It should be easy to identify the moral high ground. It’s blindingly clear now that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were bad guys. Even if they believed themselves to be motivated by some kind of ideology, it was seriously flawed ideology. But the UN, under pressure from Britain and the United States, continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate Cambodian government for several years after they had been ousted from Phnom Penh by the invading Vietnamese, because as far as the West was concerned, the KR might have been bad but at least they weren’t the Vietnamese. [In fact it’s suggested that the US were covertly assisting the KR right up until 1993 when the Cambodian-Vietnamese War finally ended, and that US bombing of Cambodia in the early 70s, murderous in its own right, was used by the KR to manufacture enough popular support to enable them to seize power. Oh yeah and the SAS were apparently helping to train KR guerillas in the 80s as well. Uurggh. ]
Extremist governments are bad, those regimes that oppress their own people (and maybe others) and flagrantly abuse human rights. Except when they happen to dislike one of our ‘enemies’, or we need the resources that they control, or the billions they invest in our economy. Maybe they invest those billions buying our weapons so that they can kill civilians? I’m sorry did someone mention Saudi Arabia? No apparently not. Nothing to see there. [I realise this is a recurring theme with me but I find it a hard one to just let go..]
At least its clear when you are ‘fighting terrorists’. The ends justify the means. But sometimes those who are called terrorists turn out to be Nelson Mandela. Or sometimes we helped to arm and train those terrorists in the first place.
But of course it’s obvious that regimes carrying out detention without trial, torture, and extra judicial killings are the bad guys, surely. ‘Extraordinary rendition’. Waterboarding (used by the Khmer Rouge and the CIA). Guantanamo Bay. Northern Ireland. Iraq. Syria. The Taliban (good anti communists in the 80s, badduns in the noughties – who knew?). Libya (are we mates with Qaddafi this week or not?). I’m sorry remind me again who are the bad guys? I looked for the moral high ground but it turns out, there is no fucking moral high ground as we’re all implicated. And even if we’re not, because those actions were carried out by people we don’t agree with and governments we didn’t vote for, what can we do? (And I won’t even start on the dreaded T word again…).
So with those cheery thoughts in my head, it was enough to make me want to down a bottle of Mekong whisky and stick a Manic Street Preachers album on repeat. But I didn’t do that. Instead I went to the National Museum in Phnom Penh where every evening, Cambodian Living Arts, founded by a Khmer Rouge survivor, put on a performance of traditional folk dancing – where there are no shades of grey but a dazzling array of colour, movement, sound, life. Sometimes that kind of thing can be intensely naff but in these circumstances it felt like the perfect counterpoint to doom and despair. Even more so as the KR murdered almost all artists and people they regarded as ‘intellectuals’, destroying Cambodian cultural life along with so much else.
Then I went and had dinner looking out over the riverfront, and thought about how lucky I am to be able to see these things, have these thoughts and express them publicly, without fearing for my life or my freedom.