Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Imagine a society in which money has been banished. A society in which you would be arrested if you wear eyeglasses, if you wear ties, or if you speak a foreign language. One where it is prohibited to wear bright colors, to have long hair, to marry for love, to even express emotions. You are a traitor if you catch a fish, or pick a fruit. All of these actions signify that your have an individualistic way of thinking, not a collective one. These activities signify that you are educated, that you are bourgeoisie, and that you are therefore an enemy. Simply for reading this essay, you would be considered an enemy, one who needs to be eliminated. While such a society sounds possible only in fiction, this is what happened during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. They attempted to eliminate the middle-class, but what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 was the elimination of humanity. The idea was to go backward, to become peasants again, to de-civilize society. To lose everything we have gained.
With the documentaries S21; the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine and Rice People, filmmaker and survivor Rithy Panh has devoted his life to exposing the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge. Pahn’s new book The Elimination will certainly be considered essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the subject, and is as illuminating as it is affecting. Focusing on the prison S21, the book revolves around interviews with the prison’s commander, Duch, who is currently imprisoned for the crimes he committed. The conversations with Duch are interspersed with narratives of Panh’s experience during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. With the help of French novelist Christophe Bataille, the writing in The Elimination is excellent, and the fragmented structure allows a reader to keep moving through such heavy, devastating subject matter.
Once arrested and taken to S21, it was certain that you would be tortured. Duch would dispatch interrogators to obtain a confession of your anti-collective attitude. Whether or not you did anything wrong, you were understood to be an enemy. You were to confess to be associated with the CIA or the KGB, the Vietnamese or the Chinese. In the eyes of the torturers, you are already a corpse. They will stick needles under your fingernails. They will make you eat your own excrement. They will handcuff you to a bed, without food or water, for days. Once you make a confession, they will create a document of your confession. The document is all they are after. Once they have a document, you will be left to die of starvation, or you will be executed. Truth has no place in such a system; “truth is poison,” Duch says. “We lied, and believed our own lies.”
When the Khmer Rouge took control, the capital city of Phnom Penh was evacuated. Everyone in the city was taken to villages in the country, to work in rice fields and to learn from the “Old People”—the peasants who knew the ways of the land and had never been educated. People worked from sun up to sun down, and were give a single meal of gray rice soup. They worked without tractors, without any machines at all. You were a traitor if you broke a sewing needle. You were a traitor if you gave your mother a cup of rice, or ate a worm from the ground. The punishment for treason was execution. In the country, there was no need for a confession before execution; you were simply executed with a pickaxe, or a crowbar.
The obvious question is why. Why, and how, did this happen? The initial answers seem to be that the entire country went insane, or that the Khmer Rouge was possessed by evil. But abstract words like madness and evil are too easy an explanation.
The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea, the name they gave Cambodia. Like all other Asian communist movements, the Khmer Rouge was a reaction against centuries of colonialism—particularly American neo-imperialism. Panh writes that “the more bombs the American B-52s dropped, the more peasants joined the revolution, and the more territory the Khmer Rouge gained.” (The fact that the Cambodian genocide was a directly result of American action explains why Americans don’t know much about it.) Yet rather than being a racial genocide, like the Holocaust, or an ethnic genocide, as in Rwanda, the Khmer genocide was motivated by ideology; it more resembles The Terror under Robespierre, but without such “humane’ and methodological mass-murder innovations as the guillotine.
The ideological genocide can partly be explained by a misunderstanding of ideology. The central idea of Marxism is that in order for a country to become communist, or even socialist, it has to have long been a highly developed, capitalist country with a hi-tech economy capable of producing enough goods for everyone. For Marx, it was only possible for Germany, England, France, or the U.S. to become communist. This is why every country that has attempted to implement communism has failed. The more undeveloped a nation is when it attempts to implement communism, the greater the death and destruction. In 1975, Pol Pot told China that he was creating a “complete communist society without wasting time on the intermediary steps.”
Countless millions of people starved in Russia and China, and are starving in North Korea today, because their planned economies could not function. But no other regime was so irrational as to have the “lunatic policy” of murdering their own doctors and teachers. This is why many refer to the Khmer Rouge genocide as “autogenoicide.” Part of the reason why the Cambodian genocide is so hard to comprehend is because while the stated enemy of the Khmer Rouge was foreign imperialists, the fact is that Cambodians murdered 1.7 million other Cambodians. A country murdered one-third of its own population. And they did so without gas chambers.
Prompted by Panh’s questioning, Duch helps explain how the Khmer Rouge was able to do this. Pol Pot and other Angkar leaders, as well as lower level officials like Duch, recruited completely uneducated peasant boys around the age of thirteen to join the Khmer Rouge. Duch states that it had to be peasants, because peasants “were loyal to me.” He says, “Those who weren’t peasants by origin hesitated to kill. They wouldn’t do it with their own hands. But illiterate peasants—if you required them to kill, they’d do it.” These peasants were so ignorant that they weren’t capable of thinking; they let the slogans of the Khmer Rouge think for them, slogans such as “You must bring everything to the Angkar,” or “The spade is your pen; the rice field is your paper” or “The blood debt will be repaid with blood.” They slogans specifically for the middle-class: “To keep you is no profit. To destroy you is no loss.” The Khmer Rouge knew the power of language, and so they prohibited certain words, amended others, and invented new words, molding a new language, “a totalitarian language” that reflected the absence of questions, of dialogue, the absence of thought.
Rithy Panh survived the five years of Khmer rule only because of his adolescent age; if he were a child, he would have died of weakness, and if he were an adult, he would have been murdered. He explains how it was impossible to resist such cruelty when one has been weakened by starvation, when one survives on only rice soup, or a few grains of dry rice. There was also the feeling that the Khmer Rouge was some great, impersonal force; Panh never refers to soldiers but only to “the Khmer Rouge,” as if the group wasn’t made up of individual young men. Even the guards of the Khmer Rouge refer to “orders of the Ankgor,” as if the Ankgor didn’t consist of men whose orders could have been refused. The idea of Angkor was Cambodia’s volk, their Reich, the mythic nationalism necessary to establish an “us” before being able to establish an enemy.
While Panh warns against seeing this genocide as geographically “specific” to Cambodia, because of a “certain quietism connected with Buddhism,” and declares, “the Khmers were not some man-eating hill tribe,” it is difficult to read The Elimination and not think of the savage society that Kurtz rules in Apocalypse Now. The heads on spikes, the dangling bodies. Death as normal. Life as trivial. How could have the Khmer Rouge spawned anywhere else but from such darkness? This idea of a “specific genocide” seems especially the case when considering the most incomprehensible atrocity that took place in S21: the taking of blood. Wounded soldiers at the front needed blood transfusions, so what the Khmer Rouge did was take a prisoner (usually a woman), handcuff them to an iron bed, puncture the veins of their arms, insert tubes connected to bags, and drain them of their blood—usually four bags worth. Afterward, the prisoner was left on the floor, with bulging eyes and breathing that sounded “like crickets chirruping.” As far as I’m aware, the taking of blood is a practice unique to the Khmer. Nowhere else have humans been viewed as a mere “envelope of flesh.”
Rithy Panh writes that he’d like The Elimination “to give us back our nobility, and our dignity.” While Duch often evades questions and states, “I force myself to forget so that I won’t be tormented,” Panh explains that he’s “evoked the world of yesterday so that the bad part of it may not come back again.” Like no other book, The Elimination reminds us why it is crucial to study history, why education should be a nation’s highest priority, and why nothing is more important than culture and the arts. Masterfully written with the language and pacing necessary to tell such a story, The Elimination needs to be read by anyone who reads books—and more importantly, by those who don’t.
Written with Christophe Bataille
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Other Press, February 2013