This week I’ve been in Pailin, Cambodia. This small city near the Thailand border was the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge for many years after their ouster from power in 1979. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia (re-naming it Kampuchea) with a reign of terror, with over 2 million people dying in the “killing fields”. After taking power Pol Pot and his associates declared that henceforth it would be ‘Year Zero”, attempting to wipe out history up to that point.
Forty years later there are signs of hope in this land, perhaps none greater than seeing a whole new generation living into a new future. As I was among a group of young Cambodians this week, including some that are children of the Khmer Rouge, the signs of hope in the future are strong. They include new economic ventures, collaborations with other nations in a variety of cultural and societal renewal projects, an openness spiritually, and a spirit of generosity that seems to be overcoming the hate and genocide of the past.
There are of course many challenges facing Cambodia’s future. As an outsider it is so easy for me to see hope and underestimate the great obstacles and great pain related to the horrors of the recent past. But as I thought about the declaring of ‘Year Zero” in 1975, some reflections were in my mind. First, the pride and presumption of man in declaring that history is over as it has been known is a dead end. Whenever a nation or a person attempts to re-shape history and mould it into their own image there will be an accounting. The Khmer Rouge were a brutal movement, and they are gone. The scars of deep wounds remain in the land, but life has continued and there is renewed hope.
One morning last week I rose to the beginnings of a sunrise, the faint colors of pink in the sky. Even with all the darkness of ‘Year Zero” and the four years of the Khmer Rouge, there are visible colors in the land of the sunrise of a new day. Another reason that “Year Zero’ is such a fictitious imagining in the mind of man is that there will always be a new day and a new hope. No matter the darkness, new life will rise. New signs of hope. This is as true in our personal lives and families as it is in a nation like Cambodia.
A third reason that ‘Year Zero” is a lie and fiction is that the Khmer Rouge, though they succeeded in killing so many people, could not destroy a future generation that now lives today. Being able to walk this week among this generation and feel their spirit made me realize again that the future of a nation is in the hope resident in its youngest members.
There is hope in Cambodia. There are many signs of life. ‘Year Zero’ was not the beginning or end of anything except of judgement on a group of men that attempted to take history in their own hands. The future can’t be controlled that way. Or any way at all.