I studied the UK board at a private school & had internet access to English media world-over. As a consequence, I’ve been assured (by virtue of repetition) that the Jewish Holocaust was humanity’s most memorable dark hour. Schindler’s List, Inglorious Bastards, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas — I know of Nazis & their atrocities not just from history textbooks but from the dignity afforded to the Jewish Holocaust in everything from popular movies, documentaries, & global commemorations.
How widespread is the school & media discourse on crimes against humanity from other parts of the world? Not so much.
Korea & Vietnam shared a chapter & Laos got a single mention from my teacher. I don’t know of mainstream genocide movies on Cuba, nothing on the Maya, nothing of Congo, Botswana, Myanmar.
The Jewish Holocaust was neither the most recent, not the longest, not the most wide-spread, nor deadliest of holocausts in recorded history. Why then was I taught so little about other similar mass killings?
I am by no means saying we need to dial back discussions on the Jewish Holocaust. Rather, I’m wondering why we don’t discuss other holocausts as frequently. If our goal is to never repeat mistakes of the past, surely it would only be beneficial to understand all the different ways in which humans have historically planned, manifested, ceased, prevented, & penalized genocides.
How This Came To Be
How did this single event alone become so symbolic of genocide?
- First, not everyone has the power to write & preach history.
An example: Carl Scheele & Antoine Lavoisier discovered Oxygen separately around the same time. Scheele published in Swedish & Lavoisier published in English. Today, Lavoisier is known as the ‘Father of Chemistry’ while Scheele lies in obscurity. Makes you wonder how many histories we’ve lost by the sheer imbalance in people’s power to tell their stories.
Being able to disseminate information through mass media, in the world’s dominant languages is a privilege not afforded to many non-white populations who’ve faced genocide.
- Second, those who have the power to write & preach history also hold the power to erase it.
My 10th grade history textbook is taught all over the world. It was written by a European white male for students beyond Europe. And yet, I can say without exaggeration that Europe occupies every page, with all other peoples mentioned only to further the European story. The only African name I know from WW2 is the king who lost to Italy, & I know nothing about him except that his name was Selassie & he lost to Italy.
And thus, thousands of non-white, non-European students all over the world like me are being taught a history where they don’t find their own faces.
I hear the argument: Every population teaches it’s own history to progeny. So it doesn’t matter if international textbooks don’t mention brown history, brown adults tell brown children their history.
My question then would be why should I know of the Jewish Holocaust but an Israeli child never learn about the Bengal Famine?
Because European history is considered “world history” & all other histories relegated to “national / local history”. Once again, white Europe is patient 0, to which all other people & their stories are relative.
In 2018, I took a trip to Cambodia. As per my textbook, it’s the country that faced collateral bombing during the Vietnam war. In reality of course, it is so much more, including home to a genocide just 50 years ago, 30 years after the Jewish Holocaust.
In Cambodia, I learned more tragedy than I was prepared for. The rest of this piece is a brief account of the Khmer Genocide & what it’s like to visit the scenes of crime today. Consider reading on as a step towards correcting our collective neglect of non-white history — a small step towards affording a community of colour the same dignity of attention to their past & pain that we’ve afforded the other Holocaust.
- During the United States-Vietnam War (1955–75), Cambodia was bombed incessantly by the US military. Consequently, a resentment for the American government & the CIA gripped the population.
- At the end of the war (1975), the Communist Party of Kampuchea or the Khmer Rouge [French, ‘red Khmer’] come to great power. The people called the party Angkar, meaning ‘The Organization’.
- The Angkar set out to further their “purification project”. This meant executing anyone categorised as Old People — those of intellect, art, & creativity, Buddhists, & the Cham minority. The only ones considered fit to live in the Khmer state were New People dedicated solely to a simple agrarian life.
- April 1975, the Angkar — in the midst of a war with Vietnam — took over Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh under the pretext that a US invasion was on its way. Capitalizing on the people’s fear of more American bombs, they evacuated all civilians to farms away from the city to serve as slaves till death.
- In Phnom Penh, Angkar opened detention centers for all “CIA spies” who’d supposedly infiltrated the capital. It’s probably not surprising at this point in the story that these centers housed not one CIA spy, just millions of innocent Cambodians. Their crime: not having convinced Angkar of their loyalty. Sound familiar?
- Political opponents, the Cham minority, religious leaders, Viet foreigners, painters, seamstresses, laborers, children — everyone was a target. For the next 4 years, Angkar officers enslaved, tortured, & executed 20 lakh people — about a third of the country’s population.
- Ignoring the genocide, America, China, Europe, & other large global economies recognised the Angkar as the legitimate government of Cambodia & gave the party a seat at the United Nations right until 1982.
- Relief came in 1979, when Viet forces took over Phnom Penh & the Angkar leaders moved into hiding. Some died in exile while others were brought to justice under the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC). The progress of the tribunal has been far below it’s Nuremberg parallel for Nazi leaders. The cases of 4 Angkar leaders are still active, over 50 years after the fact.
S21 Detention Centre
‘Security Center 21’ or ‘S21’ was one of over 300 detention centres that supposedly brought CIA spies to justice. Before the Khmer Rouge took over the building, it used to function as a school. Today, S21 is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Prisoners were brought here after arrest, given roll numbers, stripped of all belongings save the clothes on their backs, & then carefully documented. The report for each prisoner contained long fabrications about their affiliation to the CIA, plus a picture taken immediately upon their arrival at S21.
After, they were tortured for forced confessions stating that they were indeed spies of the CIA. If they confessed, they were executed. If they resisted, they were tortured, possibly till death. Only 12 survived.
Almost every wall in the main building holds thousands of pictures of recorded prisoners. Thousands. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you look at. Every face is another jolt. No matter how young or old or tall or short — if their face was on a wall they’d perished after unspeakable suffering.
The experience of visiting the museum is difficult to put into words. Visitors are on their own audio-guides & maintain solemn silence. The silence is not empty but choked with reverence. There are no smiles, no pained faces, as if we had agreed that emoting would defile the space. The Khmer are a people of faith, & their cherished sacredness moves as a spirit in the museum. This is not a memorial of weeping but of contemplation.
What Went Down Inside
Referred to by the officers as ‘it’, prisoners lived in windowless cells, a few couple cramped into 3x5 feet. With their ankles chained to the floor, here they slept, ate, & relieved themselves. If their chamber pot leaked, the officers beat them till they’d licked the floor clean.
Prisoners were given little too eat, & resorted to making meals of rats & insects. Waterboarding, electrocution, dismembering, filling wounds with centipedes, & other abuses were commonplace. S21 survivor & atist Vann Nath’s memories occupy many of the walls. One of his most poignant paintings depicts 2 officers carrying a live naked prisoner by his limbs tied to a wooden pole like hunted game.
What makes the visit most unnerving is the constant reminder that this place was once a school. The Angkar converted the classrooms into living cells. Within the walls where children once played together, prisoners were cooped up, starved, beaten, & humiliated.
But these were not the only horrors of detention. Worse was the interrogation process. The supervisor for S21 was Kang Kek Lew or Comrade Duch.
Duch had laid out a strict modus operandi for interrogating officers. He formalized 3 levels of interrogation: Mild < Hot < “Like a dog chews a bone”.
Prisoners called the interrogation rooms “the place people enter but don’t leave”. Here, thousands were chained to metal bed frames & faced escalating physical abuse till they gave in.
Innocent men & women confessed to relaying crucial information to the US military, disrespecting Pol Pot, or in some way jeopardizing the territorial or moral security of Cambodia. After signing their confessions, they were executed. Each execution had to be authorized by Duch. If an interrogator accidentally killed a prisoner, they would find themselves detained.
Each interrogation room now has a photograph of a corpse as it was found in 1979, when the Angkar were defeated by the Viet & fled S21. Some of these photographs have white paper covering parts of the victims’ bodies; the injuries are too gruesome to display.
Where All The Good People Go?
The inner circle of the organization was as paranoid as it was ruthless. One of the Angkar’s mottos was “when taking out the tree, take out also the roots” — when executing a suspect, also execute their entire family so that none are left to seek revenge.
To save ammunition, officers executed adults with blows to the head or by slashing their throats with the sharp edges of sugar palm stems. Children were executed by smashing their heads against tree barks.
This strategy of course cost them in the long run. Towards the end of the war, when the Viet army began closing in, nearly all doctors had been executed. The Angkar realized they now had no one to treat soldiers & workers in the war against Vietnam, whose numbers were dwindling.
The solution? Select citizens were trained to be ‘medics’. Live prisoners were cut up for the medics to practice anatomy. Their methods were unscientific, such as using salt to heal flesh wounds. One of their main functions was to drain the blood from healthy prisoners to transport to Angkar soldiers in need of blood transfusions.
“How could they?” my father asked as we walk through rows of black & white mugshots. “I cannot fathom it. Did no one stop to think?”
The trick lied in that duties never overlapped —
one officer conceptualized the detention center,
another supervised it,
& another executed.
This detached each officer from the entire torture process, allowing all to truthfully claim they were just doing their part, following orders.
By fragmenting the detainees’ journey from arrest to torture to death, the Angkar ensured that none of their officers were sensitized to the plight of the enemy.
Any displays of emotion towards prisoners were met with execution. For example, an officer could lose their life for raping a prisoner because even that was considered a display of “desire for the enemy”.
Unsurprisingly, the body count from detention centers escalated to unmanageable rates. So much so, that officers dug mass graves — now known as the Killing Fields — in which to bury 300–400 corpses at once.
A walk through this site is overwhelming & discomforting. At the gate, you see visitors leaving inconsolable. But then again, this isn’t supposed to be a comforting experience. It is a reminder of the fallibility of brotherhood, of sense, of humanity.
Many in Cambodia practice animism ie they pray to their ancestors. Knowing where an ancestor is buried is crucial to the practice. Angkar’s mass graves made this impossible. For years, animism practitioners wished to turn to religion when mourning their kin but couldn’t.
The Angkar had not just robbed Cambodians of their progeny. They had robbed Cambodia of the right to heal.
The solution is to build memorials by which to remember the departed. There is one memorial exhibit at the end of the S21 tour & one at the Killing Fields. Visitors can leave notes of prayer at an idol surrounded by glass cases filled with the skulls of countless unidentified.
There is a banyan tree in front of one of the living cells at S21. In Khmer culture, it is believed that the banyan tree calms restless spirits. Perhaps that is why the air all around the complex is heavy not with anger or vengeance but with sorrow & regret. It seems the spirits of those who died at may S21 have come to rest, or at least I dearly hope so.
When I approached them, I walked slowly. My mind was blank. When we took the photograph, it didn’t seem appropriate to smile. I wanted to say something desperately but no words would form. I wanted to hold their hands & cry, “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry”. But I didn’t. I simply bowed, walked to the graves on the other side of the school yard, & wept. I still do not know what I would say to them.
More Or Less Holocaust
Events involving people of colour (POCs) never receive the traction that European events do. News media all over the world mourned Charlie Hebdo, but rest assured few in France know Muzzaffarnagar.
Not only do we forget minority events as a whole, we also tend to forget minorities within major events.
We forget to think of adivasi rights when celebrating Republic Day.
We’re never taught the names of the women who framed our constitution.
Not once during my research on the Khmer Rouge could I find material on queer or trans individuals.
History will always forget the lives of those who don’t get to write it. In every telling of human history, we slowly whittle the the voices of those we won’t let speak as loud as us.
I think it’s time our media discourse & our textbooks began to reflect an inclusive, intersectional global history. And educating ourselves about subaltern events, recognising that they are more than footnotes is the first step to affording dignity to subaltern life & history.
The sources for all information on the genocide stated as fact are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum & Killing Fields’s official guides (audio, text).
For accounts from survivors themselves:
- First They Killed My Father, Netflix
- Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide
- A Survivor From Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, Justice for the Future Not Just for the Victims