Monday, February 14, 2011

No more Cambodias

Seeing countries go through periods of revolution -- like what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia recently -- always brings both excitement and anxiety. The new governments there, whatever they turn out to be, could bring positive change for those societies, but there's also the risk that things could get much, much worse than they had already been.

I hope that the changes in both Egypt and Tunisia will be positive for all the people who live there, and that they will be able to live from now on in an open, democratic society that respects human rights and freedom of conscience and speech for all.

But while all this revolution has been going on, I've been thinking a bit about a revolution that went very, very badly for everyone involved: Cambodia in the 1970s.

Several months ago I read the awesome book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short. I really didn't know that much about Cambodia before then.

You couldn't have made people believe it if you had written it as a movie script:

"OK, so there's this country, right, and these people come to power who are like Communists. Only they're more like a splinter Communist group because they've got some wierd beliefs about restarting human history at 'Year Zero' and converting to an all-agrarian society. And their leader is this guy who's not real smart or even really charismatic. And they take over the country, and everybody who has any kind of education, they kill them, because they don't want smart people in their country. And for the people they don't kill, they make them all leave the cities and basically work on these collective farms, only they're kind of like borderline collective farms/internment camps. And they made millions of those folks starve to death and tortured and beat them."

Hard to believe it was real life.

Of course, someone did make it into a movie, The Killing Fields, which I just saw several days ago. I'd put off seeing it for a long time, and I'm glad I finally saw it after reading the Pol Pot book, because it made much more sense to me. (Wait, I take that back. It didn't make any more sense to me, because so much of what happened was senseless. Let's just say I understood the history behind it better after reading the Pol Pot book.)

The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the use of John Lennon's Imagine at the very end. Imagine is such a hopeful song, and I just couldn't believe that anyone who had just lived through what Dith Pran had lived through would have such a positive outlook on the world right then. Maybe later on, but not right then. There is always hope in this world, yes, but while he made it out alive, certainly he had seen horrors brought upon himself and many people. If I were him, I'd have been relieved, and excited to see my family, but God, I'd have been depressed and angry, too. I think I'd have been a walking basket case, frankly. I wouldn't have cared about the world "living as one" right then. There'd have been too many dead people to have seen that rosy a future.

(You can see the real Dith Pran talking about his experiences in this New York Times video at this link. He passed on a couple of years ago of cancer.)

But here's one thing that blew me away when I read the book (the very end of the book): A lot of these top Khmer Rouge dudes are still alive and still have not yet been tried on criminal charges. Nuon Chea -- "Brother Number Two" -- as well as Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan are all still alive and are awaiting trial from the UN on charges related to the Cambodian genocide.

What the heck, UN?