Meet The Man Who Remained Unbroken Inside Cambodia’s Socialist Killing Fields

Meet The Man Who Remained Unbroken Inside Cambodia’s Socialist Killing Fields

The question is not, ‘How could Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime be so evil?’ but, ‘Why are we all not more like the Khmer Rouge?’
Gracy Olmstead
By

Intended For Evil” isn’t your typical biography or memoir. It is something different—a work of narrative nonfiction that seeks to convey both the historical and theological import of one man’s life. It’s the story of Radha Manickam, and his journey through the horror and death of the Khmer Rouge prison camps in the late 1970s.

Les Sillars, a journalism professor at Patrick Henry College, spent over a year interviewing Manickam and detailing his account. The resulting work of narrative nonfiction is reminiscent of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” in scope and character—it’s a chilling story of suffering and survival—but it’s a shorter work, and focuses more closely on the protagonist’s Christian faith. Radha’s journey through Cambodia’s killing fields was guided by his belief in God, and his assurance that God had a plan for his life.

But “Intended For Evil” most definitely isn’t a “missionary biography,” either. The suffering and violence contained in these pages is pretty graphic. Sillars isn’t catering to the crowd who might read this alongside an Amish romance novel, and readers should be warned that this book is—to put it lightly—haunting. One of the reasons I couldn’t put it down was because I needed to find some relief: a happy ending, a respite from the violence and suffering. Thankfully, this is what Radha gets in the end. Tragically, he is one of the few who did receive a happy ending to his story.

How Socialist Theory Decimated Cambodia

Radha was only in his 20s when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government. He lived in Phnom Penh with his family, and was a recent convert to Christianity. He was thus one of an extremely small minority in Cambodia (according to Sillars’s research, there were some 2,000 self-described Christians in the entire country in 1965; after five years of persecution, that number shrunk to “perhaps 300 Cambodians in total [who] called themselves evangelical Christians.”)

The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to weaken family bonds, preserving only individuals’ relationship to the state.

When Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuated the city of Phnom Penh, they sent Radha and his family to one of the newly founded prison camps. They were constantly on the verge of starvation, abuse, and death. During this time, Radha lost track of most of his family members—the goal of the Khmer Rouge was to weaken family bonds, preserving only individuals’ relationship to the state. Most of his siblings would die during the next few years, either at the hand of a prison guard or due to starvation. Radha himself contemplated suicide more than once.

Forcing urban dwellers to migrate into rural lands was no accident, either. As Sillars writes,

Pol Pot’s goal was to create a new society that was purely socialist and purely Khmer. First the regime had to crush the old society and everything connected to it: religion, free markets, private property, schools, political and economic institutions, as well as traditional ideas of morality, sexuality, and family. … Following Mao (with object lessons from the French Revolution), Pol Pot elevated farmers and agriculture—everything rural. In Paris he had read Jean-Jacques Rousseau and he seemed to see humans as “noble savages” who had been corrupted by the institutions of a predatory urban society. By emptying the cities, he eliminated private property and therefore abolished capitalism and instituted socialism in one brilliant stroke.

Sillars is careful not to come across as “preachy” in this work, either in referencing Radha’s faith or in detailing the various political and ideological events of the time. He proffers the political background necessary to understand what was happening in and around Cambodia; he notes the complex and often errant policies the United States and other countries pursued at the time.

But he also tackles the delusions of Pol Pot’s ideological government head-on, exposing the threads of socialist theory in his regime that are popular still today, and that—when left unchecked or taken to an extreme—result in the sort of dangerous ideology that decimated Cambodia in the 1970s.

Sillars also shares the theological struggles Radha grappled with throughout his journey, and they are raw and real. If it’s difficult for us—happy and comfortable Westerners with incredible freedom—to process the suffering and evil in these pages, how in the world did they affect the man who lived them? “In those days, he often argued with God,” writes Sillars.

But through sheer providence Radha was able to marry another Christian woman, at a time when the Khmer Rouge was forcibly marrying off its prisoners in an effort to bolster its dying population of workers. Together, they supported each other over the next few years. And together, they were able to survive.

The Survivor Who Decided To Return Home

As the Khmer Rouge began to lose strength at the end of the ’70s, Radha and Samen escaped Cambodia and entered Thailand. From there, they obtained visas to travel to the United States and settle in Seattle. Radha went into full-time ministry, working with other Cambodian immigrants on the West coast. But his heart for his homeland continued to grow as time went on. What once seemed impossible—a return to the place where he endured so much hardship—increasingly seemed inescapable. In 1989, he returned to Phnom Penh. Eventually, he and Samen became full-time missionaries to Cambodia.

The question is not, ‘How could the Khmer Rouge regime be so evil?’ but, ‘Why are we all not more like the Khmer Rouge?’

“No one knows how many Khmer Christians were in Cambodia at the start of the Khmer Rouge regime or how many survived,” writes Sillars. “A fair guess might be several hundred believers in the whole country by 1979. The church in Cambodia has grown steadily since then. Christians now make up 1–2% of a population of over 15 million, certainly over 150,000 believers and perhaps many more, in about 2,000 registered churches.”

The ’70s constituted a frightening and fraught time in our history: The Vietnam War enveloped the attention of most in the United States, as the threat of Communism continued to loom over much of Asia and eastern Europe. What happened in Cambodia at that time, under the horrific rule of Pol Pot, was hardly known or understood by Westerners at first. Once Khmer Rouge atrocities were exposed to the public eye, there was a public outcry—an outpouring of aid, humanitarian assistance, and missionary work. But it did not take long for us to once again forget what we had learned.

In telling Radha’s story, Sillars reminds us of a time we should not forget, and gives us a hopeful vision for the work going forward. Despite the horror, despite the evil, there’s still hope.

“Those surprised by the evil found in human hearts don’t yet know themselves, and those terrified by the discovery have not yet grasped the grace of God,” he writes. “In a fallen world, sin is crouching at the door of every human heart. The question is not, ‘How could the Khmer Rouge regime be so evil?’ but, ‘Why are we all not more like the Khmer Rouge?’”

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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