The Catholic Thing
Cambodia’s Genocide and Catholic Slaughter Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 27 July 2011

After five years of legal bickering and $100 million of expenditures, a United Nations-supported tribunal is finally bringing to trial four surviving henchmen of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The defendants – all of whom have pleaded not guilty – include Nuon Chea (84), former Chief Communist ideologue and 79-year-old ex-head of the state of Khieu Samphan. Amid the slow-moving process of finally seeking justice over Cambodia’s “killing fields,” it has emerged as well that Catholics bore a disproportionate amount of the violence in Cambodia.

This sorry episode has been so neglected – and by now almost forgotten – that a little history is in order. The darkest period in Cambodia’s history was 1975-1979, when the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, terrorized the nation. Pol Pot and his cohorts, many of whom were educated in France and received militant training from the French Communist Party, boasted that they were influenced by Jean Paul Sartre’s doctrine of “necessary violence” and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s charge that the perfect state must “possess men and all their powers.”

On the way towards establishing the Marxist paradise, therefore, Pol Pot – whose brother-in-law said: “Pol Pot thought that he was above everyone else on the whole planet … a god on earth” – eliminated Cambodia’s property and business owners and its intellectual class. And faithful to Rousseau’s dictum that “cosmopolitanism” was the rooot of all evil, Pol Pot ordered the depopulation of the nation’s urban centers.

Over half of Cambodia’s city dwellers, about 4 million people, were ordered to leave their homes, abandon their possessions, and march for days without food, water, or medical help until they reached rural “reeducation” (and detention) camps.

“New People,” as survivors of camp cruelties were called, were trained to hate patriotic proletarians who were “lackeys of the capitalist imperialists.” To ensure that New People did not develop any lasting relationships with other inmates, many were transferred to different camps numerous times.

         Some of Cambodias lost generation.

Declaring that there “are enemies everywhere within our ranks, in the center, at headquarters, in the zones and out in the villages,” the Khmer Rouge regime went on a killing spree to eliminate “useless mouths” and various elements of their society.

In one district alone, over 40,000 innocent inhabitants were condemned to death after being denounced as CIA collaborators. The entire population of the nation’s eastern zone were condemned as traitors. Between May and December 1978, 250,000 of the zone’s 1.7 million people were slaughtered. Tens of thousands of the surviving population died while marching to concentration camps in other zones.

Not one zone in the country escaped the cruelties of this reign of terror. Various studies have reported that deaths from forced labor, starvation, malnutrition, famine, and genocide totaled approximately 2 million or 26 percent of Cambodia’s population. This death count included 34 percent of men under the age of thirty, 40 percent between thirty and forty, and 54 percent of men and women over the age of sixty. The nation’s birth rate declined to zero; 38 percent of surviving adult women were widows. The post-Pol Pot population was 64 percent women with 35 percent of them heads of households.

But there’s more. In his authoritative 1995 report, Le Genocide Khmer Rouge:  Une Analyse Demographique, Marek Sliwinski notes that during the Pol Pot killing sprees Cambodian Roman Catholics “were the group that met the worst fate; at least 48.6 percent of them disappeared.” Only 4 percent of Cambodians were Catholic (85 percent were Buddhists), but they suffered disproportionately because most lived in cities, were of Vietnamese origin, and were regarded as colonial imperialists. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, the Catholic Cathedral was one of the only buildings completely destroyed.

For decades, the global Left has either denied these atrocities or has remained silent. The French journalist, Jean-François Revel, has pointed out that future historians reading headlines concerning Cambodia (1975-1979) in American, British and French newspapers of the period “could in no way guess that methodical genocide had taken place there that exterminated between a fourth and a third of the population.”

Fr. Francois Ponchaud, a Catholic missionary who served in Cambodia for ten years until he was expelled in the mid-1970s, was shocked when his 1977 book about Pol Pot’s murderous regime, Cambodge année zero, was dismissed by French intellectuals who were unwilling to acknowledge communist genocide. “After the publication of my book, I went through a religious crisis,” said Fr. Ponchaud, who returned to Cambodia in the late 1990s.  “I felt abandoned by God. Not only on account of the horrors I had witnessed in Cambodia, but because people were casting doubts on everything that I had actually seen or heard. And yet if anything, I had understated rather than overstated the truth.”

One can only hope that the U.N. tribunal distinguishes facts from ideological fantasies and finally renders a just verdict.


George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of  The American Catholic Voter

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Other Joe, July 27, 2011
Just a quick word of support for this well written reminder of the ultimate fruits of identity politics and a man-centered worldview. Sadly, many individuals in the '70s crying "never forget" averted their gaze when it was politically inconvenient to notice that it was happening again.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 27, 2011
We must bang the drums loudly and long on this matter so that no one will forget what was done in the killing fields, inpired by Marxism. Even now Marxists academics are deceiving the young, tellinig them that Pol Pot was more of a Buddhist than Communist. We cannot allow the residents ofthe shell of what was once Christendom to ingore the logical results of abandoning chrsit for the emtpy promise of a workeer's paradise on Earth. Why are there so few responses sto this great column? Is it because everyone already knows the facts and agrees, or is it because so many Catholics now feel ssquqeamish and embarrasssed to hear the inherently anti-Catholic ideology of Communism exposed for what it is? This phenomenon itself is a part of the "diabolical disorientation" of which Our Lady of Fatima foretold.
written by Linus, July 27, 2011
One wonders how much longer God will tolerate us.
written by Beth , July 27, 2011
I recommend watching Enemies of the People, a P.O.V. episode on PBS. The film is a remarkable story of forgiveness and truth-seeking by a man who lost his father and brother in the genocide. In it, Nuon Chea states that those of Vietnamese ancestory were not trusted and had to be eliminated. No mention was made about the faiths of the victims, but one of the men who actually did some of the killing was reflecting on how he did not think he could ever find forgiveness and would probably be doomed to future lives as an insect. I hope that someone will be able to share the forgiveness of Christ with him.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 28, 2011
Beth, please forgikve me if I am not terribly moved Nuon Chens' fear of reincarnatkon as an insect when the story at hand is about how human beings could commit such abarbaric acts. The were able to do so because they abandoned a spirtual view of live for the materialistic ideology of Marxism. Also, no one can "share the forgivness of Christ with him." We can only share with him the FACT that Christ promises forgivness to those who repent. I fear that the very fact that some people seem more concerneed about a murderer losing sleep over the thought returning as an insect that they are about preventing such salughters from happening again proves the truth of what I suggested above. How can we prent such things? Well, we start by recognzing that Communism and other anit Christian ideologies can only produce evil and by stopping this nonsense about Pol Pot and his ilk just got Communism slightly wrong.
written by Rachana C., July 28, 2011
Thank you George for writing this article! I happen to be a Cambodian-American Catholic (convert from Buddhism), and although I was not born in Cambodia, my parents lived through this time period. I grew up hearing stories of what they lived through in the agricultural collectives, the arbitrariness with which the Khmer Rouge selected people for liquidation, and the immense suffering that they went went through just to make it to the refugees camps in Thailand -- and the chance to start a new life in the West.

Not very many people know about the sufferings of the church in Cambodia during the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge and the 70's either. Bishop Chhmar Salah, Paul Tep, many missionaries, religious men and women, and the laity were targeted for extermination. In a short span of 5 years the entire Roman Catholic population of Cambodia was almost wiped out!

And even afterwards, during the (Communist) Vietnamese invasion after the fall of S. Vietnam, Cambodia's people were further abused and robbed of the opportunity to develop freely and fairly. Let us continue to pray that the blood of the martyrs and millions that died in Cambodia will not be in vain. That the nation will find healing and the Church might once again thrive and flourish in Cambodia...
written by Beth, July 28, 2011

The man I was referring to was not Nuon Chen. In the program he does not come off as having any qualms about his role in the genocide. I was referring to a villager who actually did some of the killing. I did not word my last sentence well. I agree that "no one can "share the forgivness of Christ with him." We can only share with him the FACT that Christ promises forgivness to those who repent."

I hope you do not think that I am "more concerned about a murderer losing sleep over the thought returning as an insect that they are about preventing such slaughters from happening again." Preventing such slaughters and bringing peace to the murderer have the same answer, Christ. I join with Rachana and say " Let us continue to pray that the blood of the martyrs and millions that died in Cambodia will not be in vain. That the nation will find healing and the Church might once again thrive and flourish in Cambodia...

written by Yezhov, July 30, 2011
Pol Pot merely institutionalized his Sorbonne disseration. Who says intellectuals live in an ivory tower?

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