Days of future past: Cambodia’s genocide and the Capitol riots

From the Khmer Rouge to the U.S. Capitol riots, a writer explores how knowledge is the key between making informed decisions and mass chaos.

When an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in January to overthrow our government, every second seemed crucial to me. I remember taking in the detail of each photo, watching and rewinding videos, reading news articles, and internalizing real-time analysis by experts and observers.

But, most importantly, I remember thinking how much of a privilege it was for me to witness an insurrection in my own country in real time.

As a child of Cambodian refugees, I listened to stories about life in the old country and how my parents, aunts, uncles, and extended family grew up with a lot less than I did. But etched deeply into those memories were stories about the chaos following the communist Khmer Rouge regime’s takeover, and how their lives flipped in a matter of weeks with little more than a few hints and hunches.

The Killing Fields

Khmer Rouge marches into Cambodia
Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers enter the capital, Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Digital Archives of Cambodian Holocaust survivors

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge military group overthrew the government after a brutal civil war stemming from a prior coup. The new regime established a communist government that sought to rebuild the country as a self-sufficient, agrarian utopia. But the self-sufficiency translated to the new leaders cutting ties from the outside world, including access to resources and medicine. And the pursuit of the agrarian utopia meant forcing millions of people into the countryside to work in the rice fields.

Most importantly, the regime sought to weed out any inklings of rebellion or people who might become enemies of the state. Anyone perceived as intellectuals or potential leaders of an uprising were rounded up, executed without mercy, and thrown into mass graves. Those who weren’t immediately killed toiled for years in the fields, working 18-hour days while being fed meager meals of rice and soup. Thousands died from starvation, disease, or exhaustion.

This genocide that led to the deaths of more than 1.75 million Cambodians became known as the Killing Fields. It is a chapter that sits heavily on the shoulders of me and millions of other descendants.

The Insurrection

U.S. Capitol Insurrection
Photo Credit: Jose Luis Magana / AP

The weight of that trauma and history rested heavier than usual on me in the weeks and months after the attempted U.S. Capitol coup. The action came after years of an increasing political divide in our country. Growing racial and class tensions fueled vitriolic debates and arguments about the inequities of American society. Much of this came to a head in the 2020 presidential elections when Joe Biden won. However this triggered the infamous, but false, claim by many that the election was stolen, and was amplified by Donald Trump.

All this served as the preamble to January 6 when hundreds marched and subsequently stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, interrupting the certification of the election results.

As I watched and processed it, I asked myself: What would have happened if that mob made its way into the chambers? Would our government have been toppled and our lives thrown into chaos, just as it was for millions of Cambodians?

It was disappointing to watch it all unfold and reflect on these questions. But I was confident that this would stop. That our government, our police, our leaders — our system — would bring order to this chaos and hold people accountable. How could they not when there was so much information available?

I had confidence in the system we have to fight through the disinformation and quell the violence. But that sort of hubris has betrayed people before. 

Stripped of a voice

U.S. Capitol
Photo credit: Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

I dug deeper with my questions and my heritage. What would my parents and their generation have done in response to civil unrest and a divided country? What would they have done with the power and information of the internet, social media, and a collectively engaged generation?

I posed some of those questions to my aunt in the weeks and months that followed.

My aunt, Noreth, was quick to point out the scarcity of information at the time. During the civil war that led up to the coup by the Khmer Rouge, information came through rumors heard from a neighbor about a town being captured. They lacked televisions, radios, and readily accessible newspapers. Their news updates about the war, battles, and deaths came in real time.

“When I moved to the Cambodian capital to study there, it was a war zone,” said my aunt Noreth. “We walked to school and then sometimes the bomb would explode. It would happen 20 minutes before we walked through the area […] We saw the dead bodies on the street.”

In the years that followed, she, along with millions of others, were forced to labor in the fields while battling exhaustion and starvation. Any voice and opinions they had in their prior lives were stripped away by the new regime, and they lived in fear. Forced into the countryside, they toiled mindlessly planting rice in the fields, watching friends and family die of starvation or taken in the night for expressing dissent.

“You don’t have a voice,” she said. “They don’t want you to think or talk. If you’re not with them, then you’re against them.”

Knowledge is power

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. That’s how the saying goes. 

It’s easy to chalk up the Cambodian genocide to a third-world country steeped in a civil war. That civil war, a struggle between two opposite political ideologies in the backdrop of the Vietnam War, lasted five years before its coup. At its simplest, this insurrection in the U.S. came after four years of turmoil and tension between two opposite political parties under a president who warred with the media.

I’ll be the first to say that it’s much more complex than comparing time frames and what-ifs. But it’s no secret that the political divide within the U.S. is the largest in recent history. 

It is also out in the open that this generation is averse to civil engagement. I’m not talking about the high stakes of presidential election years, which always see higher turnout than non-election years. I mean regular civic engagement in our system. In 2014, a non-presidential election year, the U.S. saw the lowest midterm turnout in recent decades, according to the U.S. Census data. That same data shows that four years later, in the next midterm election, turnout was the highest ever in recent history for a midterm election. 

But what did it take to get that turnout? A president that was a walking public relations disaster and his failure to unite an increasingly divided nation.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

See also: The end of an election can be the start of civic engagement

How engaged are we with the day-to-day politics and foreign affairs? How many of us have enthusiasm for politics that ebbs and flows with candidates? Though information holds power, many of us see the mountain of information and feel overwhelmed by it all. Many of us have become numb and dismissive of anything that doesn’t immediately affect us.

Too much access to information can also be overwhelming. Doom scrolling and the anxiety it inevitably brings is something many of us would rather leave behind than face each day. But isn’t that a privilege of our time? A privilege that needs to be exercised more as the United States faces misinformation and leaders who subvert the truth.

Choosing when we take in information and when we want to engage our government is, and always will be, a privilege. A privilege that my aunt, mom, and their generation would have welcomed to stop a coup of their own government and the subsequent genocide.

The power of information can fuel not only our decisions on how to hold leaders accountable, but also shape a future in a way that our parents could only dream about. We should not — cannot — take it for granted.

See also: How (RUN) is getting out the youth vote and empowering the next generation of Asian Americans

My family now has the benefit of history and age to fuel their opinions. At the end of my conversation with my aunt, I asked for her perspective and advice for the generation of citizens fortunate enough to choose what to believe.

“If you have a chance to speak up, you speak up. Make your voice heard. Find a way to protest,” she said. “That’s why, since I became a [U.S.] citizen, I vote in every election.”

Featured photo credit: Documentation Center of Cambodian Archives

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