By Sydney Schanberg
For the last three decades, without surcease, Cambodia has been consumed by war, genocide, slave labor, forced marches, starvation, disease, and now civil conflict. It is to Asia what the Holocaust was to Europe.
Roughly the size of Missouri, bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, Cambodia had a population of perhaps 7 to 8 million in 1975 when the maniacal Khmer Rouge guerrillas swept into Phnom Penh and began the “purification” campaign that was the centerpiece of their extremist agrarian revolution. Four years later, the Khmer Rouge were pushed back into the jungle, leaving behind their legacy: 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians dead in what would become known to the world as “the Killing Fields.” Twenty percent of the population erased. In America that would be 50 to 60 million people.
Some scholars say that technically what happened in Cambodia cannot be called a genocide because for the most part, it was Khmers killing other Khmers, not someone trying to destroy a different “national, racial, ethnical or religious group”—which is how international law defines genocide.
To make such semantic or legalistic distinctions, however, is sometimes to forsake common sense — after all, the Khmer Rouge set out to erase an entire culture, a major foundation stone of which was Cambodia’s religion, Theravada Buddhism. And this may help explain why, over the years, the law has proved so poor a guide to the reality of human slaughter. For, whether you call the mass killing in Cambodia a genocide or simply a crime against humanity, it was the same by either name. It was a visitation of evil.
One might thus reasonably pick Cambodia as a paradigm for the law’s weakness in dealing with such crimes. International law, after all depends for its legitimacy on the willingness of the world’s Nation-States to obey and enforce it. In Cambodia’s case most Nation-States expressed shock and horror —and did nothing. Even after the Vietnamese Army pushed the Khmer Rouge out of power in 1979, ended the genocide, were welcomed as liberators, and installed a pro-Hanoi government in Phnom Penh, Western nations saw to it that Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations continued to be occupied for several years by those very same Khmer Rouge.Washington and its allies, while denouncing the Khmer Rouge crimes, were still slaves to Cold War ideology; they decided it was better to keep the Khmer Rouge in the UN seat than to have it go to a government in the orbit of Vietnam and its mentor, the Soviet Union. Realpolitik, not the law, was the governing force.
For the human record, let us examine exactly what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian population. Their first act, within hours of military victory, was to kidnap it, herding everyone out of cities and towns into work camps deep in the countryside. All villages that touched on roads were similarly emptied. Cambodia, in fact, was transformed into one giant forced-labor camp under the fist of Angka, “the organization on high.” That was the mild part.
The Khmer Rouge had actively sealed off the country. The world could not look in. The horror could begin. Led by Pol Pot, their Paris-educated, Maoist-influenced “Brother Number One,” the new rulers proceeded to completely shatter the three underpinnings of Cambodian society—the family, the Buddhist religion, and the village. In grueling migrations, people were marched to sites as far as possible from their home villages. Children were separated from parents and placed in youth groups, where they were indoctrinated to inform on their parents and other adults for any infractions of Angka’s crushing rules. Marriage was forbidden except when arranged by Angka. The schools were shuttered, currency abolished, factories abandoned. Newspapers ceased to exist. Radio sets were taken away.
As for religion, Buddhist temples were razed or closed. Of the sixty thousand Buddhist monks only three thousand were found alive after the Khmer Rouge reign; the rest had either been massacred or succumbed to hard labor, disease, or torture. The Chams, a Muslim minority, were also targets for elimination.
Religion, however, was but a starting point. Simply put, the Khmer Rouge marked for potential extinction all Cambodians they deemed not “borisot” (pure)—meaning all those with an education, those raised in population centers, those “tainted” by anything foreign (including knowledge of a foreign language), even those who wore glasses. Anyone, that is, suspected of not being in step with their pathological agrarian master plan. All suspect Cambodians were labeled “new people” and kept apart from the “pure” populations. In some instances, the “new people” were given special identifying neckerchiefs—reminiscent of the yellow Star of David—so they could always be picked out of a crowd, as they often were when taken away for execution.
The Khmer Rouge had a pet slogan: “To spare you is no profit; to destroy you, no loss.” With this incantation, at least 1.5 million Cambodians were erased.
I was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge marched in victorious on April 17, 1975, their faces cold, a deadness in their eyes. They ordered the city evacuated. Everyone was to head for the countryside to join the glorious revolution. They killed those who argued against leaving. Two million frightened people started walking out of the capital. The guerrilla soldiers even ordered the wounded out of the overflowing hospitals, where the casualties had been so heavy in the final few days of the war that the floors were slick with blood. There was no time for anything but emergency surgery. When the doctors ran out of surgical gloves, they simply dipped their hands in bowls of antiseptic and moved on to the next operating table. Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand wounded were in the city’s hospitals when the order to evacuate came. Most couldn’t walk so their relatives wheeled them out of the buildings on their beds, with plasma and serum bags attached, and began pushing them along the boulevards out of the city toward the “revolution.”
Foreigners were allowed to take refuge in the French embassy compound. I watched many Cambodian friends being herded out of Phnom Penh. Most of them I never saw again. All of us felt like betrayers, like people who were protected and didn’t do enough to save our friends. We felt shame. We still do.
Two weeks later, the Khmer Rouge expelled us from the country, shipping us out on two truck convoys to the border with Thailand. With this act, Cambodia was sealed. The world could not look in. The killing could begin.
But the story of Cambodia’s misery did not start with the Khmer Rouge. It began in March 1970, when a pro-Western junta headed by Gen. Lon Nol, with Washington’s blessing, deposed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was out of the country. Sihanouk, a neutralist, had kept Cambodia out of the Vietnam War by making concessions to appease both sides. He allowed the Americans to secretly bomb Viet Cong sanctuaries inside Cambodia while he allowed the Vietnamese Communists to use Cambodia’s port city, Kompong Som (also called Sihanoukville) to ship in supplies for those sanctuaries.
With Sihanouk gone, the Lon Nol group in effect declared war on Hanoi; and President Richard Nixon, pleased to have partisans—not neutralists—in Phnom Penh, ordered American troops to push into Cambodia from Vietnam for a six-week assault on the Communist sanctuaries. However, not having real confidence in Lon Nol, the president didn’t inform him of the invasion on his sovereign territory until after it had begun and after Nixon had informed the American public on national television.
This was probably the moment that marked Cambodia’s transformation into a pawn of the Cold War, with the Chinese backing the Khmer Rouge, the Soviets backing Hanoi, and the Americans backing the Lon Nol regime—all of them turning the entire country into a surrogate Cold War battlefield. The great irony in this turn of events is that the Khmer Rouge were no serious threat in 1970, being a motley collection of ineffectual guerrilla bands totaling at most three thousand to five thousand men, who could never have grown into the murderous force of seventy thousand to 100,000 that swept into Phnom Penh five years later without the American intervention and the subsequent expansion of Chinese and Russian aid to the Communist side. The enlarged war gave the Khmer Rouge status and recruitment power. It also gave them tutelage and advisory help from Hanoi’s forces (at least for the first two years before deep rifts drove the two apart).
This five-year war was marked by barbarism by all sides. Cambodian warriors have a battlefield custom, going back centuries, of cutting the livers from the bodies of their vanquished foes, then cooking them in a stew and eating them. The belief is that this imparts strength and also provides talismanic protection against being killed by the enemy. In this and countless other ways, the international conventions that say respect must be shown to the fallen enemy were universally disregarded.
Early in the war, in a town south of Phnom Penh, Lon Nol troops had killed two Viet Cong and recovered their badly charred bodies, which they hung upside-down in the town square to swing gruesomely in the wind—thereby sending a message to all who might consider aiding the foe. Henry Kamm, my New York Times colleague, tried to tell the Lon Nol commander that treating the bodies in this manner violated the Geneva Conventions. The commander found this amusing. He left the bodies twisting.
With the Vietnamese Communist units moving deeper into Cambodia, the Lon Nol government began whipping up anti-Vietnamese fervor. This visited fear and worse upon the 200,000-strong ethnic Vietnamese community in the country who, though they were citizens of Cambodia and had lived there for generations, soon became the targets of a public frenzy. Massacres began occurring. Many of the Vietnamese lived along the rivers, earning their living as fishermen; their bodies were soon floating down the Mekong by the dozens. One government general, Sosthene Fernandez, a Cambodian of Filipino ancestry who later rose to become chief of the armed forces, began using ethnic Vietnamese civilians as protective shields for his advancing troops, marching them in front into the waiting guns of the Viet Cong. This, too, is against international law. Fernandez disagreed. “It is a new form of psychological warfare,” he said.
Saigon raised bitter protests against these pogroms, and Cambodia’s Vietnamese population was finally interned in protective custody in schools and other public buildings. Many were eventually moved under guard to South Vietnam as a temporary measure until emotions cooled.
As the war progressed, the country—at least the part held by the Lon Nol government—progressively shrank. The energized Khmer Rouge kept grabbing more and more territory until the area under government control, aside from the capital, was reduced to a handful of transport corridors and several province towns. The Phnom Penh airport and the Mekong River were its lone links to the outside world. To preserve these lines of supply, the Americans bombed Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong targets in the countryside on a daily basis. Since most of the raids were by giant, eight-engine B-52s, each carrying about twenty-five tons of bombs and thus laying down huge carpets of destruction, the bombing was anything but surgical, and frequently hit civilian villages. The result was thousands of refugees fleeing into Phnom Pehn and the province towns. The capital swelled from a population of 600,000 at the start of the war to 2 million at its end in 1975. The American embassy in Phnom Pehn—and Henry Kissinger’s team in Washington—insisted that the refugees were fleeing only one thing: attacks by the brutal Khmer Rouge. But in fact they were fleeing both the Khmer Rouge and the American bombs. I visited refugee camps regularly and consistently heard both accounts. Some peasants didn’t flee at all; the Khmer Rouge used their anger about the bombing to recruit them as soldiers and porters.
The bombing raids illustrate what is pretty much an axiom in all wars: i.e., that so-called “conventional” weapons not forbidden by international law can produce the same horrific results as banned weapons.
In Cambodia, the B-52s carried napalm and dart cluster-bombs (since discontinued by the Pentagon). The raids were carried out by three of the mammoth planes in formation. Each plane can carry twenty-five to thirty tons of bombs, making the total load of a formation seventy-five to ninety tons. B-52s drop their bombs to form a grid, or “box,” of destruction on the ground; the grid (an average one might be one kilometer wide and two kilometers long) can be altered to fit the size and shape of the troop concentration. Soldiers who manage to survive these massive explosions (which sometimes throw bodies and dirt as much as one hundred feet in the air) are often rendered unfit for further duty, having been put in permanent shock or made deaf or simply frightened to the bone of every sharp sound or movement. Such raids were what destroyed the retreating Iraqi troops on the road to Basra at the end of that war in 1991—the road that became known as the “Highway of Death.”
In 1973, an accidental B-52 bombing of Neak Loeung, a government-held Mekong river town, killed and wounded some four hundred Cambodians, most of them civilians. The American embassy apologized and gave monetary gifts to victims’ families on a sliding scale—a few hundred dollars for the loss of a limb, more for multiple limbs, and still more for a death. When civilians die in wars, the military calls it unintentional, even though everyone knows civilian deaths are inevitable, especially when the weapons spray their lethality over large spaces. The phrase used by the Pentagon for civilian deaths is “collateral damage”—just as napalm was called “soft ordnance”—the idea being to give war a softer, sanitized sound for the lay public.
Napalm, incidentally, was dropped by B-52s in the Vietnam and Cambodian wars, in the form of CBUs—Cluster Bomb Units. (Other planes dropped napalm in different containers and forms.) A CBU is a large bomb, say 750 pounds, that carries hundreds of smaller projectiles. A typical CBU is rigged to open, in the manner of a clamshell, a short distance above the ground, releasing its hail of explosive bomblets on the enemy troops beneath it. One variety was the CBU-3; its bomblets carried napalm, which set fire to the troops or robbed the air of oxygen, thus asphyxiating them. Another version carried special darts, which ripped through flesh or pinned the victims to trees or the ground. Sometimes it is hard for the layman to discern any great difference between these weapons and, for instance, the chemical arms banned by international law and custom. Both have a terror component. The napalm and darts have since been taken out of the American CBU inventory—because of their bad image—but conventional-bomblet CBUs are still used, as in the 1991 Gulf war with Iraq.
And what about plain old rockets? Should all of them be banned, since they are frequently used as instruments of terror against civilians? The Khmer Rouge sent rockets shrieking into Phnom Penh throughout that five-year war. These were not precisely aimed munitions by any definition. They were crudely produced Chinese projectiles with a fan-shaped tail that whistled as it cut through the air overhead; you knew when it began its downward plummet because the whistling suddenly stopped. These rockets were launched from the city’s environs, set off from hand-fashioned wooden platforms; there was no aiming at specific military targets—the effort was simply to get them to land somewhere, anywhere, in the refugee-packed city. And land they did—on markets, in school rooms, in backyards—spewing jagged metal and sliced limbs. The purpose was to demoralize the civilian population, and it worked.
An artillery piece can also be used as a weapon of terror against civilians. One afternoon in the summer of 1974, the Khmer Rouge trained a captured American-made 105 mm howitzer on Phnom Penh and fanned its muzzle across the city’s southern edge. At first, as the shells fell in this half-moon arc, they exploded without result, but then the arc came to a colony of houses called Psar Deum Kor, and the death began. Fires started by the shells broke out and the houses were quickly in flames, whipped by high winds. Within a half hour, nearly two hundred people were dead and another two hundred wounded, virtually all civilians. The bodies were carted off on police pickup trucks. No military target was anywhere in the vicinity.
In the end—whether in Cambodia or any other killing field—there is nothing new either about the barbarity of people destroying people or, unfortunately, about its seeming inevitability in every age. One unchanging lesson is that war or genocide or crimes against humanity are states of violence that, where they exist, remove all breath from such notions as the law and civilized behavior.
Is it hopeless, then, to try to strengthen both the international law and its enforcement? No, never hopeless, not if you believe in the possibility of improvement, no matter how slight. Journalists are by blood and tradition committed to the belief, or at least to the tenet, of trying to keep bad things from getting any worse than they already are. Thus, this book.
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