As if today’s world isn’t grim already enough, let’s revisit Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of Cambodia.


I remain an avid and unrepentant history buff, and when drinking, exercising and passing time at home, I’m usually watching reading or documentaries of substance. To me, a day that passes without the opportunity to learn something has been a day utterly wasted.

So it was that a random spin of the Google wheel led me to this film, and in turn, to several other educational tools and links.

Enemies of the People
 (2010) is an incredible, easily digested history lesson. Since the filmmaker implicates himself in the story, in history, with nuance and no vanity, the film reads much more essayistic than didactic. We see, at times, the off-frame bleed into the frame back and forth: the filmmaker’s impavid face setting up a shot, a trunk full of miniDV tapes rubber-banded together, a tripod rooted in a rice field just beneath a mass grave. This is an extraordinary historical document, an archive of confessions with potential for closure, atonement, and belated punishment from one single man on a mission.

This superlative documentary recalls the excellence of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. The running time is far shorter, but the intensity level is gripping, especially when the actual human beings who carried out orders to murder their fellow human beings are allowed to explain themselves, which they do matter-of-factly.

Some seem haunted by ghosts. Others note that had they not obeyed orders, they’d have been next.

Cambodian history and culture have been on my personal radar of curiosity previously, notably surfacing in 2010 in the form of an incredible glimpse into pre-Khmer Rouge musical times.

Music review: Electric Cambodia, by Mandy Southgate (A Passion to Understand)

 … All of these artists lost their lives in what has been called the Cambodian genocide but their musical legacy can continue with this wonderful collection. It is a musical legacy that was almost lost though and were it not for the older sister of Dengue Fever’s Cambodia-born lead vocalist Chhom Nimol, many of the songs would have remained unnamed and anonymous. As it is, there is one song on the album where the artist has not been identified and another where the name of the song remains unknown. This is a testament to the destruction of war time situations and regimes such as the Khmer Rouge that in the end, people are only left with incomplete and tattered snippets of their culture.

If not for the visible efforts of Dengue Fever, an American cult band with a Cambodian singer, many people probably would not have been exposed to the country’s history: Dengue Fever: “They’ve Got Those Mekong Blues Again.”

As Enemies of the People ends in 2009, the process of accountability is only beginning.

Why the world should not forget Khmer Rouge and the killing fields of Cambodia, by Adam Taylor (Washington Post; August 7, 2014)

On Thursday, 83-year-old Khieu Samphan and 88-year-old Nuon Chea were found guilty in a Phnom Penh court. A United Nations-backed tribunal had decided that these two men, elderly and frail as they are now, committed crimes against humanity more than 30 years ago. They were senior members of a regime that created the deaths of almost 2 million people.

A final set of charges took another three years (and millions of dollars) to judge.

Khmer Rouge Trial, Perhaps the Last, Nears End in Cambodia, by Seth Mydan (NYT; June 23, 2017)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The genocide trial of two senior Khmer Rouge leaders concluded its hearings on Friday with an angry scolding by the lawyer for one defendant and a humble bow to the victims by the other.

The half-day hearing could be the last in a decade of proceedings against leading figures in the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, the radical Communist movement that killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

Nuon Chea, number two on the Khmer Rouge depth chart behind Pol Pot and the subject of the filmmaker’s quest, may finally have been put on trial and convicted, but the plain fact is that virtually all of the perpetrators of Cambodian genocide have avoided answering for the Killing Fields.

This omission owes to both domestic and international considerations, the roots of which are capably surveyed here.

Pol Pot: The Journey to the Killing Fields
Timewatch, 2005-2006

Documentary which looks at the reign of terror of dictator Pol Pot, responsible for the deaths of two million people in the killing fields of Cambodia. He used hunger and fear to control not just what his people did and said, but what they wore, where they lived, even who they loved. Though no true record was filmed of his new society, with the help of carefully researched drama scenes, and drawing on Pol Pot’s own words and of those who were closest to him, the film charts his rise to power.

As such, it’s very much worth one’s effort to recall the manifestations of imperialism that made possible Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and the practice of murdering with pipes and knives, so as to save valuable bullets.

Nixon and the Cambodian Genocide, by Brett Morris (Jacobin)

Pol Pot’s rise to power, the Cambodian genocide, and the absence of justice for the KR’s victims are inseparable from broader US intervention policies in Indochina from 1945–1991 — in particular, the US’s vicious bombing campaign waged against Cambodia.

In closing, shall we allow equal time for the … other side?

As occurred following the Holocaust in Europe, there is a rather minuscule school of thought that might be termed Killing Fields Denial. Oddly and ironically, the chief apologist for the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge is a man named Israel Shamir.

Pol Pot Revisited, by Israel Shamir (CounterPunch; September 18, 2012)

… However, Cambodia’s population was not halved but more than doubled since 1970, despite alleged multiple genocides. Apparently, the genocidaires were inept, or their achievements have been greatly exaggerated.

The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life …

I’ll leave it there.