Cambodia, where we’ve been the past 4 days, is far more beautiful and hospitable than we imagined. It also has many lessons that people in the West would do well to learn. But first, a travel tip: If you come to Siem Reap, the rich historical area with breathtaking archeological sites like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, Ba Kong, etc., I recommend that you arrange for an English-speaking tour guide with a car to take you around. Our extremely knowledgeable tour guide gave us 3.5 days of service and insight for just $160 (though we also bought meals for him and added a tip). I can give you our guide’s contact information if you are planning a trip (email me at jeff at jefflindsay dot com). He was able to explain much more of the art and the history than we were able to absorb, but anytime we had a question, we could get great information. It added so much to the visit. Otherwise we would have just been dazzled by all the buildings without appreciating the cosmological symbolism and the meaning of the many mythological scenes we encountered, including interesting parallels to other temple paradigms of interest to Latter-day Saints.
What I especially appreciated was hearing his stories of life during the dark years of the Khmer Rouge, the big government forces that used unlimited force to solve all of society’s problems and make everybody happy, like it or not. His stories fit well with the accounts in a book that I read while here in Cambodia, Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, a Frenchman and Jesuit priest who was in Phnom Penh when the city was “liberated” by the Khmer Rouge armies and gradually lost his socialist optimism for the revolution as the evidence of brutality and mass murder mounted. He tried to warn the West of the genocide that was erupting, and his book was one of the first records published documenting the horror unfolding in Cambodia. Somebody left the book in my hotel room here are the wonderful Skyway Hotel ($26 a night, with a great breakfast included, and such friendly service and remarkably clean and spacious–wow!), so I took the opportunity to read it during occasional down time. Sobering. But also a frustrating, meandering book.
The Khmer Rouge gained power during the course of their armed uprising and civil war with the promise of equality and prosperity for the common people. But as we learn in Orwell’s Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others. During their regime, the common people had a form of equality: equally poor, equally forced to go and do whatever their elites wanted, even if that meant being separated from their family for years, equally subject to seizure of all their goods, and equally subject to murder on the spot if they showed any signs of critical thinking or overt criticism of their liberators. And they had a generous version of government-provided healthcare which for many meant being free to dig up whatever roots they wanted to make their own medications. The elites, the Khmer Rouge and their families and cronies, had good health care available, plus rich bounties of food, their pick of the best places to live, etc., while hundreds of thousands in that small nation, once the breadbasket of Asia (a major exporter or rice), would starve as a result of their disastrous policies. The story of the many victims of the Khmer Rouge should remind us that when government becomes powerful enough to solve all your problems and “take care” of all aspects of your life, it can readily become a fearful master that cares nothing for your life at all. Power is the insatiable desire of megalomaniacs and madmen, and woe unto any nation that allows its government to have unrestrained power, for the madmen are always there, hungering, and will find their way to power one way or another. How wise our Founding Fathers were to recognize that danger and give us a government meant to be shackled permanently with checks, balances, and iron-clad restraints in what it could do. How I wish more of those original restraints were still there.
One lesson from the days of starvation in Cambodia is this: the power to tax is the power to destroy. In their case, the rice produced by the common people was taxed at such a high rate (nearly 100% in many cases), that many starved. The government, always there to take care of every need, provided food for the people in return for their forced labor–or rather, for their enthusiastic volunteer service to happily push the revolution forward–but the food provided was not enough. For those who didn’t work hard due to illness, age, or other factors, the food rations were cut. Health care in effect meant working no matter how ill you were because your rations would be cut and you’d die for sure. Of course, much of the illness was caused by the government as it marched people out of their homes in the cities to live in unsanitary conditions and in the deep forest where malaria was abundant, forced to use water in polluted areas where cholera was spreading. Some of the illness was caused by the inadequate nutrition and excessive fatigue caused by government-imposed conditions. Health care was certainly not enhanced by the government’s failure to bury or incinerate the corpses of the hundreds of thousands of victims of government anger and paranoia. The smell was horrific in many parts of the land.
Our tour guide came close to starving during the 5 years of Khmer Rouge terror. He is amazed that he lived and knows he was fortunate to have survived. After 5 years of being separated from his family, he was fortunate to find most of them again. But not his sister and her family. She had been a teacher, an educated person, and was therefore a threat to the regime. For the crime of having an education, she was targeted and killed. Actually, in line with standard operating procedures for the thugs known as the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t just kill her, but also her husband and her children. Everyone.
Teachers, merchants, lawyers, engineers, etc., were all targeted and killed as threats. The government initially asked them to come forward to help work together to rebuilt the country, and once they were identified, they were taken away to “rebuild” and never seen again. One possible weak spot in the government’s generous healthcare program for the common people is that anyone who was known to be a doctor would be killed. I guess contrarians could nitpick about Khmercare on this point and say that killing all the doctors was not the most efficient way to strengthen healthcare, but I guess there will always be a few glitches to overcome in any government program, right? I think doctors providing care for government officials were spared, however.
Francoise Ponchaud’s eyewitness account of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over revealed that one of the first visible acts of the new regime directly involved the hospitals. It was as if the first official big action they took in the capital city started in the hospitals, where all the patients were driven out and into the countryside. It was a pathetic scene, watching ill patients limping away from the hospital, some being carried by family with their IV still attached, others barely able to move being forced out to the countryside to learn how to be real Cambodians, free from the reactionary influences of the big city. One man, a double amputee, was crawling away from the hospital, dragging his little daughter on a cloth behind him. He asked the author if he could stay with him in his French hotel, but the author had to decline, one of the hardest things he ever did, he said. He already had 3 boys he was caring for and I guess had no more room or means to care for more. Those young boys would soon be sent away to the north into the country side by the Khmer Rouge, crying, knowing that their mother was being sent away to the south, and that they might never see her again.
After the hospitals were emptied at gunpoint, the rest of the city was next. Everyone was told they had to evacuate for just a few days since the Americans were going to bomb the city. No need to take all your stuff, the army will protect everything and it will be fine until you come back. Of course, the whole city was looted then. The people would not be able to come back until after the regime fell 5 years later. The elites, of course, would have their pick of everything and live in the nicest homes, while enjoying the best healthcare available. When government officials aren’t willing to abide by the systems and taxation they force on the rest of the nation, you can start to wonder if they are really all about serving and representing the people. Just a thought from Cambodia’s past.
Comparing the many promises of the big government folks in Cambodia’s past with the results they achieved, I think it’s fair for me to continue my innate skepticism of politicians and their promises. The less they can do to help me and take care of my every need, the better I sleep and the brighter our future.
Cambodia’s tragedy may seem remote, but the kind of people who would wreck the lives of others for their own personal and political gain are never in short supply, in every party and every state. Vigilance and constant restraint on government power are essential for liberty. May we keep that liberty that we still have, and may we regain some of what we have lost.
Here are some photos from the Siem Reap area. Hope you’ll come to visit and to learn. Cambodia has many lessons for us. It also now has enough religious freedom that there are missionaries here. We saw some while driving through town. Cool!