Writing about the Cambodian killing fields taught Red Deer author Les Sillars an important truth about all oppressive, extremist regimes.
They don’t last.
“Human nature is real,” said Sillars, and ideological zealots who don’t recognize the need for people to exercise their free will sooner or later run up against this unshakable fact.
“The idea that they can realign reality through ideology” is a fallacy, added Sillars, who teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College, an Evangelical Christian education facility in Virginia.
The author’s first book, Intended For Evil: A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith, and Courage in the Cambodian Killing Fields, is being published by the large U.S. Christian firm, Baker Books.
The project evolved out of Sillars’ meetings with Cambodian survivor, Radha Manickam, who now works as a pastor and missionary based out of Washington State.
Manickam was 22 years old when the Khmer Rouge, under fanatical leader Pol Pot, took over his country in 1975. The extreme Communist regime caused the genocide of about 1.7 million adults and children through starvation, disease and summary executions.
Social engineering policies forced Manickam and his family out of Phnom Penh and other cities to live on rural communes. This attempt at agricultural reform led to widespread famine. The regime’s insistence on self-sufficiency, even in medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria.
Manickam told Sillars about how people too weak from hunger or thirst to continue walking into the countryside were beaten or shot. “He’s seen people killed right before his eyes,” said Sillars. “It’s an astonishing story.”
Intended for Evil tells of Manickam’s experiences on various work crews. Although excess labour and little nourishment had caused his weight to drop to 90 lbs, Khmer Rouge officials forced him to marry a stranger in a mass wedding ceremony. It turned out to be fortuitous pairing, however.
Both Manickam and his wife, Samen, are devout Christians who had to keep their religion hidden from the anti-religious Communists.
By the time they escaped through Thailand to the U.S. in 1980, Manickam had lost six of his seven siblings and his father. Most died of disease or starvation, but one of his brothers had been beaten to death. “Only one brother and his mother were left,” said Sillars.
The couple, who now live in Seattle, have five children. They have returned as missionaries to their native country, which remains troubled and poverty-stricken even 37 years after the Khmer Rouge were driven out of Cambodia by rival Vietnamese Communists in 1979.
Sillars, who has a masters in theology and doctorate in journalism, recently travelled to Cambodia with the Manickams. He saw how difficult it was for them to revisit some sites. “Radha would point and say, ‘I helped dig that canal, there…’ ”
The survivor grappled with why he lived when so many others didn’t, and concluded that God must have another plan for his life, said Sillars. “As to why God lets horrible things happen to other people, it’s not something we have an answer to … It’s a question we all ask, I guess …”
Writing Intended for Evil left Sillars, a 1984 Lindsay Thurber graduate and former staff writer for Alberta Report, feeling grateful for the freedoms he enjoys in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s greatly humbled me to listen to someone who’s lived through these extraordinarily painful circumstances.”
His book can be ordered from Amazon and other booksellers.