Category Archives: International Affairs

Rohingya boat people: Myanmar’s shame


May 24, 2015

Phnom Penh

Rohingya boat people

Myanmar’s shame

Poverity, politics and despair are forcing thousands of Rohingyas to flee Myanmar. The authorities remain woefully indifferent to their plight

Since 2012 all the Rohingya villages and camps have been totally cut off from predominantly Rakhine towns like Sittwe. This has made it almost impossible for inhabitants to make a decent living. Tall wire fences are now being erected, completing their isolation. One Rohingyan says he used to have a good taxi business in Sittwe. Now he uses his motorcycle to carry a few customers in a small village. He makes about one-third of the money he used to. Most Rohingyas are farmers or fishermen. The former cannot return to their fields; the latter have few boats left and are driven away from fishing grounds by Rakhines if they manage to get out to sea.

The local authorities insist that this forced isolation is for the Rohingyas’ own good, to protect them from further attacks. Rohingyas, however, see it as the culmination of a long-standing policy of apartheid, depriving them of the last benefits that they enjoyed living among Rakhines. No Rohingya student, for instance, has been allowed into the university at Sittwe during the last three years. They are not allowed into the township hospitals unless it is a life-and-death situation. “It’s really inhumane stuff,” says an aid worker.

Any hopes among Rohingyas that the country’s turn to quasi-civilian rule in 2011 after decades of military dictatorship might improve their lot have evaporated. While life is improving for many others in Myanmar, it is not for Rohingyas. They are unwitting victims of a deadly political game for control of what some Burmese proclaim to be the “New Myanmar”. Thus, for instance, while the rest of the country is preparing for a general election in November—the first democratic one in a quarter-century—a sleight of hand involving their voting documents has effectively deprived Rohingyas of the right to participate. Last year, during the first national census for years, Rohingyas were only allowed to register as “Bengalis”. In protest, most of them boycotted the count.

The government is pandering to a growing anti-Muslim hysteria in the country. Such sentiment has been encouraged by hardliners in the army and the ruling party who calculate that humiliating the millions of Muslims in Myanmar plays well with many Buddhist Burmese. It is often supported by the more chauvinist Buddhist monks as well. The hardliners have an election to win; they believe that playing to anti-Muslim feeling might give them an advantage over the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.

Even Ms Suu Kyi, however, a Nobel peace-prize winner who campaigns relentlessly for human rights and the rule of law, has been loth to stand up for the human rights of Rohingyas. For some of her supporters, this has been extremely disappointing. Her low-key response has made it easier for the government virtually to ignore the boat-people crisis. By May 19th there had been no mention of it in the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar, an English-language newspaper. Rohingyas are not technically “citizens”, so the government feels that it can wash its hands of the problem.

Clearly ministers feel that they have no wider moral or humanitarian obligation to people whose families have lived and worked here for, in many cases, over a century. In the face of such callous indifference from all quarters in Myanmar, it is hardly surprising that so many thousands are taking to the sea. Unless the situation changes, the only guarantee is that even more will try to flee at the start of the next dry season, with the same appalling results.

BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia


May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

Din MericanYI see H.E. Prime Minister Hun Sen differently. He has done a lot for Cambodia in terms of peace and reconciliation and economic development. He outwitted and defeated the Khmer Rouge and brought peace, political stability and international recognition to his country. No doubt he is tough and demanding and has the uncanny ability to spot and develop talent for his party, The Cambodian Peoples Party and his administration. A weak leader cannot survive here, especially during the period of international isolation in the 1980s. The author Sebastian Strangio, is seeing Cambodia with western liberal eyes.

obama_hun_sen_234_N2I lived in Cambodia from 1992-1997 and kept in touch with my colleagues in Phnom Penh for more than two decades.  I studied its history and culture and interacted with politicians, civil servants, civil society leaders, academics, foreign journalists, and students. I can see peace and progress upon returning to be with the University of Cambodia this month.

Hun Sen-The Strong ManTo know Hun Sen as Leader of his people, understand his political beliefs, foreign policy and development strategies and his vision for Cambodia, I recommend Strongman: From Pagoda Boy to Prime Minister of Cambodia by Harish C.Metha and Julie B.Metha (Revised and Updated, 2013, Marshall Cavendish) and General Nem Sowath’s, Civil War Termination and The Source of Total Peace in CAMBODIA (2012). In addition, I suggest Cambodia’s Economic Transformation edited by Caroline Hughes and Kheang Un (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2011).–Din Merican

by Joshua Kurlantzick

http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2014/10/31/hun-sens-cambodia-a-review/

Although the Vietnam War, including the “sideshow” war in Cambodia, has been the subject of thousands of books, post-war Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have gotten relatively little treatment from Western writers. This despite the fact that Cambodia suffered one of the worst genocides in history, Vietnam fought another war in 1979 against China and then remade itself into a strategic and economic power, and Laos remains one of the most authoritarian states in the world.

There have been a tiny handful of quality books on post-1975 Cambodia, such as Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia. Even fewer have analyzed Cambodia in the 2000s and 2010s. Other books, like Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by former New York Times journalist Joel Brinkley, had some fine attributes but tended to succumb too easily to glib generalizations about Cambodians and about Cambodian political culture. Still other books on Cambodia were overly academic accounts of Cambodia in the present that were almost impossible for policymakers and the general public to understand.

Hun Sen's CambodiaNow, a new book by Cambodia-based journalist  Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, has set the standard for compelling and accessible histories of modern-day Cambodia. In particular, the book is the first to offer an accessible but thorough biographical portrait of longtime Cambodian Prime Minister—and Strongman—Hun Sen. Strangio details in compelling form how Hun Sen rose from a skinny, totally uneducated and unworldly senior official in the Vietnam-installed post-Khmer Rouge regime into a smooth autocrat who has dominated the country for decades. Over time, Hun Sen also has become fabulously rich and has become an increasingly powerful player in Southeast Asia, due to Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, Hun Sen’s longevity, and Hun Sen’s ability to play his patrons Vietnam and China off of each other.

Strangio delves into Hun Sen’s early life and his time serving the Khmer Rouge, before he defected and joined the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Strangio also clearly reveals how many of Hun Sen’s closest associates in the Cambodian government almost surely committed atrocities during their time in the Khmer Rouge, before they defected.

Most important, Strangio’s portrait of Cambodia reveals how Hun Sen has been able to dominate the country for so long. (Indeed, Hun Sen now is the longest-serving non-royal leader in East Asia and the seventh-longest-serving non-royal leader in the world.) By January 2015, Hun Sen will have been in power for thirty years, and will have been the only leader most Cambodians have known, since the country is extremely young, a result of the massacres of the late 1970s. Strangio lucidly shows how Cambodia’s other political leaders allowed themselves to be bought, controlled, or otherwise co-opted by Hun Sen, and how the devastated country never built the political institutions that could stop the strongman from gaining power. He reveals how, at least for a time, Hun Sen’s version of iron-fisted stability and growth—albeit growth with high inequality—also truly made the strongman popular with the public. Strangio shows how Hun Sen alone, among Cambodia’s major political figures, understood how to build a nationwide party organization and how to appeal to the rural population, in much the same way former King Sihanouk appealed to the Cambodian poor. Indeed, Sihanouk, in Strangio’s telling, wished that Hun Sen had actually been his son, since Hun Sen possessed the popular touch and political acumen that Sihanouk’s actual sons did not.

Strangio also offers a devastating indictment of the foreign donors who financed UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), the early 1990s UN-led aid and peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, following the end of Cambodia’s civil war. The same donors continue to pour money into the country today, even as Cambodia’s political culture remains corrupt, Hun Sen’s government is utterly destroying the country’s environment, and growth has enriched only a tiny coterie of elites, mostly in Phnom Penh. Yet even though foreign donors for years enjoyed great power over the Cambodian government, they rarely tried to use that power to really push Hun Sen’s government to change, and Hun Sen was savvy enough to allow a thin veneer of political freedom and civil society. This veneer was enough to allow donors to claim that the country was always becoming more open and more democratic, though this was always a falsehood. In reality, though Cambodia retains a degree of independent civil society, trade unionists, journalists, and activists of all sorts are routinely arrested, beaten, or summarily executed in Cambodia. What’s more, now that Hun Sen has cultivated China, which has become the biggest donor in Cambodia, the group of donors—mostly Western nations and Japan—who for years financed much of the Cambodian budget have less influence over Phnom Penh anyway.

Strangio’s book has some flaws. Unlike Brinkley’s book, which had both sizable strengths and deep weaknesses, Strangio does not get the chance to put the pressing questions about Hun Sen’s rule to Hun Sen’s inner circle itself, other than a few of Hun Sen’s business allies. He is not able to confront the most corrupt in Hun Sen’s circle with their graft, to ask the prime minister’s closest aides the hard questions about how Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian political culture and institutions. Brinkley somehow was able to get face-to-face with Hun Sen’s closest circle and put these questions to them, and often get surprising answers. Strangio instead mostly relies on his own analysis, on interviews with a few Hun Sen allies, on many field reporting trips that examine the impact of Hun Sen’s rapacious economic and political strategies, and on outside analysts to show the impact of Hun Sen’s rule. Overall, Strangio’s approach is far more nuanced and thorough; but, I would have liked to see some of Hun Sen’s senior-most aides—or the prime minister himself—squirm in front of the tough questions they never face from the Cambodian media.

Finally, though Strangio worked on the book for years, compiling what appear to be mountains of research, the book seems to have been finished before the shocking Cambodian national elections of 2013, in which the opposition almost defeated Hun Sen’s party despite state media showing only Hun Sen and Hun Sen’s party engaging in all sorts of pre-election intimidation of the opposition. According to many election observers, if not for widespread fraud by Hun Sen’s party during and immediately after election day, the opposition coalition would have won a majority in Parliament in 2013.

Even so, the 2013 election results showed that, after decades of Hun Sen’s dominance, Cambodia finally might be on the verge of change; Hun Sen’s control of the media had been undermined by the Internet and social media, while opposition politicians who once just squabbled with each other worked together this time and ran a successful campaign. Strangio inserts a kind of postscript on the 2013 elections and its aftermath, which included months of negotiation between the opposition and Hun Sen’s party about the election results and about control of Parliament. Still, the postscript is not enough to capture the 2013 elections thoroughly and to analyze what they might mean for Hun Sen’s long rule and for Cambodia’s future.Overall, this is the finest book on Hun Sen and modern-day Cambodia that has been released thus far.

Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

READ THIS:

https://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/in-praise-of-a-strongman-36467/

This book, whether in its 1999 or 2013 edition, remains the only work in which Mr. Hun Sen talks of his life at length, and from his own perspective.

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping


May 21, 2015

Phnom Penh

BOOK Review

Book Review: Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping

by John Berthelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/book-review-china-politics-era-xi-jinping/

Renaissance, reform or retrogression?  By Willy Wo Lap Lam. Routledge, 323 pp, softcover, available in local bookstores

China by JBIt often appears there are two Chinas – one fast-rising, showing an aggressive face to the world, building an infrastructure empire, a network of Silk Roads that stretches from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to the corners of Southeast Asia, dominating the South China Sea, pillaging resources from as far away as Africa, with all roads leading to Beijing much as they led to Rome in the Roman Imperium.

There is a second China, however, that is in a welter of ferment.  It is this China that preoccupies Willy Wo Lap Lam, a widely recognized authority on China, who has formerly held senior editorial positions with the South China Morning Post, CNN and Asiaweek and is now an academic. From the very introduction of this book onward, it is clear that he is a pessimist on China and is not a fan of Xi Jinping, who has battled his way to the top.

“While China is on course to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy soon,” he writes, “Chinese who do not belong to the ‘red aristocracy’ – a reference to the unholy allowance between top cadres and their offspring, on the one hand, and big business groups, on the other, see no cause for optimism.” 

Certainly Xi represents a dramatic change from his predecessor Hu Jintao, who with Premier Wen Jiabao presided over historic economic change while the party stultified and fell into a stew of venality. But although Xi has kicked off the biggest anti-corruption campaign since the advent of Communist government, with as many as 200,000 people arrested or otherwise disciplined, it is still unclear whether the cleanup masks a surgical expedition to clear out Xi’s enemies and potential rivals.  The  biggest to fall is famously Zhou Yongkang, “Uncle Kang,” the former head of China’s security apparatus and an ally of Bo Xilai, the now-imprisoned boss of Chongqing and a major opponent.  Zhou is the highest public official ever to be prosecuted. But Xi has also cleared out the entire top of the country’s oil and gas sector – where Zhou’s son was a top official.

Lam’s 323-page analysis of Xi’s rise to power is deeply detailed and essential reading for anybody who is interested in the China that lurks behind the confident consolidation of government that has gone on since he became the head of the government in November 2012.  In particular,  of interest is the reversal of philosophy from that put in place by Deng Xiaoping, who in the wake of the terrors and capricious actions that characterized Mao Zedong’s later years, created a collegial and collective leadership. 

Xi is clearly having none of that. He has sidelined or pushed aside most of his rivals. The first to go was Li Keqiang, the prime minister put in power as his Sancho Panza, who quickly learned that he was a distant number two. Li rose through the ranks in the Communist Youth League and was an ally of Hu Jintao, the former leader. Hu was unceremoniously dumped by Xi in the 2013 party conference that brought Xi to power, unable to retain any of his former titles including those connected to the military. Although Li is a trained economist and touted “Likonomics” at the outset of his premiership, Xi is clearly in charge of economics, along with everything else.

“…Compared to both ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu, the leader of one-fifth of mankind is a relatively simple person committed to defending what he regards as self-evident truths,” Lam writes. Including those is a notion that “the nature of the Party will never change.”  There has been no  thought of democratization and no letup on the war on intellectuals, the press and those who do not believe in communist orthodoxy. “Any idea that the party will undergo ‘peaceful evolution’ is out of the question.”

The Internet, perhaps the most opportunistic venue for subversion, is being tightened even further. Since Lam’s book has come out, the “great cannon” has been added to the “great firewall” as a new tool for censorship, pouring massive sprays of traffic against enemies in an attack called “distributed denial of service or DDOS target two anti-censorship sites in the US and closing them for days.

David Shambaugh, for decades one of China’s most optimistic backers in the west, shocked the world of sinologists by saying the China system was inevitably doomed.  Is Lam that pessimistic?

“Even more than factors such as shifts in China’s foreign and defense policies,” Lam writes, “the most important determinant of the trajectory of China’s development in the twenty-first century will be domestic questions. Foremost is whether China will pick a development path that favors the construction of a real market economy and a just and passionate society that embraces values such as the rule of law and equal opportunity.”

The next decade of China’s development under Xi probably isn’t going to meet those goals. Lam quotes Xi as saying the country could be undermined by “subversive mistakes.” What he meant, Lam says, “are economic, social or political policies that would compromise the monopoly on power that is enjoyed by the CCP – or more specifically, the party’s ruling elite, also known as the “red aristocracy.”  That is not a cause for optimism.

Rwandan President Kagame speaks at The St.Gallen Symposium, May 2015


May 17, 2015

Rwandan President Kagame speaks at The St.Gallen Symposium–Small is Beautiful

President Paul Kagame (/kəˈɡɑːm/ kə-GAH-may; born 23 October 1957) is the sixth and current President of Rwanda having taken office in 2000 when his predecessor, Pasteur Bizimungu, resigned. Kagame previously commanded the rebel force that ended the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. He was considered Rwanda’s de facto leader when he served as Vice President and Minister of Defence from 1994 to 2000.

Kagame was born to a Tutsi family in southern Rwanda. When he was two years old, the Rwandan Revolution ended centuries of Tutsi political dominance; his family fled to Uganda, where he spent the rest of his childhood. In the 1980s, Kagame fought in Yoweri Museveni‘s rebel army, becoming a senior Ugandan army officer after Museveni’s military victories carried him to the Ugandan presidency. Kagame joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990; leader Fred Rwigyema died early in the war and Kagame took control. By 1993, the RPF controlled significant territory in Rwanda and a ceasefire was negotiated. The assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was the starting point of the genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed an estimated 500,000 to one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Kagame resumed the civil war, and ended the genocide with a military victory.

During his Vice presidency, Kagame controlled the national army and maintained law and order, while other officials began rebuilding the country. Many RPF soldiers carried out retribution killings; it is disputed whether Kagame organised these, or was powerless to stop them. Hutu refugee camps formed in Zaire and other countries, which were controlled by the genocidaires (participants in the genocide) and threatened Rwanda’s security. The RPF attacked and disbanded the camps in 1996, forcing many refugees to return home, but insurgents continued to attack Rwanda. As part of the counterinsurgency, Kagame sponsored two controversial rebel wars in Zaire. The Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels won the first war (1996–97), installing Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president in place of dictator Mobutu and renaming the country as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The second war was launched in 1998 against Kabila, and later his son Joseph, following the DRC government’s expulsion of Rwandan and Ugandan military forces from the country. The war escalated into a continent-wide conflict which lasted until a 2003 peace deal and ceasefire.

As President, Kagame has prioritised national development, launching a programme to develop Rwanda as a middle income country by 2020. As of 2013, the country is developing strongly on key indicators, including health care and education; annual growth between 2004 and 2010 averaged 8% per year. Kagame has had mostly good relations with the East African Community and the United States, while his relations with France were poor until 2009. Relations with the DRC remain tense despite the 2003 ceasefire; human rights groups and a leaked United Nations report allege Rwandan support for two insurgencies in the country, a charge Kagame denies. Several countries suspended aid payments in 2012 following these allegations. Kagame is popular in Rwanda and with some foreign observers; however, human rights groups accuse him of political repression. He won an election in 2003, under a new constitution adopted that year, and was elected for a second term in 2010.

KagameListen to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda speak about his country and its amazing turnaroud. First his keynote address at the St.Gallen Symposium and then the ensuing interview. Can we in Malaysia in particular not learn from the Rwandan experience about political leadership, truth and reconciliation and national unity? It is about how a small nation deals with its past and the challenges  ahead for its future Yes, we can. How ? By learning the lessons of history with humility.  –Din Merican in Phnom Penh

Overview of St.Gallen Symposium, 2015 (below)

Singapore after 50 Years


May 16, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Singapore after 50 Years and the Future

Deputy Prime Minister of SingaporeDeputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam is a Singaporean politician. A member of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP), he has served as Minister for Finance since 2007 and as Deputy Prime Minister since 2011. He is also Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He previously served as the Minister for Education from 2003 to 2008.[1] He has been a Member of Parliament (MP) representing the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC) since 2001.

He  studied at Anglo-Chinese School, before going on to the London School of Economics, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree inEconomics. He subsequently obtained a Master’s degree in economics from the University of Cambridge, and a Master in Public Administration from Harvard University, where he also received a Lucius N. Littauer Fellow award for outstanding performance.–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tharman_Shanmugaratnam

Watch the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Singapore giving his views and taking questions at the St Gallen Symposium. He is a brilliant man who got to where he is today because his country believes in meritocracy, multilingualism, and good governance. It is an open and safe society, not bound by race, colour or creed, where there are opportunities for the individual to excel and reap the rewards of hard work and diligence..–Din Merican

Why Did They Kill? — An Anthropologist Looks at the Cambodian Genocide


May 14, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Tuol-Sleng-prison-survivo-006 I am now reading Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill? in order to refresh myself. This study gives me useful background and a clearer understanding of what happened to the  smiling, polite and gentle people of Cambodia during the dark days of the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.. Having read William Shawcross’ book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia  on US involvement in this Southeast Asian nation during the Nixon Presidency, featuring the controversial Henry A. Kissinger, this more recent book gives me an anthropological perspective on the Cambodian genocide and the ideology and character of the Khmer Maoist agrarian experiment that brought untold hardships and tragedy to the smiling Cambodians. It is equally regrettable to note that Malaysia supported the Khmer Rouge when they occupied the country after the Civil War which  evicted the US supported Lon Nol regime. I am told that Malaysia supported the ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk not  the secretive Pol Pot and his band of murderers.–Din Merican

Why Did They Kill? — An Anthropologist Looks at the Cambodian Genocide

Among the modern horrors of mass killings of non combatants, from the Holocaust on [or for many scholars from the Amaleks on,] that of Cambodia stands out with particular starkness.  From 1975 to 1979 something like one quarter of the population was killed, not by another ethnic or religious group but by those who shared every marker which is used to identify likeness and difference among humans.  True, the non-Khmer Cham people, were singled out as the Khmer Rouge consolidated itself following a brutal civil war, but the vast majority of those herded, hounded, worked to death, tortured, beaten and shot were Khmer Buddhists, just as the perpetrators were.

Why did this happen?  What motivated the participants?  Why did Buddhist and centuries long cultural values provide so little resistance?  Outside the particularities, what if anything did the Khmer genocide share with those of the European Jews, Rwandan Tutsi (1994,)  Bosnian Muslims (1992-1995?) [Want a list?  Here and here.] Can incipient genocides be seen in their formative stages and prevented?  Indeed, are the actions and motivations of those perpetrating genocidal massacres separable from those engaging in search-and-destroy missions, or declaring free-fire zones in other wars?

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.
Book on Cambodian genocideAs one at whom this question of ‘why do people kill’ has long gnawed, and as a recent visitor to Cambodia and the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, along with its associated killing field, Alexander Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (UC Press, 2005)  lept out from the small book offerings at the former prison, now something of a museum.

Two other slender books set the scene.  Both were by elderly survivors of months of torture and starvation at the prison, where they now volunteer to witness those years for the Cambodian youth, and other tourists who come through.

Bou Meng was an artist, whose skill at painting a portrait of Pol Pot saved him from death, though not terrible privation and cruelty.  His story and background, including being part of the Khmer Rouge, is told by Huy Vannak, a Cambodian researcher, who worked with Hinton at Rutgers. Bou Meng’s powerful paintings of his prison years are hung in one of the rooms of the museum but are not, as far as I can find, available on-line. [For others I have found, see the end of this post.]Chum Mey, the second living witness, was saved because of his talent with fixing things.  Even while the Khmer Rouge were destroying those with skills and knowledge they had to save a few to keep their own vehicles and machines going.  Both books recount cruelties beyond imagining, and the sorrow of survivors. [Though there are copies available on-line, the prices are outrageous, and the money won’t go to the men, or the museum.  Try Documentation Center of Cambodia where the books were published; it is not responding as I write this.]

Hinton’s book is a terrifically serious and well informed study of the Cambodian experience. Now in the Anthropology Department at Rutgers, he went to Cambodia in 1992 to continue his graduate work on ‘the embodiment of emotion in Cambodia’ and soon shifted his focus to deal with what he was seeing and learning.  The Vietnamese occupation of ten years, which had ended the Pol Pot regime had ended only three years before; the Paris Peace accords had been signed months before his arrival. Cambodia was in ruins. He lived in a small village which had been depopulated during the genocide, conducting multiple interviews in the field which are the basis for his examination and analysis, reflecting onto and out of extensive academic work in genocide studies.  His work is rich and detailed.  The reader will learn much about Cambodian culture, belief and behavior, not only during the years of killing, but crucially, through the generations before.

Robert Jay Lifton, whose work on the Holocaust, POW thought-control, Hiroshima survivors, Vietnam Vets and the current War on Terror has almost defined a field now called psychohistory, sets up the contours in a brief forward.

…the mass killing in Cambodia follows a sequence that has been observed in virtually every genocide: a sense of profound collective dislocation and humiliation, a historical ‘sickness unto death'; an ideological vision of revitalization and total cure, which comes to include a vast program of killing to heal; and the enlistment of a vast genocidal bureaucracy in an unending quest for national purification.  … Genocide is apocalyptic  as it requires a form of world destruction in the service of a vision… or absolute political and spiritual renewal.

Hinton reminds us that the genocide did not spring up, whole cloth, out of nowhere.  The US bombing of Cambodia, 18 March, 1969-28 May, 1970, resulted in something like 150,000 deaths in the south eastern part of the country, and massive dislocation of people and destruction of their ability to make a livelihood.  When Lon Nol joined the coup against King Sihanouk in March, 1970 the Khmer Rouge, having grown from a minuscule national communist party into a formidable force by harnessing anger and resentment against the bombings, were ready to mount a credible opposition.  When Sihanouk, from exile, pleaded with his people to join and support the Khmer Rouge against the treasonous Lon Nol, they responded  and a civil war ensued that took something like 500,000 lives. Almost as soon the KR took power in April 1975 various factions began turning against each other, leading to the purges, elimination of the educated and massive population transfers out of the cities which would eventually lead to the deaths of some 2 million people, about one-fourth of the population.

As an anthropologist, and one who speaks Khmer, Hinton did his field work.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews with victims, and those executioners who would talk — many of whom, unsurprisingly, say they were innocent of the most gruesome charges, guilty only of following orders.  Indeed, even Pol Pot himself, is quoted as saying ” …even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”

In seven chapters Hinton brings us both the material of the interviews and an analysis  that aims to fit the particulars of Cambodian society to the wider, global phenomenon of genocidal behavior.   Chapter One looks at his notion of ‘disproportional revenge’ in the Cambodian historical setting where peasant anger over US bombings, dislocation and poverty could be given an initial focus against the Lon Nol forces, and then turned back, inward, against newly identified ‘class enemies.’

He sees in Cambodia’s Therevada Buddhist culture structures of power and patronage, which during normal times order relations between people and their world, but which serve as ready vessels for the new wine of suspicion and brutality. He examines how anger is framed and spoken of in Buddhist culture, and yet how, in some people, the beliefs wither and anger takes hold, finding new lines of exculpation in KR ‘theology’

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.

How does this happen?  How, if as many Khmer Rouge claimed, they killed only to avoid being killed, did the individual acts turn so grotesque, so unrelentingly sadistic?  He shows how orders and understandings, coming from ‘on high’ are filtered through local and personal histories and frames — from generations old stories of revenge and extirpating enemies root and branch, to violence suffered at the hands of Lon Nol forces transmuted and carried out against those ‘marked’ as outsiders, as a disease which had to be purified.

To understand such chilling spaces of violence …we need to examine how ideology is linked to local knowledge and psycho-social  processes.  During DK. social status was largely correlated with ‘revolutionary consciousness’ a notion that was itself forged out of an amalgam of Marxist-Leninist ideas and the Buddhist conception of ‘mindfulness.’  A person with ‘pure’ revolutionary consciousness applied the party line ‘mindfully,’ maintained an attitude of renunciation. and was completely loyal to the party.

He analyses how ‘difference’ was ‘manufactured, and how cultural notions of ‘face’ and honor were used to motivate killings.  He traces the idea and practice of disproportionate revenge.

His notion of ‘genocidal priming’ and ‘genocidal activation’ seem very good theoretical tools to inquire into similarities and differences between genocides.

Yet, as thorough an analysis and history as this is, I am left unsatisfied. In part, as the quote above exemplifies, resonant understanding is obscured by high register academic language. Two other examples: “As I noted in Chapter 5, the bodies of victims serve as symbolic templates through which their subjectivity and that of the perpetrator may be manufactured.” And: “…if we are to answer the most pressing questions about the origins of genocide..we must take a processual approach that weaves together the warp and woof of various levels of analysis.”

With concentrated reading I get it.  But as one with organizer’s bones as well as a student’s brain the language seems far removed from real understanding, from actionable understanding. The genocidaires of the world understand the language needed to carry out their schemes; those who want to disrupt and eliminate their genocidal priming have to find the language suited to the task.

I even wonder if, as useful as the idea of genocide has been since its coinage by Raphael Lemkin in 1948, by creating a category of super-murder, as it were, what is actually a continuum of motivation and behavior isn’t obscured.  The field of genocide studies sometimes seems more taken up with discussions of what constitutes a real genocide than in understanding the similarities between all forms of mass killing. If a single village in a country is wiped out, and only that village, for that village it is a genocide.  Whether or not genocide was intended, for god’s sake, has nothing to do with the facts of the slaughter. Manslaughter we all get, the unplanned killing of another; but involuntary mass killing?  If 100,00 are killed by those who want to wipe them out, and succeed, and another 100,000 are killed simply because they are in the path of directed destruction don’t we have a distinction without a difference?
What, for example, distinguishes the actions of US soldiers in Vietnam (see particularly the recent revelations in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves) from those of the Khmer Rouge? Heinous murders of those who are not resisting, and will never be a threat.  Policy at the top might be different: presumably the US high command did not intend to kill everyone, though the leadership of the Khmer Rouge claims neither did they. ‘Shit happens when great populations are transferred; resistance must be dealt with.’  But what separates the extreme and swift re-ordering of Cambodian society envisioned by the KR from the swift and extreme re-ordering of Vietnamese society in the Secure Hamlet policies of the US?  Why is the death of those two million a genocide and that two million not?  What distinguishes the torturers in the US from those of the KR?  Does it make any theoretical difference that in the one case the perpetrators were invaders and in the other were native to the soil of the carnage?
Not to pick on the United States alone. Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan called for a ‘final solution’ to the rebellious Bengalis during the Bangladesh rebellion.Sadaam Hussein ordered the death by poison gas of Iraqi-Kurds. The Japanese army in China carried out massive slaughters and conducted cruel experiments.  Is what they did different from King Leopold’s rubber-worker slaughters in the Congo, or what the Ottoman Turks did to the Turkish Armenians? Are Orthodox Jewish Rabbis calling for ‘the extermination of male arabs’ to be distinguished from the Germans who said the same?

Does categorizing one as genocide, the other not-genocide, or indeed Genocide I and Genocide IV helps us understand motivation and action at the state level or that of  the individual who actually guts the pregnant mother, smashes the baby against the tree, burns the village to the ground the living included?

Mass violence would seem to me to be a spectrum disorder, running from the least organized individual mass killings to the most organized, most participated in societal exterminations. The individual behavior, described in soldiers at their killing extreme by Karl Marlantes in What It Is Like to Go to War, as ‘berserking’, must everywhere be similar, though cloaked in local cloth.  The explanations each killer gives himself for his rampage will come from German authoritarianism, or Buddhist respect and subservience to older, better, higher, or Catholic obedience to Church and its reasons, as currently interpreted.

Everywhere belief is strong and evidence is weak, the containers of belief can be filled with new persuasions.  Everywhere those who trigger the slaughters know they must speak in a motivational language, not just of German or Khmer, but coming from deep in the culture and turning old understandings inside out. Buddhism will be banned but the structures of believing among Buddhists will be applied to the authorities now making claims on their lives.

Among genocide scholars, the goal is to identify genocide in the making and to know better how to intervene — though usually that has been understood as how to get others to intervene rather that how to internally interrupt the genocide priming, and especially the genocide activation,k which Hinton identifies. He does no better than others in showing us where the Cambodians might have known or might have acted as catastrophe built.

At what point, by what measure, does a population know that hate radio is priming a genocide?  When can it still be ignored, passing as “entertainment” as its foremost practitioners in the US claim it is? How does a population brought up for generations to honor their ‘superiors’ know when to resist, to not participate in their evil?

Among the modern horrors of mass killings of non combatants, from the Holocaust on [or for many scholars from the Amaleks on,] that of Cambodia stands out with particular starkness.  From 1975 to 1979 something like one quarter of the population was killed, not by another ethnic or religious group but by those who shared every marker which is used to identify likeness and difference among humans.  True, the non-Khmer Cham people, were singled out as the Khmer Rouge consolidated itself following a brutal civil war, but the vast majority of those herded, hounded, worked to death, tortured, beaten and shot were Khmer Buddhists, just as the perpetrators were.

Why did this happen?  What motivated the participants?  Why did Buddhist and centuries long cultural values provide so little resistance?  Outside the particularities, what if anything did the Khmer genocide share with those of the European Jews, Rwandan Tutsi (1994,)  Bosnian Muslims (1992-1995?) [Want a list?  Here and here.] Can incipient genocides be seen in their formative stages and prevented?  Indeed, are the actions and motivations of those perpetrating genocidal massacres separable from those engaging in search-and-destroy missions, or declaring free-fire zones in other wars?

As one at whom this question of ‘why do people kill’ has long gnawed, and as a recent visitor to Cambodia and the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, along with its associated killing field, Alexander Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (UC Press, 2005)  lept out from the small book offerings at the former prison, now something of a museum.

Two other slender books set the scene.  Both were by elderly survivors of months of torture and starvation at the prison, where they now volunteer to witness those years for the Cambodian youth, and other tourists who come through.  Bou

Meng was an artist, whose skill at painting a portrait of Pol Pot saved him from death, though not terrible privation and cruelty.  His story and background, including being part of the Khmer Rouge, is told by Huy Vannak, a Cambodian researcher, who worked with Hinton at Rutgers. Bou Meng’s powerful paintings of his prison years are hung in one of the rooms of the museum but are not, as far as I can find, available on-line. [For others I have found, see the end of this post.]

Chum Mey, the second living witness, was saved because of his talent with fixing things.  Even while the Khmer Rouge were destroying those with skills and knowledge they had to save a few to keep their own vehicles and machines going.  Both books recount cruelties beyond imagining, and the sorrow of survivors. [Though there are copies available on-line, the prices are outrageous, and the money won’t go to the men, or the museum.  Try Documentation Center of Cambodia where the books were published; it is not responding as I write this.]

Hinton’s book is a terrifically serious and well informed study of the Cambodian experience. Now in the Anthropology Department at Rutgers, he went to Cambodia in 1992 to continue his graduate work on ‘the embodiment of emotion in Cambodia’ and soon shifted his focus to deal with what he was seeing and learning.  The Vietnamese occupation of ten years, which had ended the Pol Pot regime had ended only three years before; the Paris Peace accords had been signed months before his arrival. Cambodia was in ruins. He lived in a small village which had been depopulated during the genocide, conducting multiple interviews in the field which are the basis for his examination and analysis, reflecting onto and out of extensive academic work in genocide studies.  His work is rich and detailed.  The reader will learn much about Cambodian culture, belief and behavior, not only during the years of killing, but crucially, through the generations before.

Robert Jay Lifton, whose work on the Holocaust, POW thought-control, Hiroshima survivors, Vietnam Vets and the current War on Terror has almost defined a field now called psychohistory, sets up the contours in a brief forward.

…the mass killing in Cambodia follows a sequence that has been observed in virtually every genocide: a sense of profound collective dislocation and humiliation, a historical ‘sickness unto death'; an ideological vision of revitalization and total cure, which comes to include a vast program of killing to heal; and the enlistment of a vast genocidal bureaucracy in an unending quest for national purification.  … Genocide is apocalyptic  as it requires a form of world destruction in the service of a vision… or absolute political and spiritual renewal.

Hinton reminds us that the genocide did not spring up, whole cloth, out of nowhere.  The US bombing of Cambodia, 18 March, 1969-28 May, 1970, resulted in something like 150,000 deaths in the south eastern part of the country, and massive dislocation of people and destruction of their ability to make a livelihood.  When Lon Nol joined the coup against King Sihanouk in March, 1970 the Khmer Rouge, having grown from a minuscule national communist party into a formidable force by harnessing anger and resentment against the bombings, were ready to mount a credible opposition.  When Sihanouk, from exile, pleaded with his people to join and support the Khmer Rouge against the treasonous Lon Nol, they responded  and a civil war ensued that took something like 500,000 lives. Almost as soon the KR took power in April 1975 various factions began turning against each other, leading to the purges, elimination of the educated and massive population transfers out of the cities which would eventually lead to the deaths of some 2 million people, about one-fourth of the population.

As an anthropologist, and one who speaks Khmer, Hinton did his field work.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews with victims, and those executioners who would talk — many of whom, unsurprisingly, say they were innocent of the most gruesome charges, guilty only of following orders.  Indeed, even Pol Pot himself, is quoted as saying ” …even now, and you can look at me: Am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.”

In seven chapters Hinton brings us both the material of the interviews and an analysis  that aims to fit the particulars of Cambodian society to the wider, global phenomenon of genocidal behavior.   Chapter One looks at his notion of ‘disproportional revenge’ in the Cambodian historical setting where peasant anger over US bombings, dislocation and poverty could be given an initial focus against the Lon Nol forces, and then turned back, inward, against newly identified ‘class enemies.’

He sees in Cambodia’s Therevada Buddhist culture structures of power and patronage, which during normal times order relations between people and their world, but which serve as ready vessels for the new wine of suspicion and brutality. He examines how anger is framed and spoken of in Buddhist culture, and yet how, in some people, the beliefs wither and anger takes hold, finding new lines of exculpation in KR ‘theology’

He is particularly engaged with the question of perpetrator motivation.  The claim made by most that they had to kill because they had to take orders or die, does not explain the excessive, individually generated, cruelty shown by so many.  His uses as a gruesome example three men who take another to the woods for stealing cassava root, tie him to a tree and cut his liver from him, cook and eat it while the victim bleeds to death.  They received no order to do this. He does not mention, though it stays indelibly in the minds of all who see it, the tree in the killing field, against which babies were bashed to death.  It is now covered with colored wrist amulets and small pieces of cloth from those who break down in tears at merely the thought.

How does this happen?  How, if as many Khmer Rouge claimed, they killed only to avoid being killed, did the individual acts turn so grotesque, so unrelentingly sadistic?  He shows how orders and understandings, coming from ‘on high’ are filtered through local and personal histories and frames — from generations old stories of revenge and extirpating enemies root and branch, to violence suffered at the hands of Lon Nol forces transmuted and carried out against those ‘marked’ as outsiders, as a disease which had to be purified.

To understand such chilling spaces of violence …we need to examine how ideology is linked to local knowledge and psycho-social  processes.  During DK. social status was largely correlated with ‘revolutionary consciousness’ a notion that was itself forged out of an amalgam of Marxist-Leninist ideas and the Buddhist conception of ‘mindfulness.’  A person with ‘pure’ revolutionary consciousness applied the party line ‘mindfully,’ maintained an attitude of renunciation. and was completely loyal to the party.

He analyses how ‘difference’ was ‘manufactured, and how cultural notions of ‘face’ and honor were used to motivate killings.  He traces the idea and practice of disproportionate revenge.

His notion of ‘genocidal priming’ and ‘genocidal activation’ seem very good theoretical tools to inquire into similarities and differences between genocides.

Yet, as thorough an analysis and history as this is, I am left unsatisfied. In part, as the quote above exemplifies, resonant understanding is obscured by high register academic language. Two other examples: “As I noted in Chapter 5, the bodies of victims serve as symbolic templates through which their subjectivity and that of the perpetrator may be manufactured.” And: “…if we are to answer the most pressing questions about the origins of genocide..we must take a processual approach that weaves together the warp and woof of various levels of analysis.”

With concentrated reading I get it.  But as one with organizer’s bones as well as a student’s brain the language seems far removed from real understanding, from actionable understanding. The genocidaires of the world understand the language needed to carry out their schemes; those who want to disrupt and eliminate their genocidal priming have to find the language suited to the task.

I even wonder if, as useful as the idea of genocide has been since its coinage by Raphael Lemkin in 1948, by creating a category of super-murder, as it were, what is actually a continuum of motivation and behavior isn’t obscured.  The field of genocide studies sometimes seems more taken up with discussions of what constitutes a real genocide than in understanding the similarities between all forms of mass killing. If a single village in a country is wiped out, and only that village, for that village it is a genocide.  Whether or not genocide was intended, for god’s sake, has nothing to do with the facts of the slaughter. Manslaughter we all get, the unplanned killing of another; but involuntary mass killing?  If 100,00 are killed by those who want to wipe them out, and succeed, and another 100,000 are killed simply because they are in the path of directed destruction don’t we have a distinction without a difference?

What, for example, distinguishes the actions of US soldiers in Vietnam (see particularly the recent revelations in Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves) from those of the Khmer Rouge? Heinous murders of those who are not resisting, and will never be a threat.  Policy at the top might be different: presumably the US high command did not intend to kill everyone, though the leadership of the Khmer Rouge claims neither did they. ‘Shit happens when great populations are transferred; resistance must be dealt with.’  But what separates the extreme and swift re-ordering of Cambodian society envisioned by the KR from the swift and extreme re-ordering of Vietnamese society in the Secure Hamlet policies of the US?  Why is the death of those two million a genocide and that two million not?  What distinguishes the torturers in the US from those of the KR?  Does it make any theoretical difference that in the one case the perpetrators were invaders and in the other were native to the soil of the carnage?

Not to pick on the United States alone.  Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan called for a ‘final solution’ to the rebellious Bengalis during the Bangladesh rebellion.  Sadaam Hussein ordered the death by poison gas of Iraqi-Kurds. The Japanese army in China carried out massive slaughters and conducted cruel experiments.  Is what they did different from King Leopold’s rubber-worker slaughters in the Congo, or what the Ottoman Turks did to the Turkish Armenians? Are Orthodox Jewish Rabbis calling for ‘the extermination of male arabs’ to be distinguished from the Germans who said the same?

Does categorizing one as genocide, the other not-genocide, or indeed Genocide I and Genocide IV helps us understand motivation and action at the state level or that of  the individual who actually guts the pregnant mother, smashes the baby against the tree, burns the village to the ground the living included?

Mass violence would seem to me to be a spectrum disorder, running from the least organized individual mass killings to the most organized, most participated in societal exterminations. The individual behavior, described in soldiers at their killing extreme by Karl Marlantes in What It Is Like to Go to War, as ‘berserking’, must everywhere be similar, though cloaked in local cloth.  The explanations each killer gives himself for his rampage will come from German authoritarianism, or Buddhist respect and subservience to older, better, higher, or Catholic obedience to Church and its reasons, as currently interpreted.

Everywhere belief is strong and evidence is weak, the containers of belief can be filled with new persuasions.  Everywhere those who trigger the slaughters know they must speak in a motivational language, not just of German or Khmer, but coming from deep in the culture and turning old understandings inside out. Buddhism will be banned but the structures of believing among Buddhists will be applied to the authorities now making claims on their lives.

Among genocide scholars, the goal is to identify genocide in the making and to know better how to intervene — though usually that has been understood as how to get others to intervene rather that how to internally interrupt the genocide priming, and especially the genocide activation,k which Hinton identifies. He does no better than others in showing us where the Cambodians might have known or might have acted as catastrophe built.

At what point, by what measure, does a population know that hate radio is priming a genocide?  When can it still be ignored, passing as “entertainment” as its foremost practitioners in the US claim it is? How does a population brought up for generations to honor their ‘superiors’ know when to resist, to not participate in their evil?

In the end, the answers may be simple. In the present, no one seems to know.  I think though, that the proper question is not “Why Did They Kill?”  but “Why Do We Kill?” The list of the genocidal spectrum excludes no one, past or future.

Hinton’s book is a valuable addition particularly to the Cambodian experience, but to the field of genocide studies.  Much work to be done yet, and I think, much simplification and self-searching along with searching the complexities and looking at the others.

– See more at: http://www.allinoneboat.org/2013/04/02/why-did-they-kill-an-anthropologist-looks-at-the-cambodian-genocide/#sthash.N71qlyR5.dpuf

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