On Difference

One of the leading practices of the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979 was a program of racial “purification” which manifested as an assimilation policy with genocidal massacres.  They began with the Vietnamese ethnic minorities, none of whom appear to have survived within Cambodia, as they were either murdered or fled into Vietnam, where most had not lived for generations.  Since 1979 many have returned but today’s Vietnamese population is less than half of that in 1975.  Prior to the Khmer Rouge, Prime Minister Lon Nol had also led murderous pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese.  The relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam is complicated and filled with ill ease about land ownership particularly in the border areas.  I first learned this when I was talking to staff in 2013 about my experiences in East Timor.  They had never heard of East Timor and after I explained it’s history briefly, one of them commented very quick wittedly, “Did you know that there is also an East Cambodia?  It is called Vietnam!”.

The Vietnamese were not the only minority purged by Khmer Rouge.  City-dwellers became known under this regime as “new people” and were considered the enemy, taken as prisoners of war and forced out of the city into the countryside.  They were made to work harder and survive more extreme conditions than the country peasants, or “old people” who did not pose the same level of threat as the modern and educated urbanites.  Ethnic Chinese were automatically labelled “new people” because of their urban origins, and more than 50% of the pre-1975 Chinese population were killed during these five years.  Their deaths occurred at a much higher rate than other “new people”.  Exhibiting Chinese culture or speaking Chinese was punishable by death in some areas.  One of my local MSF friends is the son of a Chinese man whose family changed their name in 1975 to avoid detection of their Chinese origins as a means of survival.

In her book When The War Was Over, Elizabeth Beckett describes the near-extinction of the Muslim Cham community during Pol Pot’s rule, as “one of the sorriest tales of the revolution”.  Today these are a highly visible minority within the Cambodian population, thought to number as many as half a million.  They practice Islam, speak their own Cham language and have been present in Cambodia for many centuries.  But between 1975 and 1979 approximately half of them lost their lives.  After initially supporting the Khmer Rouge, as many others did in the hope of being liberated from the oppressive regime of Lon Nol, in 1973 the Cham lifestyle was declared “counter-revolutionary”.  They succumbed to a systematic attack during which their leaders were hunted down and murdered, mosques destroyed, forced to adopt Khmer names, shave their beards (men), cut their long hair (women) and banned from wearing Islamic attire.  They were also forced at gunpoint to eat pork, banned from speaking their own language, and families were separated to prevent children learning the culture they were born into.

Also supportive of the Khmer Rouge at first, were the Buddhist clergy who were actively recruited to the revolution and initially treated with respect.  Almost immediately upon victory however, monks were enticed to identify themselves to their superiors who forced them to reject their religious practices such as imposing arranged marriages on them and confiscating their orange robes.  Those who refused were executed.  The country’s nearly 1,000 pagodas were desecrated or destroyed.  Buddhism was banned completely and all religious texts were burned.

Everyone wore black pajamas, worked and lived in cooperatives, ate the same food and followed the same rules and routines.  The only exception was the higher ranking Khmer Rouge and their families, who hid away in Phnom Penh in relative comfort and safety.  For the rest of the population, the possibility of defining themselves as anything but worker-peasants was totally erased.  Behind this atrocious dominance over the population lay a philosophy of ensuring the survival of a “pure” Kampuchean race, resembling the racial superiority ideas of Nazi Germany.  As Cambodia’s ethnic history includes Negroid, Australoid, Malay, northern Mongoloid, Indian, European, Chinese and  Vietnamese heritage, this idea was complete science fiction.

The assimilation policy gave carte blanche permission for harrassment and murder of anyone deemed to be different.  This included a few very unlucky foreign travelers who were caught in waters off the coast – records at Tuol Sleng show that some Thai, Indian, Pakistani, American, English, Australian and New Zealand foreigners were tortured and murdered there!  All of this occurred without international witness as foreigners and journalists were extradited as soon as the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.  The first foreign correspondents to return were Elizabeth Beckett, representing The Washington Post and Richard Dudman of St Louis Post Dispatch, who traveled to Cambodia on invitation from Phnom Penh.  They were joined by a third guest, Malcolm Caldwell, a scholar from the London School of Oriental and African Studies.  Caldwell was one of the few Western supporters of Pol Pot’s regime and it was repeatedly stated by their hosts that he was invited as a “friend”.

In December 1978 the trio traveled with high ranking Khmer Rouge cadre around the country on a very staged tour intended to show them the “success” of Cambodia’s as-yet hidden and mysterious communist state.  Despite the model communities and staged performances they were escorted to and past, Beckett could not help but realise the sinister nature of her hosts and the imposed regime.  This malevolence manifested when Caldwell was murdered in their guest house by an unidentified gunman who was probably recruited by Pol Pot himself for the job.  Some of the last forced confessions at Tuol Sleng related to the murder of Malcolm Caldwell, highlighting the truly psychotic nature of Pol Pot and his government.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s latest claims that indigenous people living on ancestral lands and maintaining their own culture are “making a lifestyle choice”, seems to draw parallels with the philosophy underpinning the Khmer Rouge and other communist / assimilationist regimes.  His stamp of disapproval may not be as harsh as that of the Khmer Rouge but it shares similarities which ought to make him reconsider what he is promoting.  His claim is also disproved by the single example of the evolving outcome for Cambodia.  Pagodas and mosques have been rebuilt, providing a focal point for life in every village.  Schools and universities strain under the weight of young people searching for knowledge from an educational system which was so recently and entirely obliterated.  Buddhist and Islamic practices thrive once more.  Black pajamas have been firmly rejected in favour of bright florals.  Multi-lingualism thrives and people have firmly regained their cultural identities, despite continuing struggles for everyday basic needs such as food and clean water.  These are not “lifestyle choices” but human expressions of endurance and identity.  Something which in fact, we all practice, whether we recognise it or not.  That includes Mister Abbott in all of his privileged and powerful glory.


2 thoughts on “On Difference

  1. Thanks Helen. Can’t help but see the similarities between the thought processes of Tony Abbott and the Khmer Rouge, shocking and unbelievable in this time and place, as it sounds.

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