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

Heretics and liberals: what Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong


May 11, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Heretics and liberals: what Ayaan Hirsi Ali gets wrong

The question of the relationship between Islam and violence is on the table again. You might argue that it was never off. In recent years, public debate about this controversial issue, fed by Islamist brutalities and celebrity atheists, has become an almost monthly ritual.

A corollary to this discussion is the reluctance of Western liberals and leftists to take a firm stand against Islam, or Islamism, or Islamic terrorism (three frequently conflated terms) on the one hand; and for secularism (one often ill-defined term) on the other. A new round of this well-worn debate has begun with the publication of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.

Ayaan HirisiAccording to extracts published by Huffington Post, the Somali-born ex-Muslim and campaigner for the rights of women and girls argues that the violence of organisations like ISIS cannot be “divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them.” “Instead,” she writes, “we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.”

Furthermore, Ali is exasperated by what she sees as the reluctance of some liberals and leftists to get behind her. She says that she is seen as a heretic, “not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an apostate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.”

This is not a new argument. There are many who see Islam as an inherently flawed religion, prone to fanaticism and violence and in desperate need of an overhaul. In recent months the neo-atheist double-act of Sam Harris and Bill Maher have promoted the notion that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas,” and have called for liberals to recognise this fact.

A contributing editor at The Atlantic, Graeme Wood, has also argued that ISIS’s ideology is inseparable from Islam and that Obama must acknowledge this and start referring to ‘Islamic terrorism’. We can trace this argument further back to the 1990s when Samuel Huntington (who Ali admiringly quotes) coined the phrase the “clash of civilisations,” and claimed that “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Animating these arguments is a commitment to a strict form of philosophical idealism which presumes that historical phenomena are caused by ideas unmediated by any material factors. Adherents to this world view see violent actions being carried out in the name of religion and presume that it is the religion itself that is the root cause of the violence.

This has a certain intuitive logic to it. At first glance, the motivating factor of gunmen who murder cartoonists while claiming to be defending the honour of the Prophet Muhammad would appear to be Islam, pure and simple. But surface appearances frequently hide more complex realities. The relationship between ideology and action, or more specifically, religion and violence, is a complicated one and requires unpacking.

The key word here is interpretation. Religion is always an act of interpretation and this is always carried out within a particular context. Islam, like all religions, is not a clearly defined monolith that has existed unchanged since its birth. From the 7th to the 21st century and from Cairo to Jakarta, it has been interpreted, reinterpreted and practiced in a variety of different ways according to time and place.

There are, of course, core texts, principles and traditions. But how these are read and understood is shaped by the context within which the reader is operating. The Islam of a Saudi oil baron is very different to that of a British street cleaner of Pakistani descent which, in turn, differs radically from that of a member of China’s Uighur minority, even when they are all reading the same book.

This more nuanced approach to understanding the relationship between Islam and violence is rejected by Ali, Harris, Maher et al. Islam is, for them, a static set of beliefs that exists apart from the social context within which it is practiced. Ali is quite explicit on this point: “Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself.” The problem is the religion—period.

This is not simply a philosophical issue. The rise of Islamist organisations over the last 40 years—from the ‘moderate’ neo-Islamists of Turkey’s AK Party to the extremist thugs of IS and Boko Haram—cannot be explained in terms of a homogenous ‘Islam’ that has been abstracted from all context.

Similarly, we cannot understand the prevalence of socially conservative attitudes to gender relations, LGBTQ people and religious minorities merely by quoting the “foundational texts of Islam.” These texts are read and interpreted within concrete historical conditions, so the ideologies that are cobbled together out of them can only be understood when placed in the very “social, economic, or political conditions” that Ali deems irrelevant.

Idealism—the strict focus on ideas at the expense of their material context—leads to bad politics. In an interview with Huffington Post, Ali defended Egyptian dictator Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, explaining that “he wants to engage intellectually and he also wants to engage with what it is about the religion that is wrong.” She has also been an advocate for the so-called “War on Terror” (or the “War on Islam” as she prefers to characterise it).

A more historical and materialist understanding of the relationship between religion and violence might have led Ali, and many others, to conclude that full-scale western interventions and support for “secular” dictators have been major contributing factors to the emergence of Islamism. More of the same would be counter-productive, not to mention immoral in its own right.

This is why many liberals and leftists are reluctant to support Ali and other so-called “critics of Islam.” It is not simply the case that they are too busy wringing their hands and worrying about offending Muslim sensibilities. It is about the inadequacies of the analysis.

Religion, like all ideologies, must be submitted to critique. Pious protestations about Islam being “a religion of peace” or defensive accusations of “Islamophobia” do nothing to further our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and violence. But for a critique to hold any water it must take into consideration the multiple factors that shape the interpretation and practice of religion. This is the all-important difference between a critique, and ideologically motivated criticism.

Malaysian forces join Saudi-led coalition in Yemen


May 11, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Malaysian forces join Saudi-led coalition in Yemen

Vanguards of the Malaysian forces have arrived Sunday at Saudi air bases to join Riyadh’s military coalition battling Houthi militias in Yemen, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

With the move, the Asian country became the 12th state in the Saudi-led coalition after Senegal announced it would send 2,100 soldiers to Saudi Arabia to join the alliance.

The Saudi Ministry of Defense said the coalition operations center is preparing to merge the Malaysian and Senegalese forces.

The Saudi-led coalition launched air strikes against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi miitias and their allies on March 26 after they seized control of large parts of the country and advanced on the main southern city of Aden, where President Abedrabbu Mansour Hadi had taken refuge, before fleeing to Riyadh.

Unleashing ASEAN into the World


May 4, 2015

Phnom Penh by The Mekong

Unleashing ASEAN into the World

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

ASEAN Summit KL 2015WHEN countries in a region act in unison, it can be so reassuring particularly when policing the region against any misdeeds. Peer pressure can be useful, but only up to a point and if it is wielded advisedly. However, things can get difficult when the misdeeds happened a century ago.

Such was the situation when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the US Congress on Wednesday. It was roundly criticised by South Korea, China and even Taiwan for failing to account fully for Japan’s war crimes in what they described as a historic opportunity for Abe to do so.

In what seemed like a Japanese production of “Mr Abe Goes To Washington”, his speech seemed designed exclusively for his hosts. It expressed “repentance” but nothing more substantive, mentioning Pearl Harbour while skirting around Imperial Japan’s horrors in China, Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

Titled “Toward An Alliance of Hope”, Abe’s speech was well calibrated: tentative yet optimistic, it sought to strengthen commitments to the US-Japan military alliance while playing on the keyword “hope” to trigger interest in the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, in the second half of the period since Imperial Japan’s surrender in 1945, China’s inexorable rise has exerted an economic pull on Japan and other countries. Tension has also risen lately over several disputed maritime territories involving Japan, China, Taiwan and some ASEAN nations.

Some of that tension is said to come from China’s recent assertiveness on disputed islands. For countries like Japan, China’s rise suggests several uncertainties about Beijing’s future conduct and its relations with countries in the region.

Flashback three weeks before Abe’s Congressional address: Singapore academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani had delivered a lecture at Harvard University, noting no shortage of bad examples that the United States has set for China to follow as a superpower.

Regional analysts regard a general lack of commitment to international law as impacting on the troubling maritime disputes. Universal respect for international law is the missing ingredient in the waters of North-East and South-East Asia.

The United States had demanded, and obtained, changes in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) a generation ago. But until today, the US Senate has refused to ratify it even after more than 160 countries including China had done so.

Meanwhile, ASEAN had sought to accommodate South China Sea disputes in a Code of Conduct (CoC) with China. Beijing wrestled with the prospect until a compromise Declaration of Conduct (DoC) was agreed upon as a staging post.

China’s accession to a CoC remains elusive and no less essential today. But the United States has hamstrung itself in voiding any moral high ground by abdicating its responsibilities towards Unclos.

When, as in recent days, Washington preaches to China about respect for international conventions for regional security, it invites only a resounding rebuttal from Beijing. Thus, rhetoric and counter-rhetoric have replaced judicious behaviour on the high seas.

Somewhere between Kishore’s speech at Harvard and Abe’s in Congress, a momentous event was being played out in Kuala Lumpur: the 26th Asean Summit. Observers were anxious to see if ASEAN Chairman, Malaysia’s statement would include references to the South China Sea disputes. A combative Philippines and to a degree Vietnam wanted a strong statement against China’s claims, but a more conciliatory Brunei and Malaysia sought a more moderate tone.

The statement on Tuesday contained four paragraphs on the disputes towards the end. The tone was measured, observing that efforts at building and extending islands in disputed waters posed a risk to regional security and could undermine peace.

It was not hectoring or demeaning language intended to antagonise. Malaysia saw no need in confronting China or any other claimant country over the multi-cornered disputes. But within hours, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a response expressing “serious concern” over the statement. Still, Malaysia remained hopeful that China could be persuaded that continuing the dispute would benefit nobody.

The significance of South China Sea tensions meant that no ASEAN Chairman’s statement of the day could ignore the matter. Neither could ASEAN itself as an institution.

China has long had the impression that since the disputes involve only some ASEAN countries, ASEAN as a whole has no position on it. It then assumed that ASEAN should have nothing to say about it.That is an unfortunate fallacy. True, ASEAN as a whole cannot take any side on the disputes since most of the claimant states are within ASEAN, and most ASEAN countries are not party to the disputes.

However, that does not mean ASEAN can or should ignore the disputes since they impact so clearly on regional security. It cannot mean that ASEAN has an option to pretend that the disputes either do not exist, or they can somehow be resolved through neglect.

At the same time, countries seeking a more spirited condemnation of China’s land reclamation activities forget that some of them are doing the same thing. The difference is one of scale: no country can solely be blamed for doing what some countries are doing themselves.

Thus, the statement did not name or blame any country for reclaiming land on disputed islands. However, it also did not call for an immediate moratorium on land reclamation, which would have helped to arrest rising tensions.

In the meantime, it would not help matters to raise the stakes in any unnecessarily provocative manner. The Philippines is reportedly banking on its security treaty arrangements with the United States to press China on its claims.

Japan itself is considering joint military patrols with US forces over maritime zones. Abe’s visit to Washington has produced new defence plans that will see a more active Japanese military role in the region.

Although Japan’s plans are reportedly still tentative, there is the prospect of joint US-Japanese patrols in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Ultimately, there could also be joint Japanese-Philippine military patrols in the South China Sea. But formal arrangements still have to be worked out on this, beginning with Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s meeting with Abe in Tokyo next month.

However, regional security can best be assured only by moderate practices rather than rash or extreme measures. ASEAN itself has lasted for half a century, far longer than any of its predecessors in the region, because of its moderate nature.

Part of that temperate character sees ASEAN committed to the resolution of disputes by peaceful means as its standard operating procedure. This particular nature of ASEAN is also evident in the tone of its official statements. Nonetheless, moderation is not the only important feature of ASEAN. No less important is its inherent sense of pragmatism.

If disputes are ever to see satisfactory resolution, that resolution is going to be effected through negotiations rather than force. And that conciliatory mode is encouraged by measured and mature approaches rather than raising the stakes and the temperature.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Malaysia: You are imploding


May 2, 2015

Malaysia: You are imploding

READ this : http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/297033

AND this:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/ambiga-three-others-walk-after-cops-fail-to-get-remand-orders

by Din Merican

Greetings from Phnom Penh by the Mekong. My blog is alive and kicking. I will keep blogging from here. I will remain critical and hope you will do the same. We cannot be bystanders and free riders. We must  use the power of the Internet to air our views.

Malaysia is imploding. Why? Because we have a minority government run by Malaysia’s notorious couple, Najib Razak and his greedy and corrupt wife, Rosmah Mansor. To boot, we have an incompetent and sycophantic Cabinet of  ministers who are unable to stand up for what is right. They all forgot that they were elected to serve the people and not serve themselves.

kam, ambiga and dinBefore I can lay my weary head in Phnom Penh to reflect on what had been happening in Kuala Lumpur in recent months, I read this malaysiakini report (read the link above) that Dato Ambiga with whom my wife, Dr. Kamsiah and I had lunch last Friday (pic above) was arrested for participating in the peaceful May 1 rally in our nation’s capital.

What the IGP Khalid Ashburn is flexing his muscles, I said. It is unbelievable that the IGP should react the way he did. Malaysia is stealing the headlines again, but for the wrong reasons for the umpteenth time . In stead of dealing with the underlying malaise, the Najib administration is using Police power to intimidate Malaysians. It just will not work, not any more. We have become a nation of politically aware people. Public disenchantment with the government of the day is growing  daily and with it, the movement led by Dr. Mahathir to remove Najib Razak will gather strength. A government that acts with impunity and is disconnected with reality and the concerns of Malaysians cannot survive much longer. Learn the lessons of history and ignore them at your own risk. Obviously you are not. recalcitrant Prime Minister. Wake up from your stupor and it will be good for us if you realise that you are a liability.

Today, I was in the company of some English speaking  young Cambodian students at lunch. They asked me what is happening in Malaysia. Wow, I was impressed that they knew what was happening at home. Here is to the power. of the Internet. I said that Malaysia is imploding because we have an insecure and weak Prime Minister, an aristocrat by birth, who is disconnected with the problems of his own people. I reminded them that  rampant corruption, if left unchecked as in Malaysia, can lead to the downfall of any government. We have examples of the collapse of regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. I added that Malaysia is heading in that direction.

Rosmah withdrawI said what we need in Malaysia is a strong constitution with a system of checks and balances  to prevent abuses of power and bad governance and a people-centered Prime Minister like their  Prime Minister Hun Sen. I added that Cambodia can learn from Malaysia  about bad governance, and they can make Cambodia a wonderful place to live and do business. I ended my conversation by saying that Malaysians know what their problems are. We will fix them soon by asking our Prime Minister step down from his office so that we implement serious democratic reforms.

What did ASEAN Summit 2015 achieve?


April 29, 2015

What did ASEAN Summit 2015 achieve?

by Prashanth Parameswaran

With the conclusion of the 26th ASEAN Summit chaired by Malaysia, what did this series of meetings achieve?

Leaders at ASEAN Sunnit 2015When evaluating ASEAN summits, it is useful to consider not only measures actually adopted – whether in the form of documents, housekeeping items, or proposals being forwarded on to other bodies – but also established ideas put off until future meetings and newer ones tabled for discussion in order to get the full picture. Since the ten-member grouping operates by consensus and rotating chairmanships, there are usually different speeds at which it moves depending on the issue in question and the extent of agreement or disagreement therein.

Aside from the chairman’s statement usually adopted – with the obvious exception of Cambodia in 2012 – a few other documents were adopted at the 26th ASEAN Summit. One was the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates, an initiative championed by Malaysia over the past few years to promote moderation as a tool for bridging differences. The Declaration was viewed as one of ASEAN’s contributions to global peace and security. Another was the Declaration on Institutionalizing the Resilience of ASEAN and its Communities and People to Disasters and Climate Change. This builds on the ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change 2014 adopted at least year’s summit in Myanmar. The region is also extremely susceptible to natural disasters, and Malaysia was on the receiving end of this last year with the worst flooding in decades affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

Malaysia also continues to use its ASEAN chairmanship year to strengthen regional cooperation against the Islamic state threat, which it has been busy countering at home including during the run-up to the summit itself. As I have written earlier, Malaysia was already set to convene a Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Radicalization and Extremism in October. But there were also discussions over the past few days about potentially holding an informal ministerial meeting with Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand next month as well.

Some measures that some had hoped would move forward were put off until future meetings. One of these was the proposal for a common ASEAN time zone. ASEAN currently has four different time zones, and the idea would be to get other ASEAN members to adjust their time to a single agreed one, most likely the current time zone in Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, which is GMT + 8 and similar to the one in China. The alignment would facilitate business dealings and would help forge a more cohesive ASEAN Community expected by the end of 2015. The idea was originally proposed by Singapore back in 1995, but differences still remain within the grouping on the matter.

IMT - GTOther ideas were also floated that were significant. According to Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, several proposals in the form of “non-papers” were discussed. Among these was an idea to streamline ASEAN meetings – including reducing the number of ASEAN summits from two to just one per year – which is reportedly still under discussion. Another was on strengthening the East Asia Summit (EAS), which I touched on briefly here. This year is the 10th anniversary of the EAS, and several countries have been suggesting ways to make it a more effective institution, which they hope will take place under Malaysia’s chairmanship.

As expected, the South China Sea question received significant attention but saw little progress. The media did release parts of a draft ASEAN statement where the group did share concerns expressed by some states on China’s extensive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, which it said threatened peace, security and stability. And Najib also repeated the call for an “expeditious resolution” of a code of conduct while stressing that ASEAN would engage China in a “constructive way. But beyond these steps, little progress looks likely at this stage, which is not surprising considering ASEAN’s lowest common denominator position on the issue, China’s continued stonewalling on a code of conduct, and the balance Malaysia tends to strike in its own policy, all of which I have addressed before in separate pieces (see here, here and here).

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