Killing fields of Cambodia: What India can learn

The genocide museum in Phnom Penh. (Kartikeya Sharma) Photograph:( WION )

WION Phnom Penh, Cambodia Jan 09, 2019, 12.03 PM (IST) Kartikeya Sharma

The killing fields of Cambodia, infamous prisons like S-21 in Phnom Penh and multiple genocide memorials are one amongst many markers which tourists are exposed to when they visit Cambodia. It first generates the feeling of great sorrow and horror, and then of surprise that a country known for gentle conviviality and humbleness was once steeped in a situation where a section of the society killed 20 per cent of its own population within three years in the name of renewal, progress and growth.

It can be counter-argued that similar violence and killings were witnessed during Stalin's era in Russia and the Chinese Great Leap Forward as both were inspired by extreme of the Communist ideology which was hell bent on building a new society in a short span of time and had no view of an individual apart from being a component of a larger project.

I would say that the Cambodian experience was different as genocide did not take place on ethnic or religious lines like Nazi Germany or Russian pogroms. It was short and traumatic.

There are jails in Cambodia where within three years, 18,000 people were killed in the most brutal fashion. There are fields where hundreds and thousands lie buried. The regime killed between 1.7 to 2.5 million people of a population of eight million people in 1975.

Cambodia Killing Tree

One of the reminders of brutal killings in Cambodia. (Photo: Kartikeya Sharma)

Cambodia also hides a brutal past of hunger, deprivation, bombings, lack of full democracy, and post-colonial power play. I was surprised to find out that US forces used three times more ammunition in Cambodia than what they dropped on Japan during entire World War II. The brutal Khmer Rouge got more support from international powers at UN than the people who were at the receiving end of the regime. Despite all the upheavals and one party sticking to power for last two decades, Cambodia is stable. The country has been able to address the ghosts of past by memoralising the violence akin to what Germany did after the Second World War.

Most of the museums and sites tell you about the actual stories of the killings. Tourists destinations like Angkor Wat will have people playing music at open spaces who lost their limbs in war or because of buried, undiscovered bombs and land mines.

Cambodia 1

A plaque describing how the executions were carried out.(Photo: Kartikeya Sharma)

In many places, tourists will find survivors of the genocide selling books written about them. The role of those behind the killings have been documented in great detail. Individual stories too have been given space. The evidence of violence is preserved as a reminder of the horror which Cambodia witnessed. A preface at one such genocide memorial read, "The stories of those who survived the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge must be memoralised in public spaces beyond the court, not only for sake of justice and reconciliation but also facilitate the education of generations to come."

Also See: A pictorial journey to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Has India done anything of this sort? The violence during Partition was one of the biggest of its kind. Millions were massacred. But do we have a national memorial dedicated to victims of violence funded by the state where the world can see as to what happens when events like these take place?

India has seen violence along the caste, class, religion and ethnic lines throughout its existence as an independent nation state but has failed to create similar educational experience which re-tells the tales of horror and sadness. The attempt by the political parties has been either to find an enemy outside and within to build a space for collective revenge. It is for this reason that episodes like 1984 and post-Godhra violence could go out of hand. This is apart from thousands of riots and ethnic killings which has taken place across India from the North to Northeast. Instead there is a culture of looking away which has built over a period of time.

A small initiative has been taken by the Punjab government by opening a Partition museum which showcases the stories, material and documents on post-Partition violence. The museum was inaugurated last year in Amritsar but none exist at the national scale with intention to educate the coming generation.

It is obvious that India cannot build thousands of memorials and museums on riots and killings but we need our future generations to know about the threat which looms within. The threat is of underestimating the power of bias and hatred. Both are basic ingredients required to kill empathy which is the glue which binds civil society together and keeps the moral fabric functioning. The only way apathy can be broken is to remind the young generation of futility of hostility and bias in civic discourse where a section feels that the other needs to be taught a lesson.

The memoralisation of leaders and powerful figures have become a standard in Indian public life. India needs to build a memorial for those who became victim of violence right under the nose of the mighty state. We can start by putting faces to it which can be a road to healing and reconciliation.

In its absence, the memories at the national stage would either fade away or would be too scattered to have any resonance for the coming generation. India today cannot continue to take shelter behind success in organising elections every 5 years. Time has come to do more.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Kartikeya Sharma

Kartikeya Sharma is Political Editor at WION. When he is not working, you will find him travelling, reading or cooking.

Story highlights

It is obvious that India cannot build thousands of memorials and museums on riots and killings but we need our future generations to know about the threat which looms within.