Tag Archives: Pol Pot

Stupa offers grisly reminder of why we should give thanks

Take a good look at the structure you see here. It’s called a stupa. This one is at a place called Choeung Ek, which is just outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I’ve visited this place twice, in 1989 and again in 2004. I have written a blog post already about a remarkable Thanksgiving dinner some colleagues and I enjoyed in Vietnam in 1989. We had just visited Cambodia and returned to Vietnam to continue our journey through Southeast Asia.

I want to explain what this stupa is and what it contains.

It is temple that is full of human skulls. They were dug out of the ground, excavated from mass graves around the structure. The men, women and children who were buried there were victims of one of the 20th century’s most hideous regimes, the Khmer Rouge terrorists who ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978. Their leader, Pol Pot, wanted to purge his country of citizens who were educated, who presented any sort of threat to the regime’s power.

All told, it is estimated that Pol Pot killed about 2 million Cambodians in one of the century’s worst cases of genocide. The country is littered with mass graves similar to the one next to the stupa.

We spoke during that 1989 tour of Cambodia with survivors of that terror. One young woman told me then that if Pol Pot were to come back and threaten her country, “We all will become soldiers” who would fight the Khmer Rouge to the death.

The Khmer Rouge didn’t come back. Vietnamese armed forces invaded the country in 1978 and exposed the horror to the world. The authorities were able eventually to hunt down Pol Pot. They captured him and imprisoned him; he died while awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

The killing fields have been set aside as permanent memorials to the sacrifice endured by brave people of Cambodia. I want to show you this stupa to illustrate just one more time why our Thanksgiving in Vietnam was so special to us.

It filled me 30 years ago with a sense of gratitude I likely would not have felt had I not laid eyes on this stupa and peered at the skulls stacked from floor to ceiling inside it.

Yes, the holiday is a time to reflect. I choose to reflect as well on the tragedy that so recently befell a far-off land and pray — no matter how unlikely — for an end to this level of inhumanity.

When you lay eye on the evidence of such horror and hear the testimony of those who lived through it … and enjoy a meal served to commemorate your nation’s Thanksgiving holiday, you certainly understand why you have so much for which you give thanks.

A Thanksgiving to remember for the ages

I cherish the memories of many Thanksgiving holidays over the years. I will do so again this year. Our sons, our daughter-in-law and our granddaughter will join us for dinner. We will laugh and enjoy fellowship that only families can enjoy.

However, the most unique Thanksgiving of my life will be in the back of my mind. It occurred 30 years ago today. I was traveling in a faraway land, away from my wife and my sons. As I look back on it, I realize more clearly than ever the symbolism that Thanksgiving had in that time, in that place.

I was traveling through Southeast Asia with a group of editorial writers and editors. We traveled there to examine the issues of the day and to take a firsthand look at the ravages that war had brought to that region. We started our tour in Thailand. Then we flew to Vietnam, which to many of the Vietnam War veterans among our group filled us with another sort of emotion.

Then we flew to Cambodia, which in 1989 was a shattered hulk of a country. The Vietnamese occupiers who invaded the country in 1978 had just vacated. They left behind a nation in ruins brought to it by the horrifying Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.

We departed Cambodia by bus caravan back to Saigon. It would take us all day to get from Phnom Penh to the city now known officially as Ho Chi Minh City; except that the civilians still call it Saigon.

After a harrowing trip that included crossing the Mekong River on a rickety raft that served as a “ferry,” we arrived in Saigon. We checked in to the Majestic Hotel. Then we went to dinner as a group, tired but ready to enjoy some good chow and each other’s company.

Our Vietnamese hosts knew that it was Thanksgiving Day, a uniquely American holiday. They went out of their way to make us feel “at home.” They served us a wonderful meal in the dining room of roast duck, mashed potatoes, peas and apple pie.

Was it the most scrumptious meal I’ve ever eaten? Not even close. One of my friends among the journalists gathered there called the main course “road kill duck.” But, our hosts’ hearts were clearly geared toward showing us some supreme hospitality. They succeeded far beyond measure.

As I look back on that Thanksgiving dinner three decades later, I realize now how thankful I was at the time — and I am today — at the bounty we enjoy in this country. Furthermore, as I recall the lingering misery we encountered in Cambodia, I am reminded of just how grateful we must remain in this country, where we hope we never experience what those brave and glorious people had to endure.

That dinner gave me a special understanding of what this holiday means to all of us. May we never take what we have for granted.

Time of My Life, Part 14: The passport gets filled up

They used to urge us to “join the Army and see the world.” I saw part of the world back in the old days, but a career in print journalism allowed me to see a whole lot more of it.

For that I am grateful.

While working as editorial page editor for the Beaumont Enterprise and the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas, I belonged to a group called the National Conference of Editorial Writers. NCEW no longer exists as it did in its heyday, given the dramatically changing media world these days.

However, when it flourished, it enabled its members to embark on factfinding trips abroad. I was privileged to attend three of them.

I’ll share some of those memories.

In 1989, we embarked on a three-week journey to Southeast Asia. It began in San Francisco for a briefing from experts in the region. We flew off to Bangkok, Thailand. We visited with government officials and took in our share of sights to see.

Then we jetted off to Hanoi, Vietnam. The United States and Vietnam had not yet established diplomatic relations, so we had extra pressure to be on our best behavior while touring Hanoi. We later flew to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as “Saigon”). The differences between those two cities was remarkable in the extreme. Hanoi was dark, dingy and a bit foreboding; Saigon was, well, quite the opposite.

After touring Saigon, we boarded a plane for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. That leg of the trip produced some remarkable discovery for us. Vietnam had invaded Cambodia a decade earlier, occupied the country, and then revealed to the world the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia under the vicious rule of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. We saw up close killing fields, torture chambers and talked to survivors of one of the 20th century’s most hideous examples of genocide.

We caravanned back to Saigon and spent Thanksgiving 1989 in a hotel dining room eating a meal prepared by our hosts to honor their American visitors and helping us celebrate our uniquely American holiday.

I will have more to say about one additional leg of that trip later. Spoiler alert: It involves a return to the place where I had served in the Army two decades earlier. That, dear reader, was a cathartic event!

A decade later, in 1997, I participated in an NCEW trip to Mexico City. It was a much shorter excursion, but it was eventful indeed.

We talked to officials about bilateral relations between the United States and Mexico. We watched the Folklorico Ballet, one of those colorful entertainment events I’ve ever seen.

We also had an audience at Los Pinos, the presidential mansion, with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. That was an event that, shall we say, taxed my ability to hold it together. I had consumed some water that I should not have consumed. I was getting sick, rapidly, while we awaited the president.

President Zedillo greeted us, welcomed us to a conference room and chatted with us individually. I told him my name and said I was from Amarillo, Texas. He was somehow smitten by the idea I came from Texas. He wanted to chat a little longer about life in Amarillo.

Meanwhile, I my body temperature was spiking as I fought to resist the oncoming sickness that would befall me later that day.

I got through it. Thankfully.

In 2004 I was able to return to Southeast Asia with another NCEW delegation. The mission on that journey was to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis in Asia.

We attended the International Conference on AIDS in Bangkok, visited with American health officials there, became acquainted with medical professionals from Africa and Asia.

We returned to Cambodia, where I was struck by how far that country had come from my earlier visit in 1989. We talked to more professionals involved with HIV/AIDS prevention and control.

Then we jetted off to Delhi, India, where we learned of how India is grappling with the HIV/AIDS crisis. We took a day trip to Mumbai, where we sat on the floor of a house visiting with prostitutes who had become infected with the virus.

Yes, it was an eye-opener.

There were other overseas journeys I was able to take while working as journalist: to Greece, Cyprus and Taiwan. I wanted to highlight the NCEW ventures because of my association with a professional organization that helped me grow as a journalist.

I mention this because my career produced many “times of my life.” That I was able to see so much of the world while pursuing a craft I enjoyed fully has filled me with memories that will last a lifetime.

Justice delivered to two of humanity’s monsters

Some events in world history make me question my opposition to capital punishment. Two individuals who took part in one of the 20th century’s most grievous crimes against humanity provide the latest test to my commitment.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea — the last known survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia — have been given life sentences for their role in the genocide that killed roughly 2 million Cambodians in the 1970s under the despotic rule of the regime led by the late Pol Pot.

These individuals are old now. They likely will die soon in prison. When they do they should both rot in hell right along with Pol Pot and the other monsters who committed those atrocities against Cambodians.

Pol Pot was captured in the late 1990s and died in custody.

I have had the distinct honor of twice visiting the site of the Khmer Rouge’s unspeakable brutality. The killing field at Choeung Ek and a prison camp at Tuol Sleng will last forever as the Khmer Rouge’s legacy of murder, misery and mayhem. The monsters tortured and killed the intelligentsia of their country at Tuol Sleng — once the site of a school — and then buried their remains at places around the country such as Choeung Ek.

They sought to create a totally agrarian society. Learned professionals had no place in that society. Neither, shockingly, did their children.

In 1989 and again in 2004 I was privileged to see first-hand those sites. The sight of them and then hearing the testimony of those who survived that dark time filled me with immense grief, touched with a tinge of guilt. The Cambodians have built a memorial at the site and filled a “stupa” at Choeung Ek with skulls excavated from the mass graves that were discovered by Vietnamese troops during their years-long occupation of Cambodia, which ended in 1989, about a month before I arrived there with a group of journalists.

In 1989, after touring the killing field burial site, and after hearing from a woman who survived the mayhem that “If the Khmer Rouge return, we all will be soldiers” who will fight them to the death, I boarded a bus, waiting to depart.

I broke down and cried.

Justice has been delivered to two of the monsters who brought such heartache to a beautiful land. May they live the rest of their lives on Earth in abject misery.

We must never forget those victims

Humankind can be generous, gentle and loving.

We humans, though, also are capable of extreme hatred.

Today isn’t the day to remember the good side of humanity, but to remember its cruelest behavior. International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us of just how dastardly we humans can behave.

There have been remembrances in Europe, where millions of Jews died at the hands of Nazi butchers prior to and during World War II.


I want to share a point of personal privilege. I’ve had the honor of seeing up close the monuments to man’s monstrous acts.

Yad Vashem is a museum located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel. It tells the story of what the Nazis did to European Jews. They killed an estimated 6 million human beings, consigning them to starvation, assorted forms of physical torture and then sent to gas chambers in death camps scattered throughout central and eastern Europe.

The Israelis certainly remember the Holocaust. Indeed, their country was founded in 1948 by Europeans who fled to the Middle East to establish a homeland.

I had the honor — I won’t call it a “pleasure” — of touring Yad Vashem in June 2009. I will never forget the emotional impact of that museum and the history told by people whose ancestors suffered so grievously.

Germans also recall their shame in what Adolf Hitler brought to their nation. The Nazi tyrants — along with their Japanese allies — stood trial in Nuremberg after World War II; they were charged with crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg has erected what is called a Documentation Center. My wife and I visited Nuremberg in September 2016 and I got to see how Germany has confronted its shame. The Documentation Center tells the story in graphic language and images.

Germans won’t forget, either.


But such acts of genocide aren’t restricted to Europe or are committed only by Europeans.

In 1989 and again in 2004, I was able to tour killing fields in Cambodia, on the other side of the planet. They remain as a silent testimony to Pol Pot’s murderous regime, which was exposed to the world when Vietnamese troops routed Pol Pot from power in 1978.

I remember talking in 1989 to a young woman, who told me if Pol Pot — who was still living at the time — were to return, “We all will become soldiers” who would fight him to the death.

There are many other examples of humanity’s capacity for unspeakable horror. They have occurred in places such as Uganda, in Armenia, the Balkans, China and, oh yes, in the United States of America — where Native Americans were routed from their own homeland by settlers who moved from east to west in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We mustn’t forget these lessons of history.

As Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has said, “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It is indifference.”

Media attacks = dictatorship?

I have been reluctant to equate Donald John Trump Sr.’s constant attacks on the media with the behavior of tinhorn dictators — and truly evil despots.

That is until now.

The president tore into the media again Tuesday night at that campaign rally in Phoenix, Ariz. He called them “fake” and “dishonest.”

Trump echoed much of what he has said ad nauseam ever since he launched his presidential campaign.

For seemingly forever, the media let him get away with it. They would report on his rants, letting his words speak for themselves. Trump obliged. He courted the media.

Then something happened. The media began calling the president out on the lies he kept repeating. The media started to reveal falsehoods. Trump didn’t like that. Then the attacks got really hot.

There’s a pattern developing, according to media watchdogs and political pundits. It’s disturbing in the extreme. The pattern follows a familiar course: political leaders seek to delegitimize the media, to reduce their standing among citizens. These leaders have sought to turn the people they want to lead against the media.

Hitler did it in Germany. Stalin did it in the Soviet Union. There have been assorted Third World dictators who have done the very same thing: Pol Pot in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.

I cannot pretend to know what is motivating Donald J. Trump’s incessant attacks on the  media. Nor can I pretend to understand anything as it regards the president’s thinking.

I just know that presidents for as long as I’ve been alive have sought to understand the media’s role in a free society. They’ve all reached a form of bipartisan understanding. None of them has liked reading or hearing critical news stories about their presidencies.

However, as former President George W. Bush said recently, the media are “necessary to keep public officials accountable.”

And, no, the media are not — as Donald Trump has said — the “enemy of the American people.”

Call it what it was: genocide

My friend Butler Cain has posted a blog about a recent visit he made to Armenia, where citizens are marking the 100th anniversary of what historians have determined to be genocide.

Turkey fought on the losing side of World War I, along with Germany. In the process of losing that war, it engaged in the brutal slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians.

The Turks have refused in the century since to call what they did an act of genocide.


Others have used that language to describe the systematic extermination of people of a certain ethnic background, which by definition is what you call genocide.

One of the voices that so far has been silent on this matter has been the United States, which also hasn’t called it genocide. Again, by my way of looking at it, the Turks did that very thing.

Why the U.S. reluctance? Turkey is an ally of ours. It’s standing with us — more or less — in the fight against the Islamic State. Do we want to offend our allies by suggesting that its forebears did something so unconscionable that they might withdraw their support for our effort to eradicate the Islamic State?

That well might be the calculation.

Let’s call it what it was. Genocide.

Hitler tried it in World War II in search of his “final solution,” which meant the extermination of Jews; Pol Pot sought to eliminate his fellow Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in the 1970s; Rwandans engaged in genocide in the 1990s against their own people as well.

History knows what happened in those instances. We have put the proper name on these evil acts.

It’s time to do the same thing while describing what happened to Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.


A Thanksgiving to remember … in Vietnam

Thanksgiving is a day we express gratitude for all that we have.

It’s a uniquely American holiday and my friends overseas often are kind enough to extend wishes to my family and me at this time of year.

It also is a time to remember. And today I am remembering a particularly exciting Thanksgiving holiday.

I spent it far from home. I didn’t talk to my family that day. I was traveling in what once was a war zone and the site of one of the 20th century’s most infamous episodes of genocide.

Thanksgiving Day 1989 was spent traveling with fellow editorial writers and editors from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The day ended in grand fashion, for which we all gave thanks at the end of a harrowing overland travel experience.

The day began in Cambodia, where our group of about 20 journalists had toured several chilling locations, including killing fields, the infamous Tuol Sleng prison and where we met with survivors of the Pol Pot’s murderous reign of terror that ended nearly a decade earlier when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the dictator’s Khmer Rouge regime.

The country had been decimated. Two million Cambodians had been exterminated. The country’s infrastructure was in shambles. The people — beautiful as they are — were still in shock. The capital city of Phnom Penh was virtually empty.

We set out that day in several vans full of people and luggage along a crowded bumpy road. Ho Chi Minh City would be our destination. But first we had to travel several hundred treacherous miles.

The “highlight” of our journey occurred when we reached the Mekong River. We boarded a “ferry,” which in reality was hardly more than a motorized raft. Aboard that so-called ferry we loaded our vans, along with Cambodians traveling with carts, animals, loads of fresh fruit. The river, as I recall, was running fairly swiftly and I began to fantasize about overturning in the middle of the Mekong. I read an imaginary headline in my mind: “U.S. journalists killed in Cambodia ferry disaster.”

We made it across the river and then continued on our way.

Finally, several hours later we arrived at the Cambodia-Vietnam border. The line of traffic getting through the militarized checkpoint was quite long. We had a young guide, who we called Vibol. As with most business in Cambodia, a lot of it is transacted underground, under the table. Vibol collected some cash from all of us and then greased some palms at the gate. Suddenly, without explanation, our party was moved to the head of the line.

We slid on through to the Vietnamese side of the border, where we noticed a vision in the form of the young Vietnamese guide who had escorted us through Vietnam at an earlier portion of the trip. Her name was Mai and she was, as one might say, a sight for sore eyes — if you know what I mean.

Mai then escorted us the rest of the way to Ho Chi Minh City — which, by the way, the locals still refer to as Saigon.

We reached the city. Got to our hotel, unpacked our vehicles and were informed that the hotel staff had prepared a special dinner for us that evening.

We got cleaned up and went down to eat later. Awaiting us in a very nice dining room was a meal of what one of my colleagues called “road kill duck,” mashed potatoes, peas, rolls and a cake for dessert.

Was it the kind of Thanksgiving meal to which we were accustomed? No. But it was served with all the love and good intentions imaginable. Our Vietnamese hosts wanted to recognize our special holiday.

For that we all were thankful beyond measure.

After the experience we had endured that day, and in the previous days in a country decimated by war and untold inhumanity, we felt almost at home in a faraway land.

Happy Thanksgiving.