I’ve just arrived back from southern Florida, where we were shooting the next video in our Witness Project. Previous videos featured survivors of communist regimes in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, and China, but this story focuses on an aged Cambodian, a survivor of the brutal communist regime–the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia’s experience of communism is a particularly tragic one. The Khmer Rouge, the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, ruled the country for four years from 1975-1979. Life before the Khmer Rouge takeover was peaceful, if generally poor, for most Cambodians—many refer to it as the Golden Age. The Khmer Rouge, led by French-educated radical Cambodian communists, sought a completely agricultural society free of all modern, Western influences.
Just as Russian communists sought to make a new creature with Soviet man, the Khmer Rouge aimed at a whole new type of person. Of course, there was no room in this new society for anyone who showed signs of Western education or urban sophistication. Anyone above the level of manual laborer was immediately targeted—doctors, lawyers, and skilled technicians were particularly suspect. In some cases wearing glasses was enough cause to send someone to jail or the firing squad.
Whole cities were evacuated, including the ancient capital of Phnom Penh, from which some 2.5 million residents were forced out and relocated to rural labor camps. The subject of our next Witness video was working as a medical doctor in Phnom Penh at the time of the Khmer Rouge evacuation—April 17, 1975. He remembers vividly the communist troops—many of them children—barging into his hospital and insisting that all doctors and nurses leave immediately. When it was asked what would happen to the young patients—who would take care of them if not the medical staff?–the Khmer Rouge soldiers simply repeated their demands to leave. They did not care, and by evacuating the hospital they turned the pediatric ward into a tomb.
The subject of our next Witness video remains haunted by that day and by the children he was forced to leave behind. But that was only the beginning. During and after evacuating the cities, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to kill some 2 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population, in pursuit of their deranged social vision.
The long shadow of communist rule hangs over the country still today. Hun Sen, the current prime minister, is himself a former Khmer Rouge member who has sat in power since 1998, and generally operates as a dictator, repressing political opponents and controlling the country through systematic corruption and military intimidation. Indeed, as our Witness interviewee told us, communists and ex-communists hide behind masks of legitimacy, but it’s all an act. The ongoing tribunals against ex-Khmer Rouge leaders currently going on in Cambodia? Fine, Hun Sen says, just don’t dare to expand the scope of the investigation. Want to hold democratic elections? OK, but only on the government’s terms, with widespread restriction of the press, the murder of independent journalists, and false elections. First installed into power by the communist forces of Vietnam, Hun Sen has since given very little reason for outside observers to think he will rectify or account for his country’s bloody past; indeed, he seems to have learned well the lessons of his old communist masters.
Which is why stories like our Witness’s are so important. We must tell the truth about what happened in Cambodia, and the lingering effects it has on that society. We must insist upon an accurate record of communist crimes, especially when it comes to the particularly disastrous history of Cambodia.
Stay tuned for the release of this new video coming soon. In the meantime, you can see our past witness videos here.