The Evils of the Purge: Crushing Dissent & the False Promise of Finality

The Khmer Rouge sought to establish a red Khmer empire in Cambodia, with some ambitions of expansion beyond the nation’s borders, by stamping out any human life or mind that varied from the project, as narrowly conceived by Pol Pot and his murderous regime. The “killing fields” that ensued, with the mass slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million people, were an attempt to establish a new break in time, the time before and the time after the purification —as the regime proposed— of all Cambodia.

Beyond Utopia, it was a lust to fashion a paradise built on millions of purgatories. It was the paradox of a violent Heaven, a wisdom of intolerance, a corrupt purity, an abstraction drowned in the blood of innocents. In order to establish absolute power, either for themselves or their ideology, a purge was undertaken that would attempt to eliminate nearly all people of learning, leaving by one count only 4 highly trained Cambodian legal minds remaining.

The totalitarian nature of the purge was, like all political purges and all totalitarianism, based on the lie, the false promise of finality: The Khmer Rouge bet the lives of millions and the fate of their nation on the idea that once they had killed enough people, the perfect society would emerge and the ills that threatened their plans would be cured, purged successfully, overcome without risk of return.

If the political logic of the deranged practitioners of the Cambodian genocide are to be believed, they believed they could make a just and ordered world by attacking with thunder and steel everything vulnerable in the human beings they judged as outside their reach, and erasing human virtues like compassion, justice, tolerance, from the communities they favored, by shaping their society through a system of torture and murder.

The evils of the Khmer Rouge terror were nothing less than the wholesale abdication of humanity, in service of a power structure that elevated thugs and psychopaths, testing their merit by urging them to exhibit incomprehensible degrees of cruelty. This is so much the case that in the ongoing trial of Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch (pronounced ‘Doik’)—a prison director accused of a vast array of war crimes, committed in furtherance of the Khmer Rouge purge—, the defendant has alternately broken down in hysterical demonstrations of guilt and regret and attempted to delegitimize testimony questioning the identity of witnesses by saying he had long ago had that person killed.

The metaphysical arrangement of such a regime of bloodlust could be classed as habitual psychotics—more than as physics or metaphysics—‚ behavior so far outside what even the perpetrator’s heart and mind can countenance, that it amounts to a deliberate casting off of any intellectual or moral coherence, a descent into something antithetical to the involvement of anything we might call human qualities.

By casting off the restraint that stems from having human qualities like conscience, moral compass, tolerance and civil social structures, in exchange for an experiment with habitual psychotics, the genocidal regime is able to spread the logic of its brutality, by disqualifying virtually anyone from the broad category of humanity, both the victims and its allies in perpetrating the killing. This accounts for the mysterious inability of any moral considerations to explain or account for the logic of genocide. It is not logical; it is not intellectually or morally coherent; it is not actually in service of any reasonable or worthy political aim. It is the sowing of injury and contempt in a way that will take root, leaving a landscape of devastation and tragedy in its wake, the fundamental crippling of a nation for generations to come.

Now, long after the killing ended, Cambodia has finally been able to put together a legal process for prosecuting and punishing the crimes of that era (1975-1979), but only with the help of international jurists assisting in an ad-hoc “hybrid” tribunal system meant to enforce and expand the scope of Cambodia’s own evolving humanitarian law.

The trials are a criminal prosecution that stands in for what has been tried in other places, the “truth and reconciliation” process aimed at fixing crimes and grudges firmly in the past, in order to clear the terrain of the society’s future for something better and more humane. Each society that faces the horrors of such a history has unique circumstances, unique crimes to address, and unique demographic makeup that may favor one solution over another.

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, conceived a complex but broadly applicable process of community hearings, in which the perpetrators of the horrific Rwandan genocide openly confessed in front of their neighbors their involvement in the crimes of those 100 days in 1994—when over 800,000 men, women and children were murdered by machete, dagger, fire and beating, by people who had always been part of their communities.

Kagame told Fareed Zakaria on Sunday’s edition of GPS—the “Global Public Square”—that “We had to bring the victims and perpetrators back together”, because those on either side of the genocide live in mixed communities everywhere across Rwanda. Zakaria praised Rwanda for finding a nuanced and well-thought solution to the problem of continued cohabitation of both communities, even as the nation seeks to recognize the genocide and prevent another round of the same, perhaps in retaliation or frustration for hard living conditions.

In fact, “spillover from the 1994 Rwandan genocide” is now sowing unrest in North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Cattle rustling used to finance militia activity is fomenting inter-ethnic conflict among Hutus and Tutsis, some of whom are émigrés from Rwanda, having fled in the time of the genocide. As the Christian Science Monitor is reporting:

While the trade in blood cows finances rebel activity here, but it’s also a form of psychological warfare. Another major rebel group in the region, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), is a predominantly Tutsi movement which sees itself as protecting its people. It also defends their traditional livelihood; For centuries, the pastoral Tutsi have measured a man’s wealth by counting his cattle. “Nothing riles the CNDP and the Tutsi more than having their cattle stolen,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. When they turn to battle, she says, the CNDP can be brutal: In a bid to regain villages controlled by Hutu militias, in April the CNDP killed over 100 civilians, some of them the elderly and children.

However galling or economically traumatic, the theft of cattle is substantially less significant than the mass slaughter of innocents, but the Kivu experience demonstrates how the unresolved fallout from the 1994 genocide is again stoking the fires of ethnic hatred. Can Paul Kagame do enough in his second term as president of Rwanda to establish a reliable civil society to effect a lasting truth and reconciliation process in which the crimes and animus of the genocide are relegated to the past?

The effects of the slaughter will be part of Rwandan life, part of the immediate life experience and family structures across the nation, for generations to come, as is the case in Cambodia, as among Europeans both Jewish and non-Jewish who lived through the Holocaust, as is the case for residents of the former Yugoslavia or of today’s Darfur.

The false promise of the final solution will, in every case, become ingrained in the evolution of a people, and may impede any real ascent to ideal structures favoring harmony among rival groups. We need to establish international structures with reach and authority that can detect and prevent such campaigns of slaughter.

The prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, decries China’s treatment of Uighur muslims in Xinjiang province as “genocide”, though many believe the programmatic “ethnic reordering” in which Beijing has engaged is not as dangerous as more aggressive “ethnic cleansing”. But some say such situations as those in Xinjiang, or the North Caucasus, need to be viewed as early warnings and halted without further loss of life.

Framing a social plan of any kind in the logic of ethnic cleansing or political re-engineering implies the desire to use force to command the restructuring of communities. Doing so in a way that takes lives or forces entire ethnicities or groups of political dissidents out verges on what could be called a purge campaign. Such ideas of a final solution are tempting to the subset of political actors who disqualify their rivals from humanity and seek to sweep them from existence, and are the root structure of a burgeoning genocide.

International structures that can provide for monitoring such policies that put a society at risk of ethnic cleansing need to be established, tested and strengthened. Observation of crimes like those ongoing in Darfur, and possibly ready to flare up again in North Kivu or the North Caucasus, is not enough: observation with vocal protest which amounts to no intervention empowers the perpetrators and condones their worst actions.

Building consensus among the “great powers”, namely the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, each of whom wields a veto power over any action taken by the Council, is the first step. Genuine issues of sovereignty can be addressed, but Moscow and Beijing could be persuaded to see that reducing inter-ethnic conflict wherever it exists, especially within their borders and in neighboring countries, is in the interests of their existing systems of government and influence abroad.

Cambodia is now facing its savage and inexplicable past, and doing the truly hard work of trying to adjudicate who pays the price for the crimes of a regime whose legal framework for ruling could not be justified as “legal” under any recognized notion of legitimate government. Evidence presented in court may show that some of those responsible for the crimes were following orders; the orders, and the legal authority behind them, must be shown to be beyond the scope of any allowable legal structure.

What faces Cambodia, however, is more than just judging the guilty; it’s accounting for all that was lost, all the cultural potential of the lives cut short, all the vision and humanity that will never be recovered. That ache is memorial and immemorial, tightly woven into the fabric of Cambodian politics, and transcendent; it must permeate what takes place in the future, but also be put aside so that the future can be free of it.

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Originally published July 19, 2009, at

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