“When I volunteered I knew that I would become a member of the ‘tiger group’ and when I entered the ‘tiger zone’ I knew that I would have to become a tiger, too. There was no morality. I knew I would have to be as cruel as they are and show my ability”
This is one of the most impressive quotes from my research so far – it is not the original quote as the transcription has not been done yet, but from my notes. It is a powerful quote and my interviewee was trying to use this metaphor of the tiger zone to show us what it meant to him when he joined his local militia, a so-called chlop. My interviewee went on to explain that his group of 30 people were tasked with ensuring ‘security’ in the district. And he knew that he would have to perform within the group because if you did not perform well, the leadership would watch him critically and possibly kill him.
When I heard this in the interviewee, I must admit my heart started racing because I thought what he was doing was admitting that he had killed as part of the role which he had taken, but without saying so much. Whether he did or not, I cannot say with certainty, but he went on to say that he managed to avoid killing in the group. This was possible because no action undertaken by the group such as arresting people or killing them was done by individuals but always by several people, normally no fewer than ten, as they were wary that they may be attacked if they ventured around in too meagre a number. Thus he was able to tag along and arrest people but never actually had to kill any of them, because this was always done by others who apparently readily volunteered for the job.
Why would they volunteer, I asked our interviewee. And his sober reply was that if you volunteered to kill, it was much easier to get a promotion. A promotion, a step up on the career ladder of the Khmer Rouge party hierarchy. A pretty banal motive, but one which is understandable, one which most of the readers of this blog can probably relate to. Not that any of you readers have probably killed to get ahead, but you can imagine the motivation. It’s human. And perhaps this example of the promotion is not the best example of what I am trying to convey.
Hardly any of my interviewees say that the people who killed during that time did so because they hated the victims, or because they believed in the necessity of the revolution. No, they say that people participate because they are scared and ‘fearful for their security’, they say that they wanted to remain a part of the killing group because of the better rations they received or the status that came with such a position. These are not the evil monsters portrayed in films about genocide. They are people who are normal neighbours in the village who in this extreme situation make decisions with extreme consequences.
The banality of their motivations does not excuse their actions (if we even want to enter into a moral debate). If anything it highlights that there was a decision present (to whatever degree, sometimes with much more force than others), that the people did possess agency on whether to be recruited and what they did in these positions. The totalitarian regime of the Khmer Rouge created a context in which people had little avenues for resistance, but there were various ways to go about living, working and surviving, and moreover various reasons people felt that they had to participate. It is my hope that my dissertation will be able to lay out these reasons with a degree of clarity which so far has not been done, so we can look into the participants and understand them. Grapple with what it meant for them and try to reconstruct why they did what they did.
Picture by Daniel Welschenbach