The vast and terrible experience of [Pol Pot’s Cambodia] still defies complete understanding. Analysts can provide a range of answers as to why a group of Cambodians who were fervent followers of what they understood to be Maoist thought presided over the death through execution, forced labour and starvation of up to two million of their compatriots. Disgust at the corruption of Sihanouk’s regime and its successor under Lon Nol certainly was important, as was fear their control over Cambodia might suddenly be wrested from the Khmer Rouge by ‘counter-revolutionary forces’. For the followers drawn from the lowest and most impoverished levels of Cambodian society, the opportunity to lord it over those who had once considered themselves their betters also played a part. But ultimately the enormity of the leaders’ policies defeats rational analysis. To talk to former Khmer Rouge soldiers, as I did in 1980 in the Sa Keo refugee camp not far from the Thai border with Cambodia, did little to resolve one’s bafflement. Young men barely out of their teens would speak with blank faces about their part in executions, without remorse for what they clearly saw as a routine duty.
There should no mistake about who were the victims of the Pol Pot regime. Contrary to the views offered by Western sympathisers while the regime was still in power between 1975 and early 1979–and even more shockingly after Pol Pot’s regime had been overturned–the Cambodians who suffered were not ‘only’ members of the Phnom Penh bourgeoisie. Those linked to the former Lon Nol regime or classified as ‘educated’ may have been among the more prominent early victims, but before the Vietnamese finally drove the Khmer Rouge out of Phnom Penh in January 1979 the reign of terror that had lasted nearly four years had become quite classless in its choice of who should die, as Pol Pot held up the ancient glory of the Angkorian empire as a model for what the Cambodian people could achieve.
Daily Archives: 19 November 2004
Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, evaluates Arafat.
There was a time when the Palestinian cause, throughout the Middle East, was generally identified with larger causes than itself. Its diaspora, made up of thousands and thousands of intelligent and educated and ironic people, was on the whole a force for good in the Gulf states, in Jordan, in Lebanon, and elsewhere. If you voyaged to some dark and decrepit state in the region, and could get rid of your clinging official “minder,” it was in some Palestinian apartment that music would play, drinks be served, books be passed around, and humorous remarks made with courage. It became the fashion among some Arabist reporters at this time to allude to the Palestinians as “the Jews of the Middle East.”
Well, Arafat certainly destroyed that dream. His grandiose death-or-glory campaigns made life infinitely harder for the Palestinian populations of Jordan (in 1970) and in Lebanon. Even those conflicts had at least some tincture of revolutionary ardor, in which some Palestinians–not of Arafat’s faction–played a role. But the nadir was reached in 1990, when “the Chairman” ranged himself on the side of Saddam Hussein and stayed with him on the obliteration and annexation of Kuwait. Suddenly, the PLO was implicitly and sometimes explicitly in favor of the erasure of an existing Arab and Muslim state, a member of the Arab League and of the United Nations.
There were two results of this. First, the enormous Palestinian population of Kuwait–numbering between 300,000 and 400,000 people–was abruptly subjected to another nightmare. It suffered from Saddam Hussein’s aggression, and it suffered again from Kuwaiti fury at a perceived Palestinian “fifth column.” Second, the stupidity of Arafat’s bet on the wrong Iraqi horse was compounded further. In order to recover his lost credit with the Saudis and others, he began increasingly, and corruptly, to sound the note of the “Islamist” trumpeter. (Twenty percent of Palestinians are formally Christian, and a large number are secular, but I think it is pretty safe to say that the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades” and other surrogate groups would not care much to be called “the Jews of the Middle East,” in any tone of voice.)
In the 20th century, the age of so many national icons turned destroyers of their own nations, history has far too often turned out to be the biography of great and horrible men: Amin, Arafat, Bokassa, Castro, Ceausescu, Chiang Kai-shek, Duvalier, Franco, Hitler, Khomeini, Kim Il-sung, Mao, Marcos, Mengistu, Milosevic, Mobutu, Mugabe, Mussolini, Ne Win, Niyazov, Noriega, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Saddam, Stalin, Suharto, Videla, Zia ul Haq. Lucky are the nations who rarely have to rely on great men or women to save them, or who just happen to be blessed with a Havel, a Mandela, a Ramos-Horta, or a Sadat when the need arises.