But this spare account hardly does justice to the story. One cannot understand the catastrophe that befell Cambodia without knowing that the people who engineered this gruesome slaughter were intellectuals who dreamed of a better world. Nearly all of the Khmer Rouge leaders had studied abroad, in Paris, where they became drunk on tales of the French Revolution and learned their craft from the French Communist party. "We are making a unique revolution," boasted one official at the time. "Is there any other country that would dare abolish money and markets the way we have? We are much better than the Chinese, who look up to us. We are a good model for the whole world." Pol Pot himself said "only a few thousand Cambodians have died as a result of the application of our policy of bringing abundance to the people."
Abundance to the people. A model for the world. The Khmer Rouge modeled themselves on Mao and Lenin and then shifted into overdrive. They emptied the cities of their inhabitants and force-marched everyone -- the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, children -- in the tropical heat to the countryside where there were no facilities, little drinking water, scarce food, no medicine, and no shelter except thatched huts. There they were starved and enslaved when they weren't shot on the spot for some minor infraction. Anyone who had any connection to the West or to modernity itself was suspect. People who spoke other languages, owned a typewriter or eyeglasses, or any forbidden book could be shot. Failure to make sufficiently abject apologies for ideological errors was enough to merit a bullet between the eyes.
As the Black Book of Communism records, "Democratic Kampuchea was a place with no values or stable points of reference. It really was a nightmare world on the other side of the mirror. The first article of faith was a radical dismissal of the idea that human life had any value. 'Losing you is not a loss, and keeping you is no specific gain' went one terrifying official slogan that recurs time and again in statements by witnesses." Khmer leaders talked of a radiant future, in which agricultural production, in obedience to Pol Pot's Four-Year Plan, would double or quintuple. Instead, the starving, displaced, and thoroughly terrorized Cambodian people saw crop production cut in half in just two years. While they watched their children die in their arms they were herded off to "self-criticism" sessions where their every facial twitch was carefully monitored by gun-wielding Khmer Rouge. The Black Book also records that "Everyone ran the risk of denunciation following a chance encounter with an old friend, colleague, or student ..."
It may be that the evil done in the name of revolution exceeds all other manmade disasters. Certainly one cannot begin to confront Cambodia's grisly history without acknowledging that communists committed this atrocity.
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