In the spring of 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea—more popularly known as the Khmer Rouge—took official control of Cambodia. Pol Pot, a Marxist driven by visions of a pure socialist state and his desire to rebuild his country, led a revolutionary army into unlikely power and immediately began to implement his plans for a better Cambodia. For the next four years, Pol Pot would pursue his socialist utopia by establishing a strictly agrarian economy and removing any possible signs of capitalist influence from the country.
That’s putting it lightly.
Pol Pot’s aim to create a “New Socialist Man” who was “dedicated only to the collective,” required that he eliminate any trace of the old society. Les Sillars explains,
Pol Pot’s goal was to create a new society that was purely socialist and purely Khmer. First, the regime had to crush the old society and everything connected to it: religion, free markets, private property, schools, political and economic institutions, as well as traditional ideas of morality, sexuality, and family (67).
Drawing from the influences of Mao Zedong and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pol Pot “elevated farmers and agriculture—everything rural” (67). He believed that Rousseau was right to define humans as “noble savages” who were in their most natural state when they were separated from the corrupting influence of urban society. So, when the Khmer Rouge finally took power their first item of business was to relocate city Cambodians to the countryside. All previous personal property—homes, businesses, cars, and whatever else Khmer Rouge soldiers thought would be useful—were now the property of “Angka”—loosely translated, “The Organization.” Pol Pot’s anthropology made the madness appear plausible.
They believed humans are blank slates who could, with enough force be molded into any shape they chose; thus they planned to “restructure” the individual completely and force society into new, collectivist patterns. Home life would be defined not by the family but by the corporative. Work would be done not for personal gain but in the context of the “battalion” for the good of the collective. People would be “tempered” through abolishing privateness.” Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan, for example, said that even thoughts were unacceptably private: “To become a revolutionary, you must . . . wash your mind clean” (68).
With this underlying philosophy of human nature, Pol Pot and his regime would, over the next 44 months, conduct one of the largest mass killings in world history—leaving a legacy of genocide and torture—while at the same time believing that they were rescuing the Cambodian people. Ideas have consequences.
Radha Manickam – Surviving the Khmer Rouge
Among the many families that endured the scourge of Pol Pot’s regime were the Manickams. On the day of their “liberation” from Phnom Penh, Radha, the oldest son, and his father, mother, grandmother, and several siblings were forced from their home onto Highway 2, a road that led south away from the city. Khmer Rouge soldiers would eventually lead the displaced families into Cambodian countryside in order to begin the process of reprogramming their worldview and ultimate loyalties. Those who were moved from the cities, however, entered into their new circumstances with a serious disadvantage.
The Khmer Rouge viewed city-dwellers, generally speaking, as the enemies. They were “elites, business owners, and army officers who had resisted the revolution” (79). Furthermore, these “New People” as they were called, were the ones who had gained their wealth on the backs of exploited peasants. Not only would such class inequality no longer exist; those who were previously doctors, lawyers, or teachers were now viewed by Khmer Rouge and some of the Old People with suspicion at best, murderous hatred at worst.
Nevertheless, because of Radha’s youth and strength, he was soon recruited for a work team. Radha kept his head down and worked hard, so he was able to avoid the eye of the Rouge soldiers. Yet, tragedy would soon strike the Manickam family. Lakshmi, Radha’s little sister, would die from what may have been typhoid fever. Soon, Radha’s father would die, as well as his three sisters and his youngest brother, each from starvation and illness. Radha would eventually be forced to marry a woman he did not know while laboring under impossible conditions as the Khmer Rouge soldiers imposed unrealistic production quotas on the workers. From the moment Radha left his home in Phnom Penh, he would endure suffering beyond what many of us can even imagine.
Radha’s Hope in Christ
About two years prior to the Manickam’s removal to the countryside, Radha had heard the gospel and trusted in Jesus Christ. Although his parents—especially his father—were not pleased with the news of their son’s conversion due to their devotion to Hinduism, Radha pursued Christian fellowship and was eventually baptized. After the Khmer Rouge toppled the existing government and took control of Cambodia in 1975, Radha would endure nearly four years of unbelievable suffering. He and his wife—who actually turned out to be a Christian—would eventually escape Cambodia and make their way to the United States with their faith battered, but in tact. Radha’s story is, among other things, a story of Christian perseverance.
With that introduction, I want to make a two observations about this story.
(1) Persevering Faith is Not Perfect Faith
Stories like these bring us face-to-face with questions about the stability of our own faith. It is not unusual—it is probably healthy—to reflect on how we might respond if we were confronted with similar circumstances. Would our faith endure? “By God’s grace alone” is the answer. But it is encouraging—in a heavy sort of way—to read a story like Rhada’s and learn that persevering faith isn’t perfect faith; it’s just persevering faith.
There were occasions in Radha’s experience with the Khmer Rouge when he wondered openly how God could allow such atrocities. Seeing one’s family die one-by-one of starvation, or watching a solider use a knife to split the belly of a fellow worker and eat his liver while the man screams in agony might tempt one, just a little bit, to wonder about the justice of it all. The Psalmist cried out with questions. So did Radha.
Radha also had to wrestle with his conscience as he observed the indignities and unjust killings perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge against his fellow Cambodians. Should he help? What about the indoctrination? Workers and citizens of the countryside villages were required to attend nightly propaganda meetings where soldiers would have everyone repeat the laws of the new society. Soldiers would ask, What do we do to a traitor? Workers would respond: Crush him. What do we do to someone who is lazy? Crush him. What do we do with a thief? Crush him. How could a Christian abide with such indoctrination? Radha sought to navigate these mind-bending questions as best he could, while providing for his wife and trying to keep fellow workers from possible arrest and execution.
During these times of intense questioning, Radha never turned from Christ. Indeed, he continued to seek Christ’s protection and guidance. For example, there was a time when Radha was supposed to be matched with another woman for marriage. He could not, however, imagine marrying someone he didn’t know, or, even more important, someone who wasn’t a Christian. So he cried out to God, and God delivered him twice. When he was finally forced to marry a particular girl, he learned, shortly after they were married, that she was a Christian. God was with Radha
(2) Communism and Socialism Must End in Devastation
Some proponents of socialism try to explain Pol Pot’s murderous legacy by faulting the man’s methods, not his philosophy. But in light of historical parallels of mass killings in China, Germany, and Russia, as well as the tyrannical conditions people have endured in Cuba and North Korea, it is willful blindness that leads anyone to entertain these proposals. Because communism and socialism are political-economic philosophies that are grounded in a faulty theology and anthropology, they must end in devastation.
The goal in both systems is to attain a kind of utopia: a nation in which class inequalities are removed, no one is in need, and man resides perpetually in his most optimal state. But in order for this utopia to be realized, the government must gain and retain full control of production and define the standards of equality. It is no coincidence that where communism and socialism has reigned, atheism is the undergirding theological principle.
In place of God the state resides as leader, protector, provider, and source of all wisdom. The responsibility of the Cambodians, according to Pol Pot, was to “Love the Angka, sincerely and loyally” (93). Angka would control all property, remedy laziness and lying by destroying offenders, and provide for its people’s needs. Of course, if anyone collected their own store of food, they would be crushed for betraying the community.
The Khmer Rouge soldiers couched their tyranny in the language of “freedom.” They preached to the people and repeatedly told them that now that social classes had been obliterated and personal property removed, they were truly free. Of course, real freedom was a mirage, and the people knew it. But disloyalty to Angka meant certain death, so the workers continued to work and yield, at least externally, to Pol Pot’s doctrine.
Pol Pot would never realize his vision for Cambodia. In January 1979, the Khmer Rouge was pushed out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese army. Pol Pot fled into Thailand and attempted to rebuild his army with help from China and Thailand. Although they would never regain control of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge occupied areas of Thailand until 1999 when the group officially disbanded shortly after Pol Pot’s death a year earlier.
Rhada’s story is another vivid reminder that any political-economic system that attempts to replace God with the state and move a country toward economic and social utopia apart from Christ and his Word will only lead to tyranny and genocide. It must be so.
But Radha’s story is ultimately a story of Christian perseverance and the glory of the gospel. By God’s grace, Radha and his wife would eventually escape Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. In a sweet turn of Providence, Radha, on a return trip back to Cambodia after a few years stateside, would baptize his brother, Ravi, who had recently trusted Christ.
In a fallen world where tyrannical leaders rule with ideological and military force, torture and kill their own people, and make a mockery of freedom and human dignity, only the gospel offers true and lasting hope. Pol Pot spilled the blood of those who were allegedly disloyal to Angka for the sake of his vision for Cambodia. Christ spilled his own blood for those who were truly disloyal to their Creator for the sake of their salvation. Only this Servant-King can fulfill his promises of a perfect kingdom of freedom, joy, protection, and lasting provision. And only this King is worthy of our allegiance.