Thursday, February 19, 2009

How Easily Could It Have Happened?

Feb 18

I take a ride in the morning in Max’s row boat and take pictures of his guesthouse from the river.

I pack, and the van comes to pick me up.

The road to Sihanoukville is well-paved, all along on the right is the high peaks of the Cardamom Range, with cloud covering its tops, the mountainside covered in lush green tropical vegetation.

Who will imagine these mountains were the staging areas of one of the most brutal regimes in my lifetime, one that had cost over 2 million lives of men, women and children, a genocide that exceeds in sheer numbers even those committed by the Nazi Germany.

SIhanoukville is boring after Kampot. I am here only for the bus to Bangkok tomorrow morning.

While at lunch a little boy comes around to sell newspapers. I see that the front pages of The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post have Duch’s portrait on them—Duch is “the Lost Executioner”, the commandant of S-21. His trial began yesterday.

The entire Cambodian upheaval has occurred l in my own lifetime; I have come closest to it now. But as I read the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge and the involvement of idealist students and intellectuals early in its days in the mid to late sixties and their inspirations from the cultural revolution of Mao’s China, I shudder at my recollections of the late sixties and early seventies West Bengal and its Naxalite movement.

I remember a perfectly reasonable and respectable acquaintence telling me in subdued voice in 1970, “Keep quiet, don’t express your opinions easily. There are CIA agents everywhere in India. Even people like Amlan Datta and Amartya Sen are CIA agents; they have sold themselves to the capitalists.” As I read accounts of the prisoner’s confessions, little children and innocent villagers, whose photographs I had just seen displayed in Suol Sleng walls, were brought to S-21, tortured by whipping or the application of electricity, and made to write in confession: “I am a CIA and a KGB agent, recruited to pee and shit in the sewing machine factory and on clothes made for our base comrades so that our Kampuchean dream is undermined” and then they executed by their head “smashed” with an iron rod or their throats slit, I am reminded of that warning. I remember hundreds of innocent youths in Calcutta in the late sixties eliminated just because they were found loitering in the wrong neighborhood and someone shouted “khochor” (a police spy). Had the Naxalites won in West Bengal, would we have had an equivalent of Suol Sleng, where Amlan Datta or Amartya Sen or even my mother would be brought to sign a confession, implicate others, and then their heads bashed in or throats cut?

Were we really that close? I would like to think not, but human history has repeatedly surprised us on the narrowness of the edge between sanity and insanity.

Update: September 4, 2010. Tuol Sleng commandant, Duch, has been found guilty of crimes against humanity. (see John Vink's documentary) But many more remain at large, and even more have eluded justice by dying of natural causes before they could be tried, including the Pol Pot.

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