by Philip Yancey

I traveled to Southeast Asia in late July, in the midst of their steamy tropical summer. The trip began in Singapore, a clean and modern place where, mercifully, most buildings are air-conditioned. The tiny city-state reminds me of Disneyland: no litter, no graffiti, no sign of poverty. Singapore punishes vandalism with caning, and bans the sale of chewing gum, lest it end up on the sidewalk.

Panorama of Singapore from Marina Bay Sand Resort at beautiful sunset

Singapore has one of Asia’s most vibrant Christian communities. I spoke at a conference on Leadership that brought together a diverse group of 1,300 business and church leaders from 20 countries. I learned of many outreach ministries, including one that operates a call center—you know, those irritating telephone sales solicitors—inside a prison. Large companies like the lower wages imposed by the prison authorities, and the inmates, carefully vetted, love the chance to earn money and talk to “outsiders” on the telephone. Once released, the prisoners graduate to the main call center.

VIETNAM

The next two stops, Vietnam and Cambodia, made a contrast to modern Singapore. Both had the hallmark look of developing countries: crumbling sidewalks, potholed roads, and plastic refuse choking the canals and waterways.

The Vietnamese have a reputation as fierce warriors, and museums recount their victories over France, China, Cambodia, and “American imperialist invaders.” Our guided tour of Hanoi included a visit to the wreckage of a downed B52 and the site where John McCain’s Skyhawk jet was shot down, as well as the prison where he was tortured and held captive for five and a half years. Yet Vietnamese are surprisingly friendly toward Americans, and the government now sees the U.S. as an important bulwark against the growing strength of China.

I once heard an account by a veteran who, after the war, returned to the Da Nang air base where he had served. His guide, a retired North Vietnamese officer and now a congenial host, showed him a labyrinthine network of tunnels underneath the base. The officer and his platoon had spent many months in those dank tunnels, barely three feet high and infested with ants, rats, scorpions, and venomous centipedes. The soldiers lived underground with bad air, water, and food, and half of them were suffering from malaria. At night they crawled out to hurl explosives at the gleaming American planes parked on the tarmac above.

The US veteran recalled his own days when, between napalm bombing runs, he would sit in an air-conditioned lounge, smoking dope, playing cards, and watching first-run movies. “Is it any surprise we lost the war?” he asked. “We had no idea what we were up against.”

Many veterans are still suffering the consequences. Recently I read a chilling statistic: in every major war since Korea, more US veterans have died of suicide than have lost their lives in combat.

CAMBODIA

Tourists come to Cambodia for two reasons: to see reminders of the country’s glorious ancient past and of its tragic recent past.
In the 12th century, Cambodia’s Khmer ancestors ruled over an empire that dominated Southeast Asia. The capital city of Angkor encompassed an area twice the size of Manhattan and housed a million people. Its massive temple complex remains the largest religious complex in the world. Daily, a convoy of tour buses brings tourists to climb among the ruins of Angkor Wat, famous for their stunning architecture and the giant tropical trees that grow among the ruins. Several movies, including Lara Kroft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, have been filmed on the grounds, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eight centuries later, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped tons of explosives—by some estimates, more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II—on Cambodia, in an attempt to disrupt North Vietnam’s supply routes. “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” President Richard Nixon told Henry Kissinger, even as he publicly denied the bombings were taking place.

Thousands of refugees fled to the capital city of Phnom Penh for safety, giving impetus to a guerrilla movement, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer), which incited the Cambodian people against all things Western. Their Maoist leader, Pol Pot, appealed to national pride, recalling the glory days of the Khmer Empire.

Thus began one of the darkest chapters in modern history. After consolidating power in the country, Pol Pot declared 1975 as Year Zero. He abolished currency and private property, and shuttered all schools, religious buildings, and hospitals. In three days he emptied Phnom Penh of its million inhabitants, forcing them to march into the countryside to work in farm communes. For four years Phnom Penh sat empty, an eerie modern ghost city.

Hundreds of thousands died from malnutrition or starvation as they were forced into back-breaking labor. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who gave evidence of Western influence: a high school diploma, eyeglasses, using a foreign word like “Mama.” At least two million Cambodians, one-fourth of the country’s population, died under the Khmer Rouge, a regime that lasted until 1979, when Vietnam invaded and chased Pol Pot into hiding.

The Killing Fields

In my travels, I have visited many sites of human cruelty: Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Soviet prisons, Sarajevo, the Bataan Death March. Still, I was unprepared for what I saw in Cambodia, where a government unleashed senseless brutality against its own people.
First I heard stories of those who were force-marched for five days from Phnom Penh into the northern countryside, barefoot, without food or water, between rows of rotting corpses—for the Khmer Rouge shot any who lagged behind or collapsed by the road. I heard from one man who hid in a forest for three years, subsisting on nuts and berries. He lost all contact with his twelve siblings, and has never found them.

Then I visited a notorious prison in Phnom Penh where 14,000 prisoners were tortured in ways beyond description. Bloodstains cover the tile floors, and each cell displays a photo of a prisoner interrogated there. An old poster spells out rules governing the process: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry out at all,” reads one.

As soon as the prisoners signed a confession, they were blindfolded, bound, and taken to a Killing Field, where they were executed. (Why this compulsion to extract a confession, I wondered, when the prisoners were all doomed to die anyway?) To save money on bullets, the executioners forced the prisoners to the edge of a mass grave, and crushed their skulls with crude instruments such as a hammer or crow bar. Of the 14,000, only seven survived. I met three of those survivors, who now sit at booths in the prison courtyard, bearing witness to what happened.

From the prison, I went to a Killing Field that contains 129 mass graves. Not all have been excavated, but a twelve-layer tower displays 8,985 skulls, with colored dots indicating the person’s age and how they were killed—by hammer, axe, machete, bamboo club, etc.

A placard by one large tree, the Killing Tree, explains that the Khmer Rouge held babies by their feet and bashed their heads against the tree. Loudspeakers blared martial music to cover their cries.

A counselor with Youth With A Mission in Phnom Penh told me, “The entire country is in a state of PTSD. For twenty years no one talked about the atrocities. Cambodians went through a period of non-trust, of prolonged shock. Almost everyone lost family members. Now a new generation has grown up learning about the atrocities and taking school trips to the Killing Fields. They were hardly parented, and now they are becoming parents themselves.”

Her husband, also a YWAM missionary, was called to interpret for some of the Khmer Rouge put on trial. “I wanted them to be monsters, but instead they were nice and polite, ordinary people. Cambodians tend to be shy and compliant. It’s as if an entire nation temporarily became possessed by evil. Some of the Cambodians I meet on the street, I recognize as former Khmer Rouge. Indeed, some of them still serve in the government.”

What transformed shy, compliant villagers into the villains of the Killing Fields? The philosopher Hannah Arendt’s phrase about Adolf Eichmann comes to mind: the banality of evil. “The essence of totalitarian government,” she said, “is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”

For a time, the Khmer Rouge de-humanized an entire country. People had no inherent worth apart from loyalty to the revolution and its radical ideas. To those who opposed them, the Khmer quoted this proverb, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

I have friends who think the entire notion of evil is outmoded, a relic from the past. Evil is a consequence of poor education, or a bad home environment, they tell me, not a spiritual force. They should visit Cambodia. Come to think of it, so should every presidential candidate in an election year. That benighted nation offers a sobering lesson that the choices we make, and the leaders we choose to follow, matter.