Cambodia’s Genocide and Catholic Slaughter

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.