Sowing the Killing Fields
The Sunday Star-Ledger
December 19, 2004
In 1975, the victorious Khmer Rouge army entered the Cambodia Capital ofPhnom Penh and promptly started slaughtering the supporters of thedefeated Lon Nol regime and their families. The Khmer Rouge then emptiedthe cities and embarked on a unrelenting campaign of agrarian reform andgenocide that left 1.7 million Cambodians dead by 1979, before Vietnamesearmy intervened.
In his anthropological study, "Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadowof Genocide" (University of California Press, $22), Alexander Laban Hintonexplores the propaganda and cultural forces used by the Khmer Rouge andits ruthless leaders, Pol Pot, to nurture and killers dehumanize theirvictims.
In his important and comprehension book, Hinton analyzed the psychologicaltraining that killers received and their desensitization toward thekilling. The horrific mechanics of genocide and murder are outlined inHinton's riveting examination of the infamous interrogation center at TuolSleng. At the center, disgraced Khmer Rouge cadres were tortured formonths and forced to write extensive confessions before their executions,showing the grim process of how comrades were turned into traitors andnonhumans.
Hinton, 41, was raised in Palo Alto, Calif., and received his Ph.D. inanthropology from Emory University in Atlanta. He is an associateprofessor of anthropology at Rutgers University and lives in Glen Ridgewith his wife and two children. Hinton spoke with freelance writer DylanFoley by telephone.
Q. How did you choose this subject?
A. I was interested in Buddhism from traveling in Southeast Asia. When Ifirst went to study in Cambodia in 1992, the country was still feeling theeffects of 25 years of war. There was little electricity in the maincities, and when you went into the countryside, the electricity was mainlycar batteries. Cambodians would ask me, "How did this happen? How could wekill each other?" Their questions became my questions.
Q. Why has the academic discipline of anthropology lagged behind instudying genocide?
A. As an anthropologist, having a sense of moral relativism and suspendingjudgment is part of the training. Traditionally, anthropologists tend tostudy smaller groups if people. They may be working with in a smallvillage in a country where political violence is taking place. Theanthropologist might study the effect of the violence on the local level.
Q. How would you describe the Cambodian genocide?
A. Cambodia is often called an "auto-genocide" (suggesting that Cambodianskilled their fellow citizens). But that is false. The Khmer Rouge wipedout ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, the Muslim Cham people and Buddhist monks.They used an ideological calculus that centers around consciousness. PolPot said that someone with a "regressive" consciousness "was no longer oneof us." They were to be annihilated or destroyed. Society was inverted andrural farmers were put over urban dwellers, and the poor were put over therich. A man with a peasant background would be reported as moreprogressive, more pure. A doctor or teacher would be branded as pollutedor regressive. Anyone could regress at any time, and could be discarded(killed). The Khmer Rouge constructed differences to make their victimsnonhuman.
The Khmer Rouge pushed the urban population into the countryside. In1975, Phnom Penh had swollen to three million people, including refugees.From 1975 to 1979, there were only 20,000 people in Phnom Penh. Peopleforced into countryside were labeled "new" people and at great risk to bekilled. The peasants were labeled "old" people.
Q. At least 14,000 people were killed at Tuol Sleng, an infamousinterrogation center. How were the tortures created?
A. To get the tortures to hurt people, they had to dehumanize theirvictims. Through various degrading acts and inhuman conditions, thevictims stopped resembling human beings. In the Khmer Rouge broadcasts,the victims had been called "microbes," and during their imprisonment,they literally picked up parasites and skin diseases. Prisoners werestripped of their names and given numbers. They were referred to bydehumanizing pronoun like "it." Tuol Sleng was very stressful for thetorturers, as well. It was always possible that they would be betrayed.
Q. What was the importance of confessions that were pulled out undertorture and repeatedly rewritten before the victims' executions?
A. The Khmer Rouge maintained that they never made mistakes and they wereall-knowing. Soon the agricultural collectivization collapsed and theeconomy was a complete disaster. Since the leadership never made mistakes,they started looking for signs of subversion. As the economic goals werenot met, they started looking for enemies. The confession acted as arecord of how a person went from being a fellow cadre to an enemy.Evidence was constructed of CIA spots and sabotage, which created a senseof certainly. Victims would implicate to things of traitors. Undertorture, they would give up the names of dozens of loyal cadres. I've seenconfessions with 100 names listed on them.
Q. Could you describe interviewing Lor, the guard at Tuol Sleng whoprobably killed more than 2,000 men, women and children?
A. I imagined a callow, savage man, but when I met him, he seemed like anyother person. He was very polite and smile broadly when we met for thefirst time. When he shook my hand, there was this strange moment oftouching the hand that had done so many unspeakable things. Lor hasreturned to farming, but he has been affected by what he did. He is analcoholic and does not dream at night. What I saw in my interviews is thatthere are the traits of both victims and perpetrators in all of us. Wehave the potential to do both horrible things and good things.
Q. What are some of the conditions that foster genocide and how cangenocide be curbed?
A. There is a cluster of important facts. There must be a situation ofenormous socioeconomic upheaval, a pre-existing social division in thecountry and political group with a radical idea of socially engineeringthe country. When the structures of meaning are disrupted in a country,people are willing to look for a new source of meaning. There are also hasto be a political leadership willing to foment an ideology of hate anddehumanize certain parts of the population.The international response plays a big part in stopping genocide. Rightnow, Sudan is a huge mess. Foreign countries could have a crucial role instopping the situation now, but they are unwilling to do so.
From the book
Chilling words from a genocide killer:When asked after the fact why they had committed such abuses during (theKhmer Rouge period), many former Khmer Rouge cadres, like genocidalperpetrators all over the world, have claimed that they were just"following orders." Lor invoke his excuse to explain why he had killed"one or two people." Likewise, when asked what he would say if he met oneof his former prisoners on the street, Lor responded, "I would tell them,'Don't be angry with me. When I worked at that place (the interrogationcenter), I had to obey the orders. I am not mean and savage. I didn't doanything to anyone. If they had me to arrest someone, I'd go and arrestthat person. If they order me to do something, I would do it.'" It isprecisely this type of response that victims find so unsatisfying, sinceit absolves the perpetrator of responsibility and the need to personallyexpress remorse.