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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Commentary: Vietnam ousted the murderous Khmer Rouge by force; expecting peaceful change in North Korea is folly

Donald Kirk Los Angeles Times

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Is the regime of Kim Jong Il the cruelest the world has seen since Adolf Hitler's in Germany or Josef Stalin's in the Soviet Union? For all the world has heard about North Korea and its people's suffering, the answer is no. The dubious distinction of cruelest probably belongs to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. That regime took over Cambodia in 1975 and ruled from the once-tranquil capital of Phnom Penh until December 1978, when Vietnamese communist troops drove it out. About 2 million people are estimated to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, from disease, starvation, executions and torture.

The suffering under the Khmer Rouge is resonant with the plight North Koreans have endured for many more years. Today, however, Phnom Penh is bustling, alive with shops selling an incredible variety of silk, statuary, silver objects and souvenirs. Restaurants offer just about any menu. The streets are swarming with traffic as motor scooters dart in and out and larger vehicles carry people and commercial products. Motorcycles pulling what look like small, old-fashioned carriages offer taxi services. Internet cafes thrive in every marketplace. Casinos and nightclubs lure those in search of higher-priced fun, and the National Museum and Royal Palace offer lush and rich glimpses of Khmer civilization and heritage going back 2,000 years.

So what lesson is there - for North Korea and the world - in the transformation of Cambodia from a frightening dictatorship into a hustling if not exactly democratic society? The revelation of North Korea's role in torpedoing a South Korean navy ship in March, with the loss of 46 lives, suggests why it's necessary to transform rule in the North as urgently as it was to end the Khmer Rouge's rule in Cambodia nearly 22 years ago.

Cambodia's current system, in which Hun Sen has ruled as prime minister, with the backing of Vietnam, almost continuously for 25 years, is not at all ideal. Many of the country's 15 million people continue to suffer economically. And it's fair to assume that torture and killings go on, although not on a mass scale.

In an imperfect world, however, Cambodia gives every appearance of having recovered its erstwhile reputation as an "oasis of peace." That was how Prince Norodom Sihanouk described his kingdom when navigating a treacherous course of neutrality as American and South Vietnamese forces fought the North Vietnamese until the U.S.-backed regime fell in Vietnam two weeks after the defeat of Cambodia in 1975. It was a measure of Sihanouk's incredible finesse that he was able to return to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, even though a number of his children were killed by the forces that isolated him in his quarters.

Sihanouk has somehow survived, even though he has no real power. He is more or less a king emeritus, a revered figure who is able to appear above the tawdry power politics that periodically shakes up the elite six years after his eldest surviving son, Norodom Sihamoni, was crowned as his successor.

The Pol Pot regime had to fall, and the men around him - those responsible for forms of torture comparable to the security apparatus of North Korea's "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il - had to flee, be killed or be captured. They had to disappear forever. That should not be lost on South Koreans or their U.S. ally in weighing how far to go in attempting reconciliation or "talks" with North Korea. Someone in responsibility has to face the question: At what point does intervention become necessary?

In that debate, the Khmer Rouge comparison assumes still greater relevance. The question is how was it that the forces of a communist country - against which the Americans and South Vietnamese, supported by two divisions of South Koreans, had fought for a generation - accomplished such a stunning success for the everlasting benefit of the Cambodian people? The answer in part is that Vietnam, after the communist victory in 1975, was never a terrible dictatorship. As Vietnam's leadership went through its own tortuous policy shifts, market capitalism began to flourish. Vietnamese gained a level of cultural and economic freedom that had not appeared possible in 1975. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh, who led Vietnam's communist regime until his death in 1969, never gained a reputation for pervasive cruelty over his own people, even as he ruthlessly suppressed opponents.

It's difficult to compare such different societies and cultures as those in Cambodia and North Korea, but the lesson is clear. There can be no real compromise with the Kim regime. The history of regimes such as Cambodia's under the Khmer Rouge is that they do not willingly yield, do not suddenly adopt humanitarian policies and do not give up the props of their rule, notably their weapons. It's wishful thinking to expect North Korea to shift its policies or honor any agreement on much of anything, including its nuclear weapons program. It took an upheaval to bring about relief from suffering in Cambodia, and it will take another on that scale to reform North Korea.


Donald Kirk, based in South Korea, covered Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1960s and early '70s for newspapers and magazines. He is the author of several books, most recently "Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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Asian culture and community events in the Dallas area

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, members of the Asian American Association of City Employees recently held a cultural program at Dallas City Hall that focused on Cambodia.

Sushil Mathew, association president, welcomed guests.

"There are city employees from more than 20 Asian countries who work for the city of Dallas," Mathew said. "This is an opportunity to learn from each other and build a stronger workforce that appreciates and embraces diversity."

Council member Dwaine Caraway read a proclamation, and City Manager Mary Suhm also spoke.

"Diversity is a major goal of our City Council," Suhm said. "Thank you for bringing unity to the city of Dallas through your diversity."

The event included an exhibit of Cambodian arts and a fashion show of traditional costumes.

Organizers presented Caraway and council member Carolyn Davis with scrolls showing their names in Cambodian characters.

After the presentations, guests enjoyed a lunch of noodles, rice and other Cambodian dishes.

To learn more about the association, visit www.aaace

Flower power

At the 2010 DFW Dragon Boat, Kite and Lantern Festival on Sunday, rowers from four teams tossed pink carnations into Lake Carolyn in Irving. The flowers symbolized remembrance and hope.

"We remember our loved ones who lost their lives to breast cancer," said Frances Leung. "We celebrate the survivorship of breast cancer patients."

Leung, community outreach manager for Asian Breast Health Outreach Project, organized three teams to participate in the breast cancer awareness division of the races. The teams were KOI and Mudzilla 1 and 2. The Organization of Chinese Americans-DFW sponsored the fourth team.

To learn more about the Asian Breast Health Outreach Project, visit www.asianbreast

Sunnyvale council

Saji George was sworn in Monday as a council member in Sunnyvale. He received the highest number of votes in the May 8 election, which also placed Ronnie Henderson Jr. and Pat Wiley on the council.

Born in India, George received an engineering degree from Texas Tech University and an executive master's degree from Southern Methodist University. He has about 20 years of experience in engineering and management.

He and his wife, Jaya George, have two children, Anne, 14, and Andrew, 11. The family said they are active members of St. Paul's Mar Thoma Church in Mesquite.

Sunnyvale, with a population of about 4,000, has an Asian population of about 25 percent, said Terry Reid, president of the Sunnyvale chamber.

"This is a great and historic event," Reid said of George's victory. Visit www.sajigeorge

Summer camp

The Crow Collection of Asian Art will hold "CampAsia: Summer Camp for Kids" in June and July. The four weekday camps are for ages 6-12. Registration ends June 1. The cost is $300 per weekly camp for members and $350 for others. A CampAsia Overnight is $125 per child for members and $150 per child for nonmembers. All fees include supplies and snacks. Call 214-979-6435 or e-mail education@crowcollection .org.Upcoming events

Today and Sunday

The Dallas Opera presents Madame Butterfly at 7:30 p.m. at the Winspear Opera House, 2401 Flora St. in Dallas. 214-443-1000.


Crow Collection After Dark will be from 6 p.m. to midnight. The event will focus on Korea and feature Korean-inspired fans and sampling of ice cream (flavors include green tea and red bean), tasting Korean beers and tours of "New Vision" and "Modern Twist: Bamboo Works From the Clark Center and the Art of Motoko Maio" exhibits. The museum is at 2010 Flora St. in Dallas. Free. 214-979-6430. .


The Crow Collection of Asian Art unveils "New Vision: Ballpoint Drawings by Il Lee." Lee is a New York artist of Korean heritage. The show includes eight large-scale works and 50 small works on paper.

The museum is at 2010 Flora St. in Dallas. 214-979-6430.

Gospel for Asia will hold a fundraising yard sale for a youth mission trip from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1800 Golden Trail Court in Carrollton. 972-371-4045.

The Chinese Institute of Engineers/USA-DFW will hold its 2010 Youth Engineering Fair from noon to 5 p.m. in the Student Union at the University of Texas at Dallas, 800 W. Campbell Road in Richardson


The Kimbell Art Museum presents a film, The Story of India; Ages of Gold, at 2 p.m. Free. The museum is at 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd. in Fort Worth. 817-332-8451. .
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Cambodia marks annual Day of Anger against Khmer Rouge

Phnom Penh - Hundreds of Cambodians marked the annual Day of Anger against the Khmer Rouge regime Thursday at a former killing field outside the capital.

The cornerstone of the ceremony was a play in which a dozen Cambodians dressed as Khmer Rouge soldiers acted out executions in a reminder of the mass killings that characterized the regime that ruled from 1975 to 1979.

Pa Socheatvong, the deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said the purpose was to remember those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The movement was led by Pol Pot, also known as Brother Number One.

"Pol Pot betrayed the country by using the people's blood as capital, so people are very angry with the Pol Pot regime," Pa Socheatvong told the German Press Agency dpa.

The event was first held in 1984, five years after the Khmer Rouge was driven from power.

Pa Socheatvong said the May 20 date was selected since it was on that day in 1976 that the Khmer Rouge leadership took the decision to kill people.

"They made it the strategy of their genocidal regime," he said.

Thursday's ceremony was held at Chhoeung Ek, which was where thousands of Cambodians from the regime's main security prison known as S-21 were executed. Both Chhoeung Ek and S-21 are popular sites for tourists visiting the capital.

Last year, S-21's commander, Comrade Duch, appeared before a joint UN-Cambodian tribunal charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Judgement in Duch's case is expected in the coming months.

Four former Khmer Rouge leaders are currently in detention in Phnom Penh ahead of their trial which is likely to start early next year.

An estimated 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia from execution, overwork, starvation and illness.
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