and daring articles about sexual slavery to document the captivity, torture and brutal exploitation of young women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. National Public Radio, too, has given air to these painful stories.

Context and perspective can either obscure or clarify an issue; too often explanation becomes an excuse to dull or obviate moral outrage in the face of ghastly immorality.

Instead, I hope this week context can bring clarity to the disgust raised by Kristoff’s reporting. In future posts I will share more from my own current travels in Cambodia, but for now history offers a necessary beginning.

Last week marks a tremendous anniversary. Thirty years ago on January 7, 1979, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge, one of the most heinous and genocidal regimes in history. Under the perverse rule of Pol Pot and in only three years the country suffered absurd devastation as a means of a radical anti-modern revolution. Cities were evacuated; money was abolished; forced labor became the rule and the government oversaw the deaths of about 1.7 million Cambodians—at least twenty percent of the country.

The legacy of this catastrophic genocide remains, not least in its demographic impact. Half of the current population is under 16 and yet even with this disproportionate age distribution the gender ratio remains skewed with only 94 men for every 100 women (up from 86.1 to 100 in 1980).

Torture, sadistic murder and barbaric slavery flourished. Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, remains haunted by violence that impeaches any semblance of humanity—the vivid record on display leaves you with an indescribable vacuum of selfhood.

In many ways the actions of the United States Government contributed directly to the causes and circumstances of Pol Pot’s rise and the ascedency of the Khmer Rouge. Ben Keirnan, Yale historian and leading expert, argues: “Although it was indigenous, Pol Pot’s revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilization of Cambodia, which began in 1966 after American escalation in next-door Vietnam and peaked in 1969-73 with the carpet bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s. This was probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise” (The Pol Pot Regime, 16, emphasis added).

Thirty years is a long time and the Khmer Rouge in no way explains or excuses the contemporary plight of child prostitution in Cambodia. Nor should any weight be given to a sort of cultural prejudice or essentialism about an uncivilized or less moral people.

Still if a weak state, corruption, poverty, meager educational resources and limited opportunities for economic self-improvement play a role then indeed this history is tremendously relevant. More than proximity connects the many prostitutes who line the entrances to clubs just around the corner from the Tuol Sleng Museum—there, in the open, seeking Cambodian patrons, a bit farther a field from the clubs catering to foreigners.

Current awareness and righteous indignation should call forth the shame of those who permit and perpetrate rape, child abuse, kidnapping and forced sexual labor. Yet the clarion call of American indignation rings slightly off key without any context or shared culpability for the Cambodian present.

We should all learn about and protest against the evil and inhumane suffering that takes place daily in our world—often not so indirectly following from the blind excess and unconscious consumption of much first world living.

Better to avoid creating tragedy than celebrating the chance to make a devastated country into the poster-child of reform and recovery. Every year Cambodians die or suffer grave injury from land mines that remain decades after the Vietnam War and the subsequent civil conflict while the United States refuses to support the international treaty to ban them.

Understanding must arise from basic historical inquiry. Justice may be blind but can never be amnesiac. Most disturbingly, a recent news story reports that a standard 9th grade Cambodia history textbook has completely excised mention of the Khmer Rouge, perpetrating ignorance upon the two-thirds of the population born since Pol Pot’s rule. Political controversy remains as to whether the Vietnamese action in 1979 constituted a liberation or an invasion and subsequent cultural and economic colonization. Within that dispute the Khmer Rouge can too easily be romanticized or become a justification for current political repression—in both cases understanding suffers and its legacy continues rather than heals.

Today take a moment to learn about Cambodia’s history. Do not displace the rage precipitated by Kristof’s columns. Those responsible for the late 70s genocide are in the midst of criminal prosecution but the process has moved slowly and only sustained attention will force speedier action (Pol Pot himself died in 1998 never having had to answer for his crimes). Rather enhance and deepen your understanding and in turn strengthen your ability to raise awareness and take action against such horror.

For broad context consider the Yale University Genocide Studies Program. On Cambodia more specifically, Kiernan’s book, The Pol Pot Regime, offers a comprehensive history and his earlier monograph affords a longer current in which to place the Khmer Rouge period. For powerful person testimonies see Beyond the Killing Fields: Voices of Nine Cambodian Survivors in America. Similarly moving is Luong Ung’s book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and a broader study of American-based survivors can be found in Sucheng Chan’s Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States. For further books, reviews, web resources and other materials, this Yale page has an excellent bibliography.

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