“The Killing Fields” and the Rohingya of Burma

Muhamed Sacirbey

Posted Feb 25, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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by Muhamed Sacirbey

This month the first trial begun for a high level Khmer Rouge official before the

UN backed Cambodia Tribunal prosecuting violations of humanitarian law, 30 years after the murderous Pol Pot regime was ejected from power and 25 years after the world was first exposed to such crimes in the brilliant film: “The Killing Fields.” However, this film is not just about past genocides and abuses. It reminds that even today many around the globe and Asia are targeted. Just across the Siam Peninsula, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of Burma, Myanmar, is on the verge of extinction.


The road to justice was long and perhaps unduly complicated. The crimes of

the Khmer Rouge, including the systematic murder of 1/4 of the population

of the Cambodia, were committed largely absent of cameras and free media, and it was this film, “The Killing Fields,” that provided the image and perspective for the public and the international diplomats. However, the

films is also more than a revelation of crimes and politics: It is also about redemption and the conflicting instincts of journalism. It should also alert

that genocide is not mere history but a current feature of the political and human landscape in Asia, including the region.


This genocide by the Khmer Rouge did not appear to be motivated by some ethnic or religious distinction in the population. Rather, the educated and cultured were projected as enemies to an ideology meant to return the

country and entire population to agrarian and subsistence living. It was a process of eradicating ideas considered foreign or corrupting to this pure Cambodian born communism, imposed through irradiation of the population, no matter how many innocent cells of this society might also suffer and have to perish.   

The privileged of this new “communism” took it upon themselves to establish reeducation centers which doubled as labor camps. All occupants were subjected to harsh living and working conditions. Becoming the subject of suspicion translated into a death sentence. Ultimately such centers are most appropriately defined as concentration, torture and killing camps. Death came by hunger and disease but also as likely by the butt of a gun or bullet to the skull. 


Pol Pot died before he could face justice as the leader and ideologue of the Khmer Rouge. Part of the difficulty: the Khmer Rouge continued as an insurgency after being overthrown. It is speculated that some may have been effectively shielded by remnants within and outside of Cambodia. However, the obstacle most frequently confronted was the view of some that the Khmer Rouge crimes should be left to history rather than courts to judge.
The establishment of the ICTY, (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), in 1993 gave impetus to reconsideration of mechanisms of international justice to prosecute and judge grave violations of international humanitarian law and genocide. As the Representative of Bosnia & Herzegovina before the United Nations and initially the newly established ICTY, we placed confidence in an international institution ultimately established by and accountable to the United Nations methodology. Whether our confidence is ultimately vindicated remains to be seen, and nonetheless, there has been legitimate concern that the work of the ICTY, from arrests to evidence delivery, can be effected and influenced by the “big powers’ including permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Cambodian Government insisted that the Khmer Rouge crimes would be judged within national courts even if international humanitarian legal norms may be the relevant criteria. The “Agreement between the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia concerning the prosecution under Cambodian law of the crimes during the period of Democratic Kampuchea,” is the formal methodology under which trials are to go forward and the long title reflects even the more extended period of negotiation and deliberation regarding such court proceedings. 


Perhaps it is too much to claim that a film could be a constant reminder of justice unaddressed. Still, “The Killing Fields” served as one of the few reminders in an emerging global society where popular culture determines what history is remembered. For this contribution to our collective consciousness, Bruce Robinson, writer, Roland Joffee, Director, Mike Oldfield, soundtrack, and actors Sam Waterston, Haing Ngor, Julian Sands and John Malkovich deserve credit for more than just the three Academy Awards the film has won.

“The Killing Fields” concludes with John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” Religion though had no role in the ideology or passion of the genocide. To the contrary, in this instance, (probably the most massive systematic killing since the Holocaust), the perpetrators professed atheism. (The traditional religions of Cambodia included Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, other indigenous religions and a small Muslim population).  Perhaps`John Lennon missed the point. Religion is not the root cause of all wars and genocidal killings. Those professing atheism were as or more likely to commit genocide as purported adherents to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism,  animism and other indigenous religions. Ideologies, as religion, can be be co opted and turned to eradicate those that dare challenge such orthodoxy, with either their words or just mere existence. Stalin’s Gulag campaigns focused on any individual as well as group that might even become a challenge to Soviet rule and ideology. 



What the genocide in Cambodia, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Holocaust and others share in common is that they particularly target the intellectuals, the social and cultural as well as political leaders of the victimized people. Potential opponents from within the group in whose name genocide is being committed, as Hutu moderates and as other revolutionaries within Stalin’s Soviet Union, are viewed as particularly dangerous. In the despots effort to exploit and abuse the muscle power of ordinary citizens, the thinkers, the intellectual elite are seen as potential, unnecessary challengers to the programs. Genocide appears more to share in its strategic approach and methodology rather than the ethnic, religious, racial or even ideological identity of the perpetrators or victims. It is true that genocide is much more likely in closed societies ruled by despots, although unfortunately self labelled democracies are not free of violations of international humanitarian standards: recall “renditions” and Guantanamo. It is also unfortunately more likely that the further a population is from the epicenter of western democracies and the less that the victims are perceived as European, the more likely that the victims will be overlooked. “The Killing Fields,” a film did not allow the crimes of the Khmer Rouge leadership to be so readily forgotten. Still, neither the term eliticide or the ethnic group know as Rohingya, the latest victims of abuse in the region, as yet qualify for my spell check.

The Rohingya minority of Burmam, (Mynamar), is the latest targeted group to come to be seen as probable victims of abuse and perhaps genocide. What caught my attention is that refugees escaping and being ethnically cleansed from Burma are now being abused by other regional governments, or at least irresponsible officials and authorities. CNN documented systematic violations as refugees reaching Thailand were first abused, perhaps beaten and denied critical care, but worse were then hauled out miles to open ocean and left adrift in overcrowded, non-seaworthy rafts. What compelled me to write this story is the simple plea of one young refugee staring into a CNN camera but speaking to all of us: “Please Brother, Please!”
For “The Killing Fields” film: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm422878208/tt0087553
For more on the Rohingya: http://www.rohingya.org/
For CNN story go to CNN.com (below is transcript of January 26, 2009 story):

DAN RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They look like logs, but these are people, dozens of Burmese refugees detained on a Thai beach. These photos were provided to CNN last week, as three different tourists voiced concern about the way the Thai authorities were treating these migrants.
ANDREW CATTON, TOURIST: Whenever someone raised their head or sat up, they’d strike them with a whip.
RIVERS: So we traveled to a remote stretch of the Thai coast four hours’ drive north of the holiday island of Phuket, keen to investigate local reports the Thai military had been secretly detaing Burmese Rohingya refugees here before towing them back far out to see and leaving them to drift.
Koh Sae Daeng is uninhabited, part of the national park. But there was plenty of evidence that large numbers of people had been detained here. This man helped the army guard the refugees for one night on the island.
“We treated them well,” he says. “We gave them food and whatever they asked for.”
(on camera): There seems a lot of evidence that a large number of Rohingya refugees were indeed camped out here at Koh Sae Daeng. All around there are discarded shoes and clothes. There’s several campfires that look fairly fresh here, as well as food wrapping as well.
But the big question is, how did the Rohingya leave? Did they leave voluntarily or were they towed out to sea by the military?
(voice-over): On a nearby island, we find one of the distinctive Rohingya boats on the shore. The Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority who have been fleeing Myanmar in rickety boats like these for years looking for a better life. This proves how they arrived but not how they left.
We travel to another island where villagers told us about some Rohingya refugees who had escaped and were living in the jungle. We were keen to talk to the refugees to hear their story. We didn’t have to wait long.
That night, a local army-trained village defense force took us on patrol. We hurried to a hamlet after reports they caught one of the migrants. This is what we found—villagers had captured a Rohingya man who they think had been living in the jungle for days.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please, brother.
RIVERS: He was clearly distressed.
RIVERS: Over the next three hours we tried to piece together his story.
RIVERS: He was taken back to the port where he continued to try and communicate with us.
Through a combination of broken English, sign language and drawings, he told his name was Ichbal Hussein (ph) and he was on one of six refugee boats which arrived in December. He said they were towed back out to see sea in January, but five of the six boats sank. His, he said, made it back to shore.
But this is the final piece of evidence. Photos were given to CNN by someone involved in what he said was an ongoing Thai operation to tow refugees out to sea.
They show refugees being processed on the Koh Sae Daeng, the same camp that we visited. And incredibly, this shows the Thai army towing a boatload of some 190 refugees far out to see.
The source who gave us these photos says they provided them with food and water. Another source in the military confirmed they have been towing refugees out to sea, again stressing they gave them supplies. Neither would appear on camera for fear of repercussions.
We asked the Thai government about our findings and it says it is investigating. A sign of how embarrassing these photos may be considered, it says the prime minister will receive a full report this week.
These are the last images of the refugee boat as it disappears over the horizon. Neither this boat, nor the refugees aboard it have been seen since.
Dan Rivers, CNN, on Koh Sae Daeng, Thailand.

Muhamed Sacirbey was a Signatory of the Dayton Accords and Foreign Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Source: The European Courier http://www.europeancourier.org/166.htm


A life of fear with no refuge: the Rohingya’s struggle for survival and dignity http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/fromthefield/MSFIntl/123555724325.htm
A Long History of Injustice Ignored: The Muslims of Myanmar (Burma), Harun Yahya http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_long_history_of_injustice_ignored_the_muslims_of_myanmar_burma/
A Long History of Injustice Ignored:  Rohingya: The Forgotten People of Our Time, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/a_long_history_of_injustice_ignored_rohningya_the_forgotten_people_of_our_t/
ANC Policy Statement on the Peoples of Arakan shows lack of Foresightedness , Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/anc_policy_statement_on_the_peoples_of_arakan_shows_lack_of_foresightedness/
Burma Is Not Iraq, Ramzy Baroud http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/burma_is_not_iraq/
Burma’s forgotten Rohingya, Mike Thompson http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4793924.stm
Burma’s Monks: Ethics is not confined to Books and Temples, Farish A Noor http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/burmas_monks_ethics_is_not_confined_to_books_and_temples/
Burma’s Muslim Rohingyas - The New Boat People, Marwaan Macan-Markar http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=45850
Daw Suu Kyi and movement for democracy, freedom and human rights in Burma, Dr. Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/daw_suu_kyi_and_movement_for_democracy_freedom_and_human_rights_in_burma/
Get Chevron Oil Out of Burma, Rabbi Arthur Waskow http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/get_chevron_oil_out_of_burma/
Just Imagine This—You Are a Rohingya!, Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/just_imagine_this_you_are_a_rohingya/
Rohingya are Muslim outcasts, not welcome anywhere http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gPW6vtdfI0ip4z9X2iqfVibBao8gD96BFKV81
Thailand to Crack Down on Trafficking of Rohingyas http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=auljtaVqW914&refer=asia
UN: Food Shortages, Poverty Forcing Rohingya to Flee Burma, Ron Corben http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-02-20-voa18.cfm
U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report: Burma, Habib Siddiqui http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/us_state_department_international_religious_freedom_report_burma/