Friday, January 04, 2013

Some thoughts on Cambodia

Having just returned from four months in Cambodia, I thought I'd jot down my thoughts while they are still fresh in my mind.

1.  Angkor Wat is not doing Cambodia any favors.  Angkor Wat like many wonders of the ancient world, and like much of the U.S. Capitol including the Washington Monument, was likely built by slave labor.  It is physically beautiful but it is also a testament to the power of despotic kings to force people into bondage.  The Khmer people rightly turned away from the Angkor temples following the fall of the Angkor Kingdom -- claiming that the area was haunted by ghosts.

It was the French, in the twentieth century, who rebuilt Angkor Wat temples and revived the myth of Angkorian greatness -- in order to develop a sense of Cambodia nationalism in order to further French colonial aims (Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over).

The Khmer Rouge explicitly stated that their goal was to replicate the greatness of the Angkorian empire.  The forced labor camps of the Khmer Rouge were done in the attempt to replicate the irrigation systems of the Angkorian empire and to squeeze two rice crop out of the land each year instead of one (Angkor supposedly achieved 3 or 4 rice crops a year as a result of their irrigation systems -- but one of the leading theories of the collapse of the Angkorian empire is that the land was rapidly depleted leading to declining crop yields and hunger).  The Khmer Rouge even named the party, "Angkar," to invoke the memories of the Angkorian empire.  Ironically, in many ways the Khmer Rouge succeeded in replicating the Angkorian kingdom -- re-instituting slavery, hunger, and societal collapse.

Now, many Cambodian universities, in the attempt to rebuild Cambodia society after the Khmer Rouge are once again invoking the greatness of Angkor in order to propel the rebuilding of the country. This is just repeating the mistakes of the last 100 years (and the last 1,000 years).

I believe that if Cambodia is ever going to have a peaceful and prosperous future, it needs to call into question the legacy of the Angkorian kingdom and Angkor Wat.

Furthermore, UNESCO has some explaining to do.  Many UNESCO Heritage Sites were originally built by  slave labor.  Yes the sites are often archaeological wonders and they bring badly needed tourism dollars into the country.  But it seems to me that UNESCO also has a responsibility to question the slave labor systems that brought these works into existence in the first place.  In fact, the entrance fees to visit these sites (often paid by wealthy white people from the developed world -- people who benefited from the legacy of slavery) should be viewed as a form of reparations for slavery and should be directed towards social programs to reduce inequality.

2.  I hate to say it, but it seems to me that Buddhism is not doing Cambodia any favors either. Yes, Buddhism was the only institution to provide education throughout the country over much of its history.  Yes, Buddhists  were horribly persecuted by the Khmer Rouge.  Yes, the country needs some sort of moral foundation and Buddhism seems like the most appropriate source of that wisdom.  Yes, Buddhist institutions are doing a wonderful job of providing housing to Pagoda Kids who want to attend university in Phnom Penh today.  Yes many aspects of Buddhist aesthetics and tradition are beautiful.

But Buddhism as an institution is deeply hierarchical and sexist.  It emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking.  And a theology that minimizes the importance of the here and now, teaching that life is just suffering, helps to create the conditions that keep monarchs and despots in power (why protest political conditions or organize to improve public policy if life is always just suffering?).

In fairness, no other religion is doing Cambodia any favors either.

3.  When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution by Elizabeth Becker is a masterpiece.  Understanding Cambodia is like trying to understand a game of chess played across 100 dimensions.  There are only a handful of people in the world who have enough experience in the region, perspective, and skill to tell the story.  I believe that Elizabeth Becker has written one of the greatest political science works of all time.  I highly highly recommend When the War Was Over to anyone who is thinking about traveling to the region or hoping to understand Cambodian society.

4.  Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley is a dreadful book.  Yes, someone needed to write a book about the endemic corruption of the Hun Sen regime.  And that book had to be written by a foreigner, because any Cambodian who wrote such a book would likely be jailed or killed.  But Joel Brinkley's research is woeful, his thinking is a mess, and his writing is sophomoric.  In the acknowledgements at the end, Brinkley actually says that he read twelve books about Cambodia (by contrast a scholar like Elizabeth Becker cites hundreds of books in her research). Moreover, it seems that Brinkley's real goal is to use the on-going culture of corruption in Cambodia in order to excuse U.S. war crimes in the area in the 1960s and 1970s.  I have lots more to say about Cambodia's Curse, perhaps in another post. But for now, suffice it to say that Joel Brinkley is not doing Cambodia any favors.

5.  Studies of Cambodia refugees in the U.S. suggest that as many as 60% to 70% experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It seems likely that Cambodians still living in Cambodia (particularly older people) experience PTSD at similar or even higher levels.  But here's the thing to understand:  the majority of Cambodians probably were ALREADY experiencing PTSD, even BEFORE the Khmer Rouge came to power.  Five centuries of colonization proceeded by centuries of slavery and despotic monarchs will do that to a people.  The hyper-vigilence of the Khmer Rouge, the paranoia, and the extreme levels of violence of the Khmer Rouge are all what you would expect from people who already had PTSD.  The genocide by the Khmer Rouge surely dramatically increased the number of people suffering from PTSD.  [Evidence for this theory comes from the fact that Lon Nol, no communist, was deeply paranoid and had already begun massacres against ethnic Vietnamese people living in Cambodia as early as 1970. Elizabeth Becker, When the War Was Over.]

In some respects then, that makes Paulo Freire's work even more important for revolutionary movements.  Any oppressed people is likely experiencing PTSD.  And, as I've written previously,  Freireian pedagogy is really about treating PTSD in the society at large -- as the necessary first step to heal the wounds of colonialism before gaining power. Absent some transformative healing process, an oppressed people gains power only to violate all of its ideals by lashing out in crazy ways characteristic of PTSD.

6.  There appears to be this odd wrinkle to communism in Asia in that Pol Pot, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh are not listed as having any children.  That would be extremely odd given the conditions of the era (war, lack of access to health care including modern birth control) and given that men in those societies were generally expected to have children.  Now perhaps these men did have children and they were just kept a secret (in order to keep them safe).  But if these men indeed did not have children -- that's even more interesting.

It seems to me that children have a humbling effect on people.  Any national leader without children has never experienced the ego-distonic effect of having a little person, who is your own flesh and blood and who you love, absolutely refuse to do what you tell them.  I think children are vital to help soften and temper the excesses of our political leaders.

Communist Revolutionary heroes in Latin America -- Castro, Che, Ortega -- all have children.

7.  One of the biggest barriers to transitional justice -- in Cambodia and in other war scarred regions around the world, is that political leaders in the United States are often unindicted co-conspirators, who should also be on trial.

It is true that the Hun Sen regime is dragging its feet in prosecuting former Khmer Rouge leaders through the ECCC.  The Hun Sen regime's failure to engage in a process of truth and reconciliation is a national disgrace that prevents the country from healing and reaching its full potential.

But it is also true that the U.S. committed genocide in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge.  McNamara and Nixon were both war criminals and should have been prosecuted as such (both men are now dead).  But Henry Kissinger is still alive and is one of history's most notorious mass murderers.  Making matters even more complicated, I believe that the U.S. was right and just to oppose communism in the region. But the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Second Indochina War was genocide and should be prosecuted as such.  Again it is a post for another day, but if the world is ever going to move to some sort of standard of international human rights, war criminals from the United States will need to be prosecuted according to the same standards that are used to judge others.

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