Time Essay: Cambodia: An Experiment in Genocide

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The Roman Catholic cathedral in Phnom Penh has been razed, and even the native Buddhism is reviled as a "reactionary" religion. There are no private telephones, no forms of public transportation, no postal service, no universities. A Scandinavian diplomat who last year visited Phnom Penh—today a ghost city of shuttered shops, abandoned offices and painted-over street signs—said on his return: "It was like an absurd film; it was a nightmare. It is difficult to believe it is true."

Yet, why is it so difficult to believe? Have not the worst atrocities of the 20th century all been committed in the name of some perverse pseudo science, usually during efforts to create a new heaven on earth, or even a "new man"? The Nazi notion of racial purity led inexorably to Auschwitz and the Final Solution. Stalin and Mao Tse-tung sent millions to their deaths in the name of a supposedly moral cause—in their case, the desired triumph of socialism. Now the Cambodians have taken bloodbath sociology to its logical conclusion. Karl Marx declared that money was at the heart of man's original sin, the acquisition of capital. The men behind Cambodia's Angka Loeu (Organization on High), who absorbed such verities while students in the West, have decided to abolish money.

How to do that? Well, one simplistic way was to abolish cities, because cities cannot survive without money. The new Cambodian rulers did just that. What matter that hundreds of thousands died as the cities were depopulated? It apparently meant little, if anything, to Premier Pol Pot and his shadowy colleagues on the politburo of Democratic Kampuchea, as they now call Cambodia. When asked about the figure of 1 million deaths, President Khieu Samphan replied: "It's incredible how concerned you Westerners are about war criminals." Radio Phnom Penh even dared to boast of this atrocity in the name of collectivism: "More than 2,000 years of Cambodian history have virtually ended."

Somehow, the enormity of the Cambodian tragedy—even leaving aside the grim question of how many or how few actually died in Angka Loeu 's experiment in genocide—has failed to evoke an appropriate response of outrage in the West. To be sure, President Carter has declared Cambodia to be the worst violator of human rights in the world today. And, true, members of the U.S. Congress have ringingly denounced the Cambodian holocaust. The U.N., ever quick to adopt a resolution condemning Israel or South Africa, acted with its customary tortoise-like caution when dealing with a Third World horror: it wrote a letter to Phnom Penh asking for an explanation of charges against the regime.

Perhaps the greatest shock has been in France, a country where many of Cambodia's new rulers learned their Marx and where worship of revolution has for years been something of a national obsession among the intelligentsia. Said New Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a former leftist who has turned against Marxism: "We thought of revolution in its purest form as an angel. The Cambodian revolution was as pure as an angel, but it was barbarous. The question we ask ourselves now is, can revolution be anything but barbarous?"

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