The Smiling Land

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMAn excerpt from Spirit Worlds, which will be in bookshops in Cambodia in the last week of this month. The chapter is on the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the question is how this happened in a nation of Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the greatest sin.


Professor Alexander Laban Hinton, who specializes in genocide studies, wanted to find out why Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the gravest of sins, became mass-murderers. Possibly 1.5 to million people were killed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period, but when Professor Hinton went looking for some to interview he couldn’t find any:  former soldiers and cadres all denied ever killing anyone outside the battlefield. Finally he was put in touch with Lor, a former guard from Ponhea Yat High School on street 113 in Phnom Penh. This is now the National Genocide Museum, better known as Tuol Sleng.

Hinton was told that Lor admitted to killing 400 people, although according to the few prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng the actual number was closer to 2,000. In his time at the prison Lor “was savage like a wild animal in the forest, like a wild dog or a tiger,” said one ex-prisoner who’d known him.

What does a mass killer look like? Hinton was expecting evil incarnate, but when Lor arrived he was a simple farmer with polite manners and a broad smile. He denied torturing or killing anyone, though he admitted having been a guard. He said his job had been receiving new arrivals, transporting prisoners to the killing field at Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the city, and checking names off the list as each was struck on the back of the neck with an iron bar. Personally, he never harmed a fly.

“So you never killed?”

Lor hesitated. Yes, he had killed one or two.

Hinton didn’t press the point. The numbers weren’t important. He asked Lor to explain why he had killed.

Lor explained that one day his boss had asked him if he had ever dared to kill a prisoner. Daring seems to be an important and deeply ambivalent quality in the Cambodian psyche. In normal life impulses are suppressed and the self abnegated in the interests of social harmony and daring is a negative quality, but for those who live a little outside the mainstream – soldiers, gangsters, police – daring is desirable. For those who lack natural daring there are tattoos and amulets. And in Lor’s case, there was the challenge from a superior to conform to a new set of values.

Addressing his superior respectfully, Lor admitted that he had never dared to kill.

A little way off a prisoner was kneeling in front of a guard. “Then,” said the superior, “like your heart isn’t cut off, go get that prisoner and try it once. Do it one time so I can see.”

Here we have another deeply Khmer phrase, the order to act ‘like your heart isn’t cut off’. Possibly it means to act with courage; possibly it’s an instruction to give up detachment and act in the fires of passion.

The guard held an iron bar. Lor took the bar and struck the prisoner on the back of the neck. “When my boss asked me to do this, if I didn’t do it [pause] … I couldn’t refuse.”

Hinton’s book is called “Why Did They Kill”, and it forms the backbone of the chapter in “Spirit Worlds”