In a world that is full of tragedies and atrocities, one of the worst atrocities of the last thirty years took place in the small nation of Cambodia, where Communist rule led to the death of 1/4 of the nation’s population, and where mass graves are regularly uncovered during construction projects where well-connected elites buy and churn up old rice fields where the bodies of political prisoners were once made into fertilizer and turn them into their own subdivisions and housing complexes and where the simple survivors worry about the spirits of their dead relatives and wake up from nightmares about their traumatic past that Cambodia still tries to bury . Life is not fair.
Reading the stories from survivors, mostly modest people, is pretty heartbreaking. One reads of families nearly entirely wiped out, because bloodthirsty maniacs (who claimed they were merely following orders) believed that the surest way to avoid vengeance for killing people unjustly was to wipe out their whole families, who turned human beings into fertilizer for crops that surviving friends and family members and neighbors had to work to grow, who forced people into marriages without any thought or concern, who coldly watched people die of disease or starvation (when they were not being executed), in the belief that alive they were no benefit, and dead they were no loss.
Many of these stories are sufficiently well known, as the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge is at least somewhat well known in the West. What may be less well known is how little Cambodia has done to come to terms with its past. Only one of the former Communist mass murderers of Cambodia’s “killing fields” have ever been punished at all. The wealthy and politically well-connected businesspeople looking to develop Cambodia’s rural regions have uncovered many mass graves, but have not conducted any sort of burial ceremonies for the dead, rather seeking to plow under any reminders of the past below buildings and developments to help increase their own wealth, while the survivors suffer from the memories of a wicked and evil past.
There is a stark difference between history and memory. History is something you read in a book, or see in a museum, a rational narrative about the past that places the past in its proper context and seeks to draw lessons and conclusions from what has happened before. Memory is a far messier affair. It is immediate, emotionally powerful, and often lacking in context outside of the personal. For those of us whose memories often haunt us, the existence of triggers means there is always the possibility of the past rising again into the terrifying present, even though we try not to take it out on others, because it is not their fault that they remind us of what has happened before.
I do not know if it is possible to eliminate such problems; but I know that my own are far less now than they were before because I have openly wrestled with them. Cambodia has done no such thing in many parts of the country. While many poor folk live with the scars and burdens of the past, their rather simple conviction that the souls of the dead await justice carries with it striking political implications. And there are religious implications as well. Lest we forget, the prophet Amos gave a warning to the people of Moab that would also apply to the leaders of Cambodia in Amos 2:1-3: “For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because he burned the bones of the King of Edom to lime. But I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of Kerioth; Moab shall die with tumult, with shouting and trumpet sound. I will cut off the judge from its midst, and slaw all its princes with him,” says the Lord.”
This is a warning that Cambodia’s leaders would do well to heed. Failure to deal honorably with the dead, and a failure to recognize and overcome the past will have terrible consequences in the future. Past wrongs, long submerged, are a threat to anyone who things that the past is dead and buried simply because there is no one alive who has a living memory of evil deeds. Memory has a way of being passed from generation to generation beyond the power and control of those who pretend themselves qualified to write histories and who consider the suffering of the common folk unworthy of their interest and concern.
The suffering and well-being of all are worth our concern. We best ensure our own interests when we show our respect and consideration for all, and when we work for the well-being of everyone. We often most successfully defend and benefit our own interests by helping to meet the needs and concerns of other people. But this requires us to see others as fellow children created in the image and likeness of God, worthy of our love and respect and encouragement. Even if we feel this way for others, it is our responsibility to show it in a way that can be recognized and understood, if we wish for others to be able to exorcise the ghosts of the past, and to longer be terrorized by their own memories of evil. How much suffering is enough?