Thursday, 20 January 2011

Enemy of the people


It was the same everywhere I went in Cambodia, people willing to tell of the past with only the slightest prompting. There was my driver in Phnom Penn, who pointed out one of the killing fields, bones showing on the surface, a place not visited by tourists, one of the many charnel houses in a country turned into a charnel house. In Siem Reap another driver, the son of a doctor, told me that throughout the time of the Khmer Rouge his father had to pretend to have been a baker. For virtually the first thing they did was kill all the doctors.

Last September I made reference to Enemies of the People (To be good was to be dead), a documentary made by Thet Sambath, a Cambodian journalist, in collaboration with Rob Lemkin, a British documentarian. Then I had only seen it in part; now I have seen it in whole, in a limited screening in this country. It’s a tremendous piece of work, one that he built up over a number of years, all at his own expense, in money and in emotional effort.

It’s also a work of great patience. In looking for answers to the question why, why so many deaths, why so much suffering, over a period of years he steadily gained the confidence of Noun Chea, known as Brother Number Two alongside Pol Pot, Brother Number One. Even the nomenclature is as sinister as the mirthless grins.

This a documentary which also serves as a personal odyssey; for Sambath lost his family in the Killing Fields, a fact he conceals from his interlocutor until the very end. Yet despite this there is not a trace of bitterness or accusation in the film, merely a sense of patient bewilderment.

Oddly enough the interviews with Soun and Khan, now elderly men, two of those who carried out the killings on Chea’s behalf – he is thought to have been personally responsible for as many as 14,000 deaths – are quite poignant. These are not SS or Gulag guards; no, they are simple peasant farmers. Soun, firm in his Buddhist convictions, said that it will be many lifetimes before he returns to human form, all on account of his crimes, the terrible burden he carries. It is terrible. On the film-makers urging he was persuaded to demonstrate how he killed, using a plastic knife on a nervous fellow villager. “I slit so many throats”, he said in the process, “that my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing in the neck.”

These killings were always carried out at night, by the light of flaming torches, while nearby stood the children of the victims, their mouths covered to stop them screaming. Both Soun and Khan recalled that they subsequently removed the gall bladders of the dead, drinking the bitter bile in the belief that this would protect their skins. A woman remembered the water-logged fields, bubbles rising as if boiling when the bodies decomposed. Another still refuses to drink the local water because of the bodies buried all those years ago.

Meanwhile the principle interview with Chea proceeds. At one point he meets Soun and Khan, saying that they are not to blame, for they had no intent, and that Democratic Kampuchea was a ‘clean regime’. The dead are still the enemies of the people, though one has to wonder who exactly ‘the people’ are if not the dead. But, as I said before, when Sambath finally reveals the fate of his family – he had hitherto pretended that his mother and father had died in the 1980s – Chea slips from monstrous abstraction to genuine human sympathy.

Brother Number Two is now in detention, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, crimes against the people. Enemies of the People is a compelling documentary, a small journey into the heart of darkness.

38 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ana, I just don't believe Communism is the answer for this.

    ReplyDelete
  3. An example of what people are capable of given the right circumstances.It seems that the United Nations etc. turned a blind eye to this as with many other third world issues. Now who was it that finally stopped this? oh yes, the demonized Vietnamese.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anthony, it was indeed. If you ever go to Phnom Penn you must visit Toul Sleng, the genocide museum.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "If" is contrary to fact, perhaps in the afterlife.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The horror is that such systematic cruelty in the name of -ISM is not rare, or unusual. It is perhaps the most common expression of authoritarian rule. Any society that places the state above individual humanity resorts, sooner or later, to mass murder. Like Procrustes, statists stretch or trim their fellows to fit the measure of their madness. And yet, there is a political blindness that prevents our leaders from recognizing this inevitable progression - time and again - until the stench of rotting corpses is inescapable.

    I see our own Western governments delighting in the tools of surveillance and repression, and I worry . . .

    ReplyDelete
  7. Aww here I was half expecting you to talk about Labour as the enemy of the people :(

    Next time!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anthony, google then, the easiest way to travel. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Calvin, the appalling paradox of the Khmer Rouge is that it was led by intellectuals of one kind or another, people who had received the benefits of education, yet saw this in others as an excuse for destruction. Even people who wore spectacles were murdered. In general I agree with you about the perniciousness of ideologies and the worship of the state, but there is a madness here that eludes my comprehension.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Spitfire, I do so hate to disappoint. Just type 'Labour Government' into the Lijit search box to the left and take your pick. I've selected a nice little plum for you, posted on 4 December 2009, a piece I call The Protocols of the Elders of Labour. Enjoy. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  12. No, Adam, I did not imply that they were 'better' than Nazis; I merely suggested a certain poignancy in attitude. They are simple me, uneducated men, peasants filled with a sense of horror over their own past, convinced that they will suffer repeated retribution in the afterlife. There was none of the evasion, dissimulation and 'only obeying orders' excuse one expects from operatives in the SS, or the NKVD, for that matter.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I did not say I forgave them; it is not my business to forgive; it is my business to understand, and I will go about that in any fashion that I see fit. My views on the Khmer Rouge are clear enough, or they should be.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Which, incidentally, is not a generalisation, merely an observation about the nature of these particular confessions.

    ReplyDelete
  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Adam, once again, my remarks were based on the conduct and attitude of these two men in the film. It was not intended to be taken as a generalisation.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I'm Lord Longford now, am I? Oh, well, as you please.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  25. To be both Longford and Thatcher is really quite something...even for me. :-))

    ReplyDelete
  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  27. All is fair in love and war. :-) I must dash.

    ReplyDelete
  28. People like Noun Chea must live in jail for the rest of his life, they are bastards, must live in loneliness without noone around, in conditions enough for life but in austerity, must suffer in some way, they need receive a hard punishment, something that make them think in his acts. And people must avoid dictatorship, no believe in false promises, not let them have power, be careful with their own army, live in democracy. Many documentaries are fantastic, they show us the history that we must not forget, the cinema to the service of the learning. A kiss. Mario.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Every time I've looked at the bones, the concentration camps, the mass graves, I face a paradox. Where was the resistance? What is it in ordinary decent folk that allows this, without recourse to violence against the perpetrators? Did the victims know no anger greater than fear?

    ReplyDelete
  30. @ Calvin:Here is something of great interest, look up H.A.A.R.P. holes in heaven ( Scalar weapons)

    ReplyDelete
  31. CI, some did, certainly. But when faced with incomprehensible horror most people retreat into disbelief. I remember an account of new arrivals at Auschwitz, I can’t remember exactly from where, possibly from Wieslaw Kieler’s Anus Mundi, passed by a lorry containing the naked bodies of the dead. The arms were hanging over the side, waving, as the author puts it, ‘a gruesome farewell’. The people screamed in shock and horror, but no sooner had it passed than they edited out of their minds, as if it had never happened.

    ReplyDelete
  32. @Mario - Punishment for evildoers may be appropriate, but more important is studying the political and social mechanisms by which these horrors come to be. We must learn to recognize the signs and intervene before the horror begins.

    ReplyDelete
  33. 7000 water buffalos just froze to death in Vietnam of all places. 200 cows died in Wisconsin USA and pelicans are sick and dying of theJacksonville coast. This is the food chain guess who will be next.

    ReplyDelete
  34. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/world/africa/24zimbabwe.html?_r=1&hp

    ReplyDelete