It was a trip that each member of our group had on our bucket list, visiting the ancient temples of the Khmer Kingdom, a UNESCO World Heritage site called Angkor Wat.  As part of the trip, we had the opportunity to visit the notorious killing fields, known to many in the United States from the Hollywood film of the same name.  We decided to take the optional tour, which not everyone would do.

The capital of Cambodia is called Phnom Penh.  It was near the capital that the most well-known execution area or killing field is located and this is the one we toured.  The feeling of sorrow is palpable when you enter the grounds.  You can sense that this is a place of immense suffering and many visitors become overwhelmed with emotion.

Our tour guide, Panni, told us how the victims were brought at night by truck, blindfolded, to be killed.  As the Khmer Rouge, the regime responsible for the genocide, did not believe that these victims were worthy of bullets, most were executed by clubbing with a log, sliced to death with a machete, or forced to ingest poison.  Most were buried alive in mass graves.  The worst area of the grounds was the tree at which infants and children under two were beaten against until they died before being thrown into a shallow grave.  To hide the sounds of victims, loud speakers blared propaganda 24-7.

There are so many victims, a count is unknown.  In the main tribute tower, there is an assembly of 10,000 human skulls stacked several stories high.  So many victims that still to this day, after it rains, you find clothing, teeth and bone fragments visible as you walk through the fields.

We left this visit, along with the tour of the infamous S-21 Detention Center with a feeling of despair about humanity.  How can this happen?  How do a people recover from genocide?  The answer came from the Cambodian citizens we met, a people living in an impoverished country that still faces enormous obstacles.

The answer is called forgiveness.  For many in Cambodia, this is the path forward.

However before we explore this path, what happened in Cambodia or as the country is called in the native language Khmer?

The Khmer Rouge was the name given to Cambodian (Khmer) communists (rouge, French for red), who during the four years in which they ruled the country, were responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century.  The brutal regime, in power from 1975-1979, claimed the lives of 1.5 to 3 million people (around 25% of Cambodia’s population).

How did the genocide start?  The Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War in 1975, a complicated war resulting from years of colonial rule under the French.  The Khmer Rouge captured the Cambodian capital and overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic. Millions of Cambodians living in Phnom Penh, the capital city, were tricked into believing the Vietnamese were going to bomb the city by false news and announcements on tv and radio.  They were marched out of the city and forced into the countryside.

Pol Pot was the dictator leader of the Khmer Rouge.  Pol Pot believed the Khmer people should be self-sufficient in communal living, without the need for money and be “untainted” by Buddhism. When he came to power, he and his henchmen quickly set about transforming Cambodia – now re-named Kampuchea – into what they hoped would be an agrarian utopia.

Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, as well as setting up rural collectives. Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for simply wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.  Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centers.

One of the most notorious of these centers was the S-21 detention that we toured in Phnom Penh, where as many as 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned during the regime’s four years in power.  Only a dozen individuals survived.  We were blessed to be able to meet one of them.

While hundreds of thousands were being killed outright, others died from disease, starvation or exhaustion as members of the Khmer Rouge – often just teenagers themselves – forced people to do back-breaking work.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations.  The higher echelons of the party retreated to remote areas of the country, where they remained active for a while but gradually became less and less powerful until the final truce in 1992.

In the end, Cambodia was left with no internal resources, no functioning middle class, no financial systems, no infrastructure and no medical services.  To rebuild, the people turned to what they knew as a stabilizing force before the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism.  Buddhism in Cambodia is a form of Theravada Buddhism and has existed in Cambodia since at least the 5th century.

To understand forgiveness as a path, it helped me to understand what Buddhism calls the Four Noble Truths.  They may be described (somewhat simplistically) as:

Dukkha: Suffering exists: (Suffering is real and universal. Suffering has many causes such as loss, sickness, pain, failure, the impermanence of pleasure.)   In the case of Khmer Rouge, the suffering took the form of torture, killing and genocide.  All of the Khmer society faced the suffering.

Samudaya: There is a cause for suffering. (It is the desire to have and control things. It can take many forms: craving of sensual pleasures; the desire for fame; the wish to avoid unpleasant sensations, like fear, anger or jealousy.)  Samudaya recognizes neither victim nor perpetrator.  The cause of the suffering is encountered by both from different perspectives.

Nirodha: There is an end to suffering. (Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana. The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and an understanding of non-attachment. Letting go of any desire or craving.)

Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.  Forgiveness is a key part of the Eightfold Path.  Forgiveness of others and yourself.  Letting go of the past, as this is the only moment right now is all that there will ever be.

As Buddhism is embedded in the Cambodian identity, the Four Noble Truths are a real way of explaining how to deal with the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.  And we saw that this was indeed part of the Buddhist faith path within the Cambodia that we experienced.  As Panni, our guide said “Where do you begin?”  The victims saw themselves as hurting and full of anger, wanting revenge.  However so did the aggressors, the members of the Khmer Rouge, many of whom were merely teenagers or forced to commit the atrocities for fear of self-preservation.  The aggressors saw themselves as victims also.  Families and friends were on both sides of the genocide.

From my own faith, I thought about what I saw and heard on our trip.  Do I live what Christ has taught about forgiveness?  What passages can I take with me in my daily life?  I was drawn to the passages from today:

Isaiah 1:18-   

“Come now, let us settle the matters,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Ephesians 4:31-32

“Get rid of all bitterness, passion and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.

As I was preparing for today, I did some further research and found this dramatic tale of Cambodian Christian, who started The Forgiveness Project.

In 1977 at the age of 14, Sokreaksa “Reaksa” Himm, after years of struggling to survive the regime, was taken, along with his father and brothers to the edge of a mass grave and slashed with machetes and clubbed with hoes. Minutes later, he awoke in the grave in a pile of his dead and dying relatives. He was able to climb out and hide in nearby weeds when the killers left to round up his female relatives and complete their killing.

When they returned, he saw them murder his mother and sister. A total of 13 family members were killed in front of him.  As the soldiers threw dirt on the people who were his entire life, he swore revenge.  Alone, hungry and scared, he made his way across the jungle, avoiding soldiers by day and sleeping in trees by night to escape roaming tigers. Finding his was to a succession of refugee camps, he eventually immigrated to Canada, where he became a follower of Christ Jesus.

As he states: “I discovered that forgiveness truly is divine and that as the years passed, my desire for revenge was in direct conflict with my new nature. The anger against the killers was as great as the grief for my family and it burned inside me like a great ball of fire. For years I cultivated elaborate fantasies in which I tortured and murdered the killers again and again, projecting all my rage and pain I bottled inside myself in my plans for what I would do to the men when I found them. I realized that I would never know true peace until I had dealt with this as well. I had to find a way of forgiving them, before the bitterness inside destroyed me. If you’ve been deeply hurt, it isn’t easy to forgive but we can learn a lesson from Jesus, who forgave those who crucified him. I began to meditate on the Bible. Forgiveness doesn’t come through vengeance, and neither does forgetting: no amount of violence could erase my memories. So I gave up my urge to inflict pain on those who had hurt me and killed my family. I knew it wouldn’t help, and nursing those desires was only damaging me; my emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological being. In time I discovered that forgiveness opens a channel for real spiritual power to work in my life; a power which brings healing and wholeness. In the years that followed, I began a new mission: one that still included finding the men responsible for the deaths of my loved ones but for a new purpose. I no longer wanted to seek their deaths, but to tell them of the life and hope that I found. I eventually found two of the men involved in my family’s deaths, in the very village and among the very people they terrorized over two decades before. Initially on hearing that I wanted to meet the men to forgive them, many people thought that my plan was just another attempt to locate the men so that I could take my revenge. To the surprise of the men and most of the villagers, I shook hands with the two men and forgave them.”

To me, this is an amazing testament of the power of Christ’s purpose in our lives.  Perhaps we can take a small piece of the Cambodian experience with us.  May we learn from those who have survived the atrocities of genocide and be called to demonstrate forgiveness in our daily lives?



Scripture for April 15, 2018

Isaiah 1:18-   

“Come now, let us settle the matters,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”


Ephesians 4:31-32

 “Get rid of all bitterness, passion and anger. No more shouting or insults, no more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tender-hearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.

Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.