Search form

Login - Register | FOLLOW US ON

Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Why did they kill? (1)

Why did they kill? (1)

I would like to thank the Phnom Penh Post for reviewing my book, "Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide" (California 2005). I am also grateful to Henri Locard for grappling with my arguments and for taking the time to write a lengthy review in the September 9, 2005 issue of the Post. Locard is a respected scholar of Democratic Kampuchea and I have appreciated reading his work in the past. However, I found his review of my book, while at times perceptive and informative, problematic in a number of regards. We also have sharp disagreements that are important to foreground.

First, while Locard notes that my book focuses broadly on the cultural dimensions of the Cambodian genocide, he strangely does not mention the two central questions at the core of my book: (a) what motivates perpetrators to kill, and (b) how does genocide come to take place? These questions are stated explicitly on pages 3-4 of my book and structure the ensuing arguments.

Instead of discussing these key issues, Locard quibbles. He begins his review by stating that "perhaps the same interesting points could have been made more succinctly" before taking issue with my use of the word "outright" to describe Khmer Rouge executions. Here, as with many of the minor critiques that follow, Locard's arguments are flawed or inaccurate. For example, he ignores the various senses of the word outright which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means not just "going straight ahead" but also "thorough", "blatant", "complete", and "unconditional". By focusing only on the first sense, he can imply that I ignore "the S-21-type of prolonged agonies that victims went through". This assertion is quite odd because, as his own review later notes, my book spends considerable time discussing the horrors of Tuol Sleng.

At times, his assertions are quite misleading. For example, he quotes a passage in which I state that "already, by 1976, interrogators seem to have been readily using torture [234]." He concludes that I "obviously" have not read Bizot's "The Gate" [I have], which shows that torture was used by the Khmer Rouge prior to DK. Locard does not mention that the above passage is taken from a section of my book where I am clearly referring to Tuol Sleng in particular, not Khmer Rouge practices in general. Likewise, Locard suggests that I ignore the youth of the perpetrators, which is not the case (see, for example, pages 130-31 or 267 of my book). While it would take an enormous amount of space to respond to each of Locard's minor critiques, the above responses provide an illustration of the problematic nature of most of them.

More importantly, I want to explicitly foreground several major issues that divide Mr Locard and me, ones that are central to our understanding of DK, Cambodian culture, and the nature of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.

* Was it a genocide? As the title of my book suggests, I think that it was. Based on the fact that there is little or no mention of the word genocide - or my larger arguments about the factors that give rise to and motivate genocide - in Locard's review (he prefers the term "mass killing"), I suspect that he does not view it as such. Regardless, this is an important point of debate among scholars of the DK period. I view the DK violence as genocide both in the strict sense of the UN Convention (that encompasses attacks on ethnic minorities like Chams and ethnic Vietnamese and religious groups like Buddhist monks) and in the broader sense used by most scholars of genocide (which encompasses systematic attempts to annihilate political and economic groups, among others). This is a hotly contested issue, one that will be much debated during the upcoming trial of surviving former Khmer Rouge leaders.

* Were most of the perpetrators "ideological automatons"? Locard and I diverge sharply here. My book critiques the overly reductive, simplistic, and frequently invoked portrayal of the perpetrators as "ideological automatons", offering instead a model that accounts for the complexity of cultural knowledge that motivates people to act and even to commit horrific deeds. (Locard gives the mistaken impression that I "brush aside" this theory, neglecting its centrality to my overall argument and that I explicitly and thoroughly critique the theory.) Locard suggests that, by "reintroduc[ing] free will and personal responsibility into the criminal behavior of the perpetrators", I may be "unconsciously projecting a Western conception of education into the Cambodian hinterland".

This assertion is somewhat odd since, to buttress the "ideological automaton" theory, he invokes long-standing stereotypes of peasants as "coming from a background steeped in ignorance and above all superstitions", a background that supposedly made it easy for them to be "manipulated". Most people who have spent time living and interacting with Cambodian villagers will recognize that this reductive portrait does not accord with reality (see, for example, May Ebihara's seminal work on Cambodian villagers).

Locard further asserts that the "best proof that they had been turned into killing machines is that, for those who survived the regime, once de-conditioned, they settled down and lead normal family lives." While Locard is correct that many former perpetrators want to understand how they became part of the killing process and who was ultimately responsible for it, he ignores the fact that many former local-level perpetrators are conflicted (or even tormented and traumatized) about this past and that their re-entry into "normal family life" was often not smooth but characterized by tensions with their neighbors, particularly those whose family members they were responsible for abusing or killing. These tensions, while muted, continue to exist in Cambodia today and may resurface at times during the tribunal. They also suggest the need for the tribunal to be supplemented by a parallel mechanism of truth and reconciliation on the local level.

* What role did obedience play in the genocide? Locard and I again differ on this question, as he highlights when he questions whether I give obedience "the place it deserves" as an explanatory factor. More broadly, Locard argues that in Cambodia there exists a "slavish mentality or blindly obeying orders of people you regard as your superior". My book does discuss the role of obedience in the genocide, but I do so through an analysis of the larger sociocultural contexts in which such behaviors are embedded, particularly patronage relationship (and other relationships of dependency manifest in family and educational structure) and contexts in which face, honor, and duty are foregrounded.

Nevertheless, an overemphasis on obedience in Cambodia - as illustrated by Locard's remarks about the "slavish mentality" of the Khmer - is problematic in several regards. First, it overlooks the fact that obedience is a salient factor in violence throughout the world. As the Milgram "shock" experiment and Stanford "prisoner" experiment so vividly demonstrated, even average Americans readily turn obedient in the context of authority, despite a larger cultural emphasis on independence and anti-authoritarianism. Second, as the conclusion of my book discusses, an overemphasis on obedience leads us to ignore the complexity of human relationships and subjectivity, variations in the degree of pressure to obey, and the larger historical and social context in which obedience is enacted.

With specific regard to genocidal violence, the obedience explanation is unable to account for the perpetrator's excessive brutality (obedient automatons would merely carry out their orders, not torment and brutalize their victims). To explain this brutality, which was pervasive during DK, I delve into the sociocultural and psychological dynamics that underpin such behaviors. The issue of obedience is of enormous importance as the tribunal draws near, since many former Khmer Rouge, echoing the excuses given by perpetrators involved in mass violence in other locales, already displace responsibility for their actions by claiming, "I was just following orders."

* Relatedly, are there certain underlying Cambodian cultural characteristics that make Cambodians particularly prone to be violent? I doubt Locard would take this position, though his remarks about the "slavish mentality" of the Khmer, the "superstitions, irrationality and ignorance" of many young Khmer Rouge perpetrators, and the importance of examining "the dark realm of Khmer folklore" are suggestive in this regard. I would explicitly answer this question in the negative. Like every other culture in the world, there are some local Cambodian cultural models that may motivate violence in certain circumstances.

To understand the Cambodian genocide, we must focus on these circumstances - in other words, on the larger historical context in which the mass violence came to take place. My book provides a framework for understanding the process by which genocide comes to take place, what I refer to as "genocidal priming". (Locard's review does not discuss this framework, which is crucial to my argument.) Genocidal priming includes such processes as socioeconomic upheaval, the rise to power of ideologues seeking to radically re-engineer society, the reorganization of society in a manner that makes the dehumanization, disempowerment, and eventual extermination of victim groups easier, the emergence of an ideology of hate that legitimates such killing, and so forth.

My approach is explicitly framed in a manner that is historically grounded and not culturally determinist and that focuses on how the Khmer Rogue blended Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideas with local cultural beliefs, what I call "ideological palimpsests." An understanding of the cultural dimensions of genocide is essential to understanding the motivations and patterning of the violence. However, culture does not "cause" genocide, though an understanding of genocide requires an understanding of culture. Culture is a necessary, but not a sufficient explanatory factor.

These remarks aside, I should note that there are areas on which Locard and I agree, such as the importance of understanding how Buddhist beliefs, Marxist-Leninist ideology, and Maoist ideas were incorporated into Khmer Rouge ideology or how the local prison networks functioned (an issue I do not foreground). Indeed, Locard's work on such issues has made an important contribution our understanding of DK. Despite our disagreements, I'd like to thank him once again for engaging with my book and raising some crucial issues about the Cambodian genocide with which all of us must grapple.

Alex Hinton, Rutgers University, Brunswick, New Jersey



Please, login or register to post a comment