Reflections on Cambodia
What the Khmer Rouge killing fields tell us about leftist utopianism.

Young Khmer Rouge soldiers in 1975


Rather, what happened in Cambodia is what happened in the French Revolution, and in Stalin’s purges and mass collectivization campaigns, and in Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, only on a proportionately larger scale. It was mass murder in the name of equality. It wasn’t “genocide”; it was Communist utopianism carried to its logical extreme. The Khmer Rouge, who called themselves Maoists, believed that the most important social and political value was equality and that in order to create their new, classless society in which everyone was equal, it was necessary to exterminate anyone who might be smarter, or better educated, or wealthier, or more talented than anyone else. Thus, they killed the educated, the bourgeoisie, the middle classes, and the rich; movie stars, pop singers, authors, urban residents, and workers for the former government; and anyone who protested — as well as the families of all the above. Towards the end, they also killed cadres who were thought to be a political threat. Whatever their crimes were, the Khmer Rouge do not seem to have been motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious hatred.

Why then do Cambodians and the world call the mass murders by the Khmer Rouge “genocide”? I can think of several possible reasons. One is the superficial similarity to other mass slaughters — as noted earlier, the pictures of the Cambodian killing fields look very much like the pictures from the German concentration camps. Surely many people who are largely ignorant of history know only that similarity. Another reason is the fact that the victims of genocide are sympathetic. The U.N. creates commissions, and wealthy countries send money. Cambodia today is filled with NGOs bringing aid of various kinds. The desire for international sympathy might explain why Cambodians use the genocide label.

However, I suspect that the most important reason for the usage worldwide is that many people in the international media, international agencies, and international NGOs (not to mention academia) are reluctant to face up to the crimes committed by Communism in the name of equality. To do so might call into question the weight attached by them to equality as the most important social value and undermine the multicultural faith that evil is predominantly the product of inequality, racism, ethnic hatred, or religious fanaticism. That cannot be permitted, so such crimes must be either ignored or mislabeled. And, of course, the remaining Communist regimes in the world are only too happy to cooperate in characterizing the killing fields as the products of irrational paranoia on the part of Pol Pot and his gang rather than the perfectly rational result of the quest for perfect equality.

No one has ever been punished for the Khmer Rouge’s crimes. After the Vietnamese army drove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from power, they continued to be recognized as the Cambodian government by much of the world. Pol Pot kept his seat in the U.N. until the early 1990s, supported by both China and the U.S. (to our everlasting shame). He died in his bed in 1998 surrounded by his wife and grandchildren. The trial of four senior members of the Khmer Rouge is still under way. They are the only ones to have ever been charged. All the rest have effectively if not formally been forgiven, as the price of the political settlement that finally brought peace to Cambodia.

Justice has not been and may never be served. All we can do is bear witness. I am glad I went to the killing fields to see the evidence of these horrible crimes, even as the world ignores their true meaning.

— Douglas B. Levene is professor from practice at the Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China.


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