The Khmer Rouge, Anonymity, and the Psychology of Terror

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In September, Angelina Jolie released her biographical thriller, First They Killed My Father, which follows the life of five-year-old Loung Ung during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The narrative begins with Loung and her family, along with and hundreds of thousands of other citizens, being forcefully evacuated from the capital of Phnom Penh, and ends with the Vietnamese invasion of 1978. Through the eyes of the child protagonist, the audience observes the increasing suffering of the Cambodian people while the reign of the Khmer Rouge becomes more and more omnipotent.

The Khmer Rouge were the followers of the communist party in Cambodia from 1968 until 1999, although they were most active during the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1979. During that four-year period, over two million Cambodians died from executions, starvation, and disease, making it one of the most devastating genocides in human history. The Khmer Rouge followed a textbook communist program: social engineering, an emphasis on self-sufficiency, the execution of “enemies” such as foreigners and the religious, workers’ camps, and a focus on creating an agrarian utopia. The result was a bloodstained smear on Cambodia’s rich history.

First They Killed My Father illustrates that the main tactic of the Khmer Rouge was to operate in the name of “Angkar.” Angkar was purposefully masked in secrecy. The Khmer word translates to “the organization,” vague enough to mean whatever happened to be most useful to the rebels at any given time. Angkar became the savior, the punisher, the measurement by which to think and speak. By serving as the mouthpiece for an undefined and unknowable institution, the Khmer Rouge gained enough power to quickly evacuate entire cities, transport millions to labor camps, and expect (and receive) complete obedience. Anything could be attributed to Angkar一from incredible victories against the Vietnamese to the successes of the labor camps’ harvests一and no one could confirm or deny the legitimacy of such claims. As such, the power of Angkar (and as an extension, the rebels) grew to reach the limits of the collective imagination of Cambodia.

Through the film, the audience indirectly experiences the reality of existing under an unknowable tyrant. We watch the progression from living in freedom to living in overwhelming fear and submission. Near the beginning of the film, a young rebel demands Loung’s father’s watch一naturally claiming that it is for the sake of Angkar. When Loung’s father hands his timepiece over, the rebel is euphoric: he is still not used to this unprecedented power. Before long, however, the novelty wears off and complete cooperation is merely expected.

At the labor camps later on, the rebels continue to claim direct knowledge of the needs of Angkar. They blast instructions over loudspeakers: “Work hard for Angkar,” “Report any suspicious activity for Angkar,” “Remember that Angkar is your savior.” In one scene where a child is being punished for stealing a bean, the face of the rebel is not even shown as he slaps her mercilessly in the name of Angkar. Later on, a similar scene occurs when a child tries to steal corn for his family. Again, only the rebel’s punishing fists can be seen. The message is clear: these are representations of Angkar, not individual members of the community.

But what is the secret to the rebels’ success? The answer lies in the the hazy nature of what Angkar actually entails. One cannot combat directly against a formless invisible enemy, especially when it is constantly changing. What began in Cambodia as a clearly defined rebel army slowly devolved into a loosely bound enemy. In the film, regular men and women start to inform on one another; Loung and her family must hide their identities and eventually change their names. Moreover, because Angkar can justify anything, it immediately becomes the standard of good and evil. But Angkar has no clear definition; it is up to the enforcers to determine what is acceptable一thus becoming the standard themselves.

Jolie’s film is rhetorically powerful, and it does not shy away from the more gruesome details of Loung’s experiences. But how does it compare to the actual communist regime in Cambodia? The Phnom Penh Post spoke to Cambodian survivors about their response to the film. “It is all true,” declared one audience member, “I could not speak, I wanted to cry, because it is so touching.” Another survivor said the events had to be toned down一it would have been impossible to watch otherwise.

Nal Oum, a Cambodian dissident, related his experiences during Pol Pot’s regime. “In the eye of communism, a human has no value until he serves the political party. During our deportation... we began to understand better who is Angkar. They’re communist but they hide behind this label. Angkar. It’s anonymous. Anonymous is very powerful.” Without a name, one loses all accountability一and this is where man’s capacity for cruelty finds its most embodied form.

Shrouding one’s intentions in ambiguity is an excellent way to instill fear and to open the door for greater control. A system distinguished by terror cannot be contained, however, and will eventually take on a life of its own. This strategy一and any that strives for complete authority一allows for unimaginable suffering and torment which exponentially grows as its perceived success (by merit of not being challenged by its victims) justifies its means. To ensure that such a tragedy does not occur again, we must now operate with an unfaltering identification of the truth: to study the past with honesty and openness, to adopt a philosophy that holds no room for vague, self-serving anonymity, and to take ownership of our actions in a way that keeps Angkar a distant memory as opposed to a looming possibility.

Adrienne DePriscoComment