I’ve just spent two weeks travelling round Cambodia. It was a fascinating and humbling experience.
Whilst I was previously aware that it had ‘troubles’ in its past, and I knew the name Pol Pot and about the idea of the Killing Fields, it was a distant era to me, far away in time and place. My visit to the country, talking to people who had experienced a genocide within their life-time – and who had lost family and friends in horrible ways – really brought it to life in a very visceral way for me (I saw more bones and skulls from victims in the two weeks than I have seen in the rest of my life combined), and I feel that it’s really important to share it back with a wider audience. Terrible, dark things happened in Cambodia, within many of our lifetimes, and it’s only by shining a light onto these things that we can prevent them happening again. So this is a tough post to write, and will no doubt be a tough post to read (especially with the pictures), so I understand if you want to skip it. I will write separately about the beauty of Angkor Wat and the rest of my experiences in Cambodia, which spanned my first time snorkelling to a Homestay with a Cambodian family.
Before the Khmer Rouge
It’s difficult for me to give an overview for the reasons and background to the genocide. And what I can tell you will inevitably be basic given my knowledge comes only from visiting the country and some research on the internet, so read it with your critical faculties in order. However, whilst writing this entry in a cafe, I had a moment of synchronicity where I met a journalist who reports on South East Asia and has authored a book on Cambodia post 1979. I quizzed him (poor man, just trying to have lunch) and he explained some of the background and context pre- and post-Khmer Rouge.
Despite a prestigious and ancient history (remains have been discovered in Cambodia of people and culture dating back to 4200BC, and the temples at the Angkor Wat complex are one of the wonders of the world – at the height of the Khmer Empire there were nearly a million people living in the Angkor Wat area, compared to 50,000 at the same time in London), in more recent times Cambodia has been a small piece on the global political playing field. Bordered by Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, in the 19th Century, Cambodia had become a vassal state of the Kingdom of Thailand, which inspired, in the 1860s, the Cambodian King to request to become a French protectorate. This continued (apart from a brief period during the second world war where Japan ruled) until independence in 1953. After this there appears to have been a complex and uneasy political situation with several changes in rule, and influence/interference by Vietnam, America and China.
I give you this background just to explain a bit about the quagmire that was the politics in the region. One of the questions that myself and the people I travelled with asked frequently on the trip, confronted with the evidence of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period, was ‘how could this happen?’. And I still don’t have the answer to that, and probably never will without extensive study into the socio-political situation stretching back a long way. So instead, I want to share with you some of my personal learnings from my visits to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, as well as from conversations with those who live there. I don’t know how we can prevent this kind of horror happening again, but visibility is clearly a step along the way.
Khmer Rouge activities
After the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, and established ‘Democratic Kampuchea’, they forced a mass exodus of the urban population into the countyside, literally emptying the cities. They wanted to achieve a communist state, consisting of only workers and peasants. Those previously urban dwellers who had been moved to the countryside were forced to work in the rice fields in extremely harsh conditions, with small rations of rice their only nutrients. Modern medical care was almost non-existent. Educated people were highly suspect, and many were killed – in fact, the Khmer Rouge essentially wiped out the educated middle class in Cambodia during their four-year reign. It’s estimated that over 2 million people were killed either directly or as a result of starvation during this period – and the population only started at 7 million.
Like many regimes of this type, terror was a major part of the Khmer Rouge’s rule. They arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone in several categories of ‘enemy’, including: professionals and intellectuals; ethnic groups such as Christians, Vietnamese, Muslims and Buddhist monks; anyone with connections to the former government or foreign governments and ‘economic saboteurs’ that is, some of the urban dwellers who (not unnaturally) weren’t able to farm. To put this in context, I would imagine most of you reading this would have been in one of these categories…
We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in a building which during the regime was called S-21, and was designed for detention, interrogation, torture and killing. Before the regime this had been a school. The museum houses evidence from the period, which is truly grim in nature, such as shackles, photographs and tools of torture. There were four buildings in the complex, where many of the classrooms had been turned into very small (0.8m x 2m) cells for individual prisoners, often with just a waste bucket as furniture. One building was for more valuable prisoners, such as foreigners, traitors to the KR (often those who had previously been members), and these cells were slightly larger, and contained a bed, blanket, cushion and mat, with an iron-bucket for waste.
In the four-year period, more than 11,000 prisoners were killed at this facility. The museum also suggests that another 20,000 children were killed there.
There were many instruments of torture, all shocking in their brutality. One of the most chilling was the transformation of a wooden frame in the school yard, previously used for PE, turned into a torture instrument whereby prisoners were tied up, and hung upside down with their heads dipped into dirty water until unconscious. Then they were slapped awake by guards, and the process was repeated.
There are 14 graves in front of this torture device today. These are the 14 victims who were discovered when the country was liberated from the KR, all of whom had been dead for some time as the KR had fled earlier. The other victims we know about because the KR kept extensive records of their activities there, including photos of every victim, many of which are now displayed in the museum.
The Killing Fields
To dispose of the many bodies of those they had killed, the KR created mass graves. 20,000 of these have been discovered in Cambodia. Just one of the mass graves we visited at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh contained 450 bodies when discovered. There were several other graves on this one site, and the remains of nearly 9000 victims have been unearthed there. These remains are unidentified.
Many were executed by pick-axe to save bullets, and were made to kneel, blind-folded, at the edge of their own grave, and were hit on the back of the head so that their body just fell into the grave. Some victims were made to dig their own graves first.
I found the experience of visiting the Killing Fields profound. There were many people walking round, but there was an eerie silence, as if every visitor was holding their breath. The site contains a stunning Buddhist memorial (a Stupa), to the victims, which displays the 5000 skulls and other bones on a number of levels, seen through acrylic glass, and is surrounded by the (many now cleared, but not all) sites of the mass graves.
On one of our trips around the country, travelling on the public bus, our guide, Rong, put on the oscar-winning film The Killing Fields. This is a very powerful film, definitely worth watching. Having been to many of the sites and places and heard stories from survivors the film has really stayed with me.
Khmer Rouge justice
30 years after the atrocities, a tribunal was set up to bring some of the perpetrators to justice. There are 5 senior members of Khmer Rouge currently on trial.
One of the discussions we had in the group was the small number of KR members on trial (the tribunal’s mandate is limited to ‘those most responsible’ for atrocities), and how the country was able to work through the complicity of what must be many many of its current population in the regime. While perhaps the five on trial are the most culpable, they are certainly not the only ones who could be considered as such. However, my discussion with the journalist provided more food for thought. Bearing in mind the KR continued to be involved in politics in Cambodia, and the organisation only ceased to exist in 1999 (soon after the death of Pol Pot), for the country to reconcile and move forward, it would have been impossible to put everyone involved on trial. The journalist I met explains this a lot better than me here.
The type of trip I did, a small-group tour by a company with a philosophy of grassroots and responsible tourism, meant that I was able to speak with a number of Cambodians who had lived through this period. Their stories were hard to hear – a 15 year old boy who saw his best friend blown up by a landmine, the son whose father died of starvation because he was giving his rations to his children, the child who had to hide in a dugout so she wasn’t found by the KR.
Considering all these stories, Cambodia today seems a remarkably gentle country, and the people are still generally friendly and smile and laugh, even when it appears to western eyes they are in some of the most destitute situations. One thing I did notice was that the scenery in ‘The Killing Fields’ film, and the scenery I saw today seem very similar. Killing off a generation of educated people has meant that the country is struggling to put itself back together with limited self-sufficiency, and hasn’t progressed in the way some of its neighbours have done. And where people have begin to educate themselves, there aren’t currently the jobs for them – our main tour guide was originally a Chemistry graduate, who learnt his now fairly fluent English many years ago from a French teacher. Tourism is a key part of the current economy.
It was a privilege to visit Cambodia, and whilst challenging in some ways, I would recommend it to anyone coming to visit SE Asia. It certainly enhanced my perspective of my own life and how lucky I am to live the life I do.
I know many of you have already visited Cambodia, so would be interested to hear your reaction to this aspect of Cambodia’s history.