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”

Peter Alan Lloyd – interview with a Khmer Rouge


“Boy punished, Khmer Rouge Crucifixion style, for stealing food in a Khmer Rouge refugee camp … Before this he’d been beaten and would have been killed had third parties not been present in the camp.” Uncertain copyright, found on

I found this interview with Nin Noy, a former KR village police chief (and village headman now, forty years later) on the blog of Peter Allen Lloyd, a freelance writer and author living in Thailand with a special interest in the Vietnam War. The setting is Ratanakiri province, in the far northeast corner of Cambodia.

Nin Noy says he acted only on orders from higher up – failure to act would have been fatal, and though he doesn’t say it, acting without orders would doubtless have been equally fatal. He denied that the KR had a plan to kill anyone – it was all the doing of the Chinese! He had never killed anyone himself. He was evasive and untrustworthy and possibly deeply troubled.

Nin Noy had been in his early 20s when he was organising killings for the KR, and in that capacity he presumably murdered anyone with an education. Lloyd found it ironic, to say the least, to be sitting with him in his current role as village chief under a banner proclaiming “Together, we promote the protection and safety of children both at school and in the community.”


“A disturbing image of what looks to be a Khmer Rouge murder in progress, with a prisoner held at gunpoint while another Khmer Rouge soldier swings a hoe.” From

Nin Noy had fought against the American-backed Lon Nol forces in the early 70s. He said that the American bombing of eastern Cambodia had certainly helped the KR with recruiting, but not nearly so much as the overthrow of the beloved King Sihanouk. “Nobody but America supported Lon Nol.”

At the end of the interview the old KR reprobate had the nerve to ask if a tip might be possible. “[N]o fucking way was I going to allow a Khmer Rouge official to profit from his time in that genocidal organisation, even though he’d apparently done ‘nothing wrong’ during his completely innocent period as a Khmer Rouge Police Chief.”

The post, and the blog, are well worth reading. He’s written a novel, too – it’s linked on his blog.


Khmer Rouge rape, Wat Somrong Knong, Battamabang. (