“One death is a tragedy.
One million deaths is a statistic.” ~Joseph Stalin
Banking on this banality of evil, the Khmer Rouge murdered or starved 1.7 million Cambodian citizens during the years in which they were in power, all with an eye toward establishing themselves and their Community ideology. Having wiped out 25% of the population, the Khmer Rouge will go down as history’s most totalitarian regime, for even though Mao and Stalin were responsible for more deaths, no dictator has ever destroyed one fourth of its citizens.
This chilling period of history forms the meta-narrative of Les Sillars’s Intended for Evil, but he has brilliantly shared the harrowing story through the eyes of one man, Radha Manickam who survived the Cambodian Killing Fields. Of Indian ethnic descent, Radha was born into a Hindu Brahmin family, but came to faith in Christ as a young man in 1973. Accustomed to a life of plenty, Radha’s world turned upside down in 1974 when Phnom Penh, his home city, was caught in the cross fire of the war between Vietnam and the United States. As the violence progressed, the Khmer Rouge gained power, adding to the death and destruction. As refugees streamed into Phnom Penh from surrounding villages, fleeing U.S. bombs and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the population more than tripled and food was very scarce.
Lee Sillars’s journalism background is evident in his skillful reconstruction of the political and historical implications of this period, the pointless movement of the masses and the evacuation of entire cities, the irony of communism’s rejection of an existing social structure only to create their own class system based on “kum, a revenge so brutal that it destroys an enemy so they never can rise again,” (79).
In 1975, year zero of Pol Pot’s “new calendar for a new era,” Radha and the entire Manickam family concluded that there was no future for them in Cambodia, and so they joined the current of bodies flowing from their makeshift camps to the next uncertain stopping point. When their passports were confiscated, they learned the folly of trusting Khmer Rouge officials and eventually discerned that any mis-step could have devastating consequences, for even gathering food in the woods to supplement starvation rations was considered a “betrayal” and, according to Pol Pot’s brutal rule book, the guilty party “will be crushed,” (99).
Weakening the population through starvation was only one technique of the Khmer Rouge. They undermined family bonds by separating relatives whenever possible, and they scorned (and ultimately abolished) all religions, including even those indigenous to Cambodia. Anyone wearing glasses (the sign of an ability to read), possessing an education, owning a business, or practicing a profession was systematically eliminated, leaving behind a bankrupt culture that would take generations to recover.
Our family was introduced to the regime’s lasting effects ten years ago when we hosted a family of missionaries on home assignment following a term in Cambodia. Arriving in our yard, their kids and our kids poured out of vehicles, mixed and mingled, and then headed straight for the woods to pursue adventure. Witness to the stricken look on their mother’s face, I was surprised at her explanation:
“Land mines. In Cambodia, the kids can’t just go running off into the woods unless there is a well-marked trail. For a minute, I forgot that it’s o.k. here.”
In that moment, the legacy of Khmer Rouge terror migrated into a back yard in Maine.
By grace, Radha Manickam’s life was spared because he was able to persevere in forced labor — a city boy, learning by trial and error what to do with the business end of a shovel and how to plant and harvest rice for back-breaking, spirit-crushing hours on end. The soldiers in charge of his work details were essentially a brute squad who subjected workers to unspeakable torture and cruel indignities while overseeing canals that collapsed and agricultural projects that failed abysmally due to mismanagement and ignorance.
Disease and starvation were all that flourished until the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. Tragically, most of Radha’s extended family had already perished, but grace triumphed when Radha learned that Samen, the wife he had been forced to marry in a mass wedding ceremony (set up to breed the next generation of new socialists), was also a believer. Sponsored by Samen’s family in the U.S., they made their arduous way to California where they began to heal from the years of devastating loss and began to minister to other victims of the crisis in Cambodia.
Les Sillars’s chosen title, of course, brings to mind the biblical story of Joseph, the refugee, slave, and prisoner who found, at the end of his waiting that God had transformed the evil intentions of his brothers and all of his own suffering into a great good — for himself and for the people of Israel. Brought face to face with the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, I am forced to question the contents of my own heart. After all, the people who were conscripted into service as guards and soldiers were just common peasants and farmers, and following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of them went quietly back to their homes and families. There is a sobering subscript to this inspiring story about Radha’s God-given courage under extreme circumstances: a society can be plunged into evil by the removal of all that is good, and “those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves, and those terrified by the discovery have not grasped the grace of God.”
Like Joseph, Radha would affirm that his years of suffering are evidence that what evil men intend for harm, God was able to turn upside down for the accomplishment of His purposes and the advancement of His kingdom.
This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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