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The Unique Revolution

There is nothing unique about government-sponsored violence. There is, in fact, nothing especially unusual about widespread killing, or even genocide. The rallying cry heard in the wake of World War II -- "Never again!" -- is a noble sentiment, and not a reflection of reality. Ask the Indonesians, or the Timorese, or the Salvadorans, or the Rwandans, or the Albanians... or the Cambodians.

The reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia ranks as one of the most disastrous in modern history. It could be persuasively argued that it was, in fact, the worst.

Tuol Sleng Victims It is important to understand the Cambodian revolution in context. Scholars currently investigating mass graves in Cambodia now estimate Pol Pot's three-and-a-half year reign led to the deaths of more than two million people. There were no precise statistics on the population of the country when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, but it is likely that the number of deaths represented between fifteen and twenty percent of the entire population.

Moreover, an important fact to remember regarding the Khmer Rouge period is that the death toll alone does not fully reflect the severity of their rule. In this century, there has probably been no other revolution which so completely altered the lives of an entire population. Literally overnight, entire cities were emptied. Property was abolished. Money became worthless. Homes and families were destroyed. Every aspect of every life was suddenly dictated by the new government. There was no transition period; hundreds of thousands of people... store clerks, factory workers, taxi drivers, cooks... suddenly became farmers. Thousands were executed immediately. Overnight, Cambodia became a nation of slaves. For every Cambodian old enough to remember the events of 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge reign would mark a turning point in their lives.

The extremism of the Khmer Rouge was not merely rooted in evil. It is doubtful that the Khmer Rouge were morally any worse than, for example, the right-wing death squads in El Salvador or Guatemala. A government which accepts state-sponsored terror as a legitimate method of enforcing order has already forfeited any claim to being just. Differences between such governments are merely differences of degree; the scale of the abuses does not change the essential nature of those abuses.

The question, then, is this: if the Khmer Rouge were morally no worse than many other governments, why were the consequences in Cambodia so much worse than in other countries?

What made the Cambodian revolution unique was not merely that the Khmer Rouge were brutal. The Cambodia revolution stands apart from other upheavals because the Khmer Rouge combined astonishing brutality with astonishing stupidity. For the most part, dictatorial regimes in other nations have moderated their policies for the simple reason that most understand that there are limits to human endurance. When conditions reach a certain level of severity, societies cease to function. There is a limit to how many "enemies" one can kill before the entire population begins to understand that everyone is at risk. Fear becomes palpable, and paralyzing. Moreover, the human infrastructure needed to enact change is decimated twice: first by the loss of life, then by the destruction of the spirit.

The Khmer Rouge created a government founded on doctrinaire delusions. They did not adapt their ideas to fit with the realities of their nation; instead, with the religious fervor of True Believers, they blinded themselves and silenced those who dared to speak out. The Khmer Rouge constantly stressed that "Angka" ("The Organization") was infallible. Consequently, suggestions for improving policies or work methods were seen as nothing more than veiled criticisms of the regime. Their constant search for "enemies" became a self-fulfilling prophecy: those who were not opposed to the regime in the beginning, were by the end.

Prior to 1979, many scholars dismissed the reports of mass killings in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge were driven out by the Vietnamese, the evidence of the disaster became undeniable. The true cost of genocide, however, will always remain unknown. We may know the number of deaths, but we will never know what has been lost. Imagine two million unique lives, every one cut short. Imagine what might have been.