From the Comments: Why did Cambodians trade foreign terror for domestic horror?

John Cyberome pitches the question to Chhay Lin on his post about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Chhay Lin’s response (which I have broken up into smaller paragraphs) deserves a closer look:

I don’t understand why Cambodians traded foreign terror for native horror. It’s something I’ve always wanted to understand. I don’t remember a time when I did not have such questions as: how can people be so cruel to each other or would they (the friends I had) be able to commit such horrendous acts to me if they would live during the Khmer Rouge period? It seems like there is a terrible part of human nature that is called upon in certain circumstances. I think the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment have been examples of how peaceful people can move to extremely horrifying acts. I also think that the Khmer Rouge had good intentions. In their eyes, they were saving the nation from corruption, from immorality, from foreign invaders and from domestic traitors.

Cambodia by the way, is a country that is quite paranoid. Until this day, they still fear that the Thai or the Vietnamese will one day take over the country. Some already believe that the country only exists by name, but that it’s actually under Vietnamese rule. According to them, after the Vietnamese occupation from 1979-1989, they have installed a pro-Vietnamese ‘puppet’. This paranoia feeds nationalism – a sentiment, I believe, that can be easily manipulated into hatred towards foreign Khmer like Sino-khmer or Vietnamese-khmer.

Besides that, I also think that the poorer people were envious of the wealthy class. When the Khmer Rouge came into power and turned the social hierarchy upside down by installing the poor people into higher social positions, they may have been especially cruel to those fellow Cambodians who they believed were better off.

I also think that we can partly blame it on the Cambodian culture. The culture is very hierarchical. People of status look down on poorer people and treat them like crap. The poor don’t even dare to look the better-off in their eyes. It’s a culture that breeds envy and discontents between classes. I think these are a few reasons why the Cambodians had traded foreign terror for native horror. In all honesty, I find the culture quite backward 😛.

This is a whole lotta insight packed into one short ‘comment’.

For starters, I would be comfortable in suggesting that land is the crucial factor of production in Cambodia, rather than capital. (I am not as confident as Rick in arguing that land, labor, and capital are basically obsolete tools, in large part because there are big swathes of the world that don’t share the institutions that have created the West.) Land-based societies that I have read about all share the same general cultural characteristics as those mentioned by Chhay Lin (though none would dare call these characteristics ‘backward’!).

Trade has, in my reading of history, been the traditional arbiter of destruction for land-based interests. Does anybody have any good information on international trade and Cambodia? I’ve looked in to a few sources (World Bank, OECD, Heritage) and it looks like the volume of trade has been increasing since at least 2010, but that there are institutional problems which have yet to be addressed.

‘Creative destruction’ is such a strange concept, especially to a libertarian like me.

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4 thoughts on “From the Comments: Why did Cambodians trade foreign terror for domestic horror?

  1. I had never considered the relationship between land-based society & culture. That sounds interesting. Can you suggest a book or an article on this matter that I should read, Brandon?

    About calling Cambodian culture backward; I actually believe that all cultures are backward and oppress individual authenticities.

    One more note about why Cambodians committed such horrendous domestic terror; I think that like happiness, violence is also extremely contagious. Its contagious power is especially strong in crowds.

    • A book or an article? I’ll have to think about it. I can’t recall where I first came across that relationship. I thought it was common knowledge, so to speak. My instinct is to go with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, though. I’ll look through an old syllabus of mine and find the relevant chapters for you.

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