Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cambodia after the killing fields

Cambodia after the killing fields

This came out in the Los Angeles Times. It is always fascinating to see how the West perceives a place like Cambodia. In many ways, the shadow of Ankor Wat as a tourist attraction is overshadowed by the dark reality of the Killing Fields. Most would actually ask, why would so many people in Cambodia follow the orders to kill so many people? Are the Cambodians prone towards these aspects? The reality is that it must be answered with a definitive answer: NO. We are just as prone to do this as the Cambodians.

Stanley Milgram did an experiment with Yale students beginning in 1961. The belief was that Germans were uniquely conditioned towards obedience, so therefore Germans were predisposed to follow Adolph Hitler. It is now called the Milgram Obedience Experiment. It turns out that in the best case scenario, only 40% of the people would not kill their neighbor. At least this is evident in the BBC version of the experiment as shown here.

What is disturbing is this human tendency to defer to authority. This is actually also well documented in Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom. Combined with Communist ideology formulated my Chairman Mao, the Khmer Rouge went on a rampage to force Cambodia into this utopian agrarian society formulated in the delusional mind of Pol Pot. The problem that I have always had about Communism in Asia is that Communism is an ideology of the West. It isn't inherently indigenous to the country. Many of the leaders that introduced Communism into Asia were educated in France like Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh. Chairman Mao was introduced to the idea at Peking University. Ironically, Communism is a utopian idea that is inherently doomed to collapse. Ideals are not practical in the real world. They never remain the same once they are engaged with real world politics, real world people, and the human factor.

You can see that the ideal overrides logic in the diatribes of Number 2 in the 2010 film, Enemy of the People. You can see the ideology has warped the man's mind in his phrasing of these 4 words.

The work towards reconciliation in Cambodia is an ongoing project. I have told people that in Cambodia, there is this strange underlying sorrow that is not clearly tactile or tangible, but it exists as a ghost hovering over the sensibilities of the people. Everyone is trying to get by daily. Some are working the tourism industry, but there also is a sense of resentment against the Vietnamese who stopped the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The Vietnamese are still there, even though the military has gone. Vietnamese business, and Chinese business are slowly taking over the system. There is bitterness. Even today, many Khmers say that the money generated out of Ankor Wat is being managed by the Vietnamese. Whether or not this is true or false is irrelevant to me. The fact that the sentiment exists fascinates me more.

Kurt Vonnegut once noted in a novel that if you were born in Germany during Hitler's time, you would be a Nazi. Perhaps if you were born under the Khmer Rouge and given the choice, you would be a Khmer Rouge lackey too.