I traveled to Southeast Asia in late July, in the midst of their steamy tropical summer. The trip began in Singapore, a clean and modern place where, mercifully, most buildings are air-conditioned. The tiny city-state reminds me of Disneyland: no litter, no graffiti, no sign of poverty.  Singapore punishes vandalism with caning, and bans the sale of chewing gum, lest it end up on the sidewalk. 

Singapore has one of Asia’s most vibrant Christian communities. I spoke at a conference on Leadership that brought together a diverse group of 1,300 business and church leaders from 20 countries.  I learned of many outreach ministries, including one that operates a call center—you know, those irritating telephone sales solicitors—inside a prison.  Large companies like the lower wages imposed by the prison authorities, and the inmates, carefully vetted, love the chance to earn money and talk to “outsiders” on the telephone.  Once released, the prisoners graduate to the main call center.


The next two stops, Vietnam and Cambodia, made a contrast to modern Singapore.  Both had the hallmark look of developing countries: crumbling sidewalks, potholed roads, and plastic refuse choking the canals and waterways.

The Vietnamese have a reputation as fierce warriors, and museums recount their victories over France, China, Cambodia, and “American imperialist invaders.”  Our guided tour of Hanoi included a visit to the wreckage of a downed B52 and the site where John McCain’s Skyhawk jet was shot down, as well as the prison where he was tortured and held captive for five and a half years.  Yet Vietnamese are surprisingly friendly toward Americans, and the government now sees the U.S. as an important bulwark against the growing strength of China.

I once heard an account by a veteran who, after the war, returned to the Da Nang air base where he had served.  His guide, a retired North Vietnamese officer and now a congenial host, showed him a labyrinthine network of tunnels underneath the base.  The officer and his platoon had spent many months in those dank tunnels, barely three feet high and infested with ants, rats, scorpions, and venomous centipedes.  The soldiers lived underground with bad air, water, and food, and half of them were suffering from malaria.  At night they crawled out to hurl explosives at the gleaming American planes parked on the tarmac above.

The US veteran recalled his own days when, between napalm bombing runs, he would sit in an air-conditioned lounge, smoking dope, playing cards, and watching first-run movies.  “Is it any surprise we lost the war?” he asked.  “We had no idea what we were up against.”

Many veterans are still suffering the consequences.  Recently I read a chilling statistic: in every major war since Korea, more US veterans have died of suicide than have lost their lives in combat.


Tourists come to Cambodia for two reasons: to see reminders of the country’s glorious ancient past and of its tragic recent past.

In the 12th century, Cambodia’s Khmer ancestors ruled over an empire that dominated Southeast Asia.  The capital city of Angkor encompassed an area twice the size of Manhattan and housed a million people.  Its massive temple complex remains the largest religious complex in the world.  Daily, a convoy of tour buses brings tourists to climb among the ruins of Angkor Wat, famous for their stunning architecture and the giant tropical trees that grow among the ruins.  Several movies, including Lara Kroft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, have been filmed on the grounds, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Eight centuries later, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped tons of explosives—by some estimates, more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II—on Cambodia, in an attempt to disrupt North Vietnam’s supply routes.  “I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them,” President Richard Nixon told Henry Kissinger, even as he publicly denied the bombings were taking place.

Thousands of refugees fled to the capital city of  Phnom Penh for safety, giving impetus to a guerrilla movement, the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer), which incited the Cambodian people against all things Western.  Their Maoist leader, Pol Pot, appealed to national pride, recalling the glory days of the Khmer Empire.

Thus began one of the darkest chapters in modern history.  After consolidating power in the country, Pol Pot declared 1975 as Year Zero.  He abolished currency and private property, and shuttered all schools, religious buildings, and hospitals.  In three days he emptied Phnom Penh of its million inhabitants, forcing them to march into the countryside to work in farm communes.  For four years Phnom Penh sat empty, an eerie modern ghost city.

Hundreds of thousands died from malnutrition or starvation as they were forced into back-breaking labor.  The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who gave evidence of Western influence: a high school diploma, eyeglasses, using a foreign word like “Mama.”  At least two million Cambodians, one-fourth of the country’s population, died under the Khmer Rouge, a regime that lasted until 1979, when Vietnam invaded and chased Pol Pot into hiding.

The Killing Fields

In my travels, I have visited many sites of human cruelty: Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Soviet prisons, Sarajevo, the Bataan Death March.  Still, I was unprepared for what I saw in Cambodia, where a government unleashed senseless brutality against its own people.

First I heard stories of those who were force-marched for five days from Phnom Penh into the northern countryside, barefoot, without food or water, between rows of rotting corpses—for the Khmer Rouge shot any who lagged behind or collapsed by the road.  I heard from one man who hid in a forest for three years, subsisting on nuts and berries.  He lost all contact with his twelve siblings, and has never found them.

Then I visited a notorious prison in Phnom Penh where 14,000 prisoners were tortured in ways beyond description.  Bloodstains cover the tile floors, and each cell displays a photo of a prisoner interrogated there.  An old poster spells out rules governing the process: “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry out at all,” reads one.

As soon as the prisoners signed a confession, they were blindfolded, bound, and taken to a Killing Field, where they were executed.  (Why this compulsion to extract a confession, I wondered, when the prisoners were all doomed to die anyway?)  To save money on bullets, the executioners forced the prisoners to the edge of a mass grave, and crushed their skulls with crude instruments such as a hammer or crow bar.  Of the 14,000, only seven survived.  I met three of those survivors, who now sit at booths in the prison courtyard, bearing witness to what happened.

From the prison, I went to a Killing Field that contains 129 mass graves.  Not all have been excavated, but a twelve-layer tower displays 8,985 skulls, with colored dots indicating the person’s age and how they were killed—by hammer, axe, machete, bamboo club, etc.

A placard by one large tree, the Killing Tree, explains that the Khmer Rouge held babies by their feet and bashed their heads against the tree.  Loudspeakers blared martial music to cover their cries.

A counselor with Youth With A Mission in Phnom Penh told me, “The entire country is in a state of PTSD.  For twenty years no one talked about the atrocities.  Cambodians went through a period of non-trust, of prolonged shock.  Almost everyone lost family members.  Now a new generation has grown up learning about the atrocities and taking school trips to the Killing Fields.  They were hardly parented, and now they are becoming parents themselves.”

Her husband, also a YWAM missionary, was called to interpret for some of the Khmer Rouge put on trial.  “I wanted them to be monsters, but instead they were nice and polite, ordinary people.  Cambodians tend to be shy and compliant.  It’s as if an entire nation temporarily became possessed by evil.  Some of the Cambodians I meet on the street, I recognize as former Khmer Rouge.  Indeed, some of them still serve in the government.”

What transformed shy, compliant villagers into the villains of the Killing Fields?  The philosopher Hannah Arendt’s phrase about Adolf Eichmann comes to mind: the banality of evil.  “The essence of totalitarian government,” she said, “is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”

For a time, the Khmer Rouge de-humanized an entire country.  People had no inherent worth apart from loyalty to the revolution and its radical ideas.  To those who opposed them, the Khmer quoted this proverb, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.

I have friends who think the entire notion of evil is outmoded, a relic from the past.  Evil is a consequence of poor education, or a bad home environment, they tell me, not a spiritual force.  They should visit Cambodia.  Come to think of it, so should every presidential candidate in an election year.  That benighted nation offers a sobering lesson that the choices we make, and the leaders we choose to follow, matter.




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21 responses to “Snapshots from Asia”

  1. bennie baker says:

    God is in control. No Human is capable of attaining control. PRAYERS GO ANSWERED EVERY MOMENT. We need to know this( love is all that God needs from us) please live by being His servant.

  2. virginia youdale says:

    Iknew it was bad in Cambodia but this on the spot description…… How can this happen? And it is not isolated – just think of Mugabe and the people of Matabele land – just one horrific story among so many others. May God forgive us and make us more responsible.

  3. Nydia says:

    My heart breaks and I’m reminded that it does so because my heavenly father’s heart breaks and moreso. Thank you so much for sharing and reminding us even… thank you for teaching me more about things that my public education has not deemed important to share.

  4. Dave says:

    Your experience verifies the fickle nature of humanity. It seems that humans are quite competent at evil deeds. We don’t need assistance from an evil spiritual force. In fact, by blaming an unseen force for our deeds, aren’t we just attempting to extricate ourselves from responsibility ?

  5. Doug Yancey says:

    I ‘lived’ in Vietnam in 1969, courtesy of the US government (USMC). I saw a lot of terrible actions. It was a sobering experience. I still wonder what our ‘purpose’ was for being there. When the US left the North Vietnamese military immediately took over. What a waste!

  6. Chris Campbell says:

    My head falls into my hands as I read this and remember the atrocities that Cambodian brother put on his brother in that era. It all begins and ends within the human heart. Attitude, identity, ego…the human heart is a fickle thing, so easily influenced…and prone to wickedness, as the Bible tells us. I read Rodney Otto’s posts condemning U.S. President Trump, hard to argue with the facts of his past actions. Yet where is is heart of hearts? Does God whisper in his heart? I hope so. I know Trump has taken positive action to reduce abortion in the U.S. And hopefully can continue on a path towards saving lives. The U.S. sees over 600,000 lives killed year in abortions. Phillip writes in reminder to us here that the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million of its population in less than half a decade. The U.S. is allowing over 3 million deaths in roughly the same time period. We are all living in our own “Killing Fields” and communities. Please pray, please vote, please plead with your family and friends to remember Jesus’ words to “Love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves”. Love that young mother, love that baby she carries. Share the Gospel, the Good News of life, offer ideas how to save a life, not end one. Faith-Hope-Love.

  7. Greta Smith says:

    Yes, evil is incomprehensible. It can only be malevolent spiritual force that causes such terrible outbreaks of community violence. Think of Rwanda and Nazi Germany. People lived peaceably alongside each other and then performed or turned a blind eye to the most terrible acts.

  8. Mostaert Elaine says:

    Dear Phiip,
    Thank you for letting us see the really of what so many of us cannot see.
    Yes, definitely a spiritual force.
    The evil one himself.

  9. Rodney Otto says:

    President Trump has joined The conservative Christian cause to gain political power. His life betrays Christ’s love for selfish pride and gross sin. Check his record with the ten commandments:. No submission to God. No life of prayer & worship before or after his election. Parenting more by finance than fatherhood. Demeaning language of character assassination. Boasts of adultery. Marriage desicated with sexual favors. Family life absent.
    Cheats on property deals via bankrupt deals. Lies constantly. Boasts of wealth. How can a Christian or moral person possibly vote for such a blatant sinner leading us to dehumanize each other and disregard God’s law?

  10. Ron Fraser says:

    From my perch in the shadow of the Canadian rockies, on a stunning autumn day when one can hear Creation sing, it’s hard to believe that such evil can inhabit the heart of man. But there it is! Humankind trying to build it’s version of the perfect world, and threatening both the fragility of civilization and life itself. Only God has the recipe for the perfect world. The rest of us, whether on the right or the left, need to stand down and seek to reflect His purposes, rather than pretend to achieve them.

  11. Pam says:

    I disagree with Scott…President Trump is not the enemy of the American People. He has endured what no other Presudent has had to deal with in their Presidency. Hateful, Vicious, Untruthful even Violence against his Own Supporters. He works tirelessly and has accomplished much that other Presidents failed at or paid lip service too. Please give him a break…he is Not the Enemy…

  12. Jim Magwood says:

    So terribly scary, Philip, yet so true. If the Lord is not our Leader, any of us can fall into this same scenario.

  13. Steve Kamerick says:

    Thank you for exposing me to an unknown evil and sadness that embodies some people in our past and unfortunately in our present. I wanted so much to wear a set of Marine Dress Blues and stand tall for our country as a real military man for freedom. Although my back held me out of the military, and still limits savearly everything I try to do, I salute each person who is capable of protecting every person who cannot do the same for others. Thank you Philip for being our eyes and open hearts to a world of unknowns to us. Your Brother in Christ Jesus.

  14. Nancy Wilson says:

    This is a most interesting and relevant article, Phillip. Thank you for saying that the evil that devastated the people of Cambodia was a spiritual force. I believe that evil spiritual forces are behind the gun violence, drug addiction, human trafficking, child molestation, suicide rates, and other atrocities affecting our country and the world today. I believe that Matthew 17:21 (KJB) expresses what commited Christians should do in response: pray and fast because as Jesus Christ said to the disciples, “This kind goes out only by prayer and fasting”. Bold Christian
    leaders are needed to initiate this.

  15. Anmar Jacobs says:

    Philip Yancy, I wish you to visit South Africa and to investigate and write about the murders of thousands of our farmers (as well as other people) by local people. And still our president denies that it happens. The world outside South Africa do not know what is going on in our country.

  16. Jason says:

    That is horrific, and beautiful

  17. Chit says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  18. Sue Giessen L623 says:

    Once again, man’s inhumanity to man, is very hard to believe.

  19. Scott says:

    Sadly, most Christian voters in the United States will miss the point of your article. They will claim it vindicates their view of the democratic party as being evil. Something to think about…..if Pol Pot were still alive today, Donald Trump would want to be his friend. You’re closing words say it all, “the choices we make, and the leaders we choose to follow, matter.”

  20. Charles D. Smith says:

    A tough/painful read, but a needed one. How easily we forget the past, as if it could never ever happen again/anew.

  21. Nicola says:

    Evil is incomprehensible. It always reminds me of the film ‘Fiddler on the roof’ where the pogrom destroys the wedding. And Tovia just lifts his hands in a huge ‘WHY?’
    Evil that involves an entire nation just cannot be comprehended. It makes no sense. We do indeed battle against principalities and powers. And it always brings me to mind of Corrie ten Booms comment, ‘What does a Christian do when Evil is in power?’ Bonhoeffer a deep Christian, tended to violence. Although not blatantly. But Jesus opened His arms and said ‘I forgive you.’ If Only it were easy to do that! How I hate my enemies and want vengeance! For small insignificant things! Yet forgiveness is truly the only hope. Humankind knows only violence. But it was forgiveness that gave us a way forward. To remember who we truly are, if we want too. I am so glad God does not tempt. And with His help, as I could never do it alone, may I declare, ‘I forgive you’ to my enemies. To offer them a way out of the evil they are trapped in.

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