Forgetting Cambodia

Cambodia’s back in the news lately, as an analogy for the expansion of the Iraq war into Iran. It’s not completely accurate: Cambodia in 1969 was a country with a population far smaller than Vietnam’s; Iran is not only geographically larger than Iraq, it’s population is nearly three times Iraq’s.

In my mind this weekend, that theme’s colliding with the bizarre attack on Elie Wiesel, by someone who appears to have been planning to “deprogram” Wiesel into admitting the Holocaust never happened.

I’ve always wondered about the type of people who could believe that hugely destructive events were entirely fictious or had far less of an impact than they did. The people who deny the Holocaust, those who play down the impact of hundreds of years of slavery and racism, anyone who thinks it’s easy to lift your family out of poverty, the list goes on. And those are major, societal issues. What about the people who deny the democracy-corroding effect of the lawless governments we’ve had under the administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and both George Bushes?

That’s why I was stunned when I heard the final story on this week’s edition of On the Media from WNYC. Reporter Megan Williams’s “You Must Remember This” is a report on how — just 30 years after the killing fields of Pol Pot — many members of the generations born since the Khmer Rouge regime’s worst excesses don’t believe the stories their elders tell them. They don’t understand how it could have happened. More than a quarter of the population is estimated (conservatively) to have died in the last half of the 1970s. The countryside is still littered with landmines. According to the report, though, the history’s not taught in schools. And most of the leaders were allowed to live out their lives with no real accountability.

I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story, which is also reporting on a program in Cambodia to teach students about the killing fields era. It certainly ties in well with the ability of nations to forget the horrors they inflict on others but who would have thought it applied to a forgetting of the history of the damage inflicted on your own country, and your own family?