Cambodia Day 7: Tales from the dark side

This isn’t a graphic post but the subject matter is terribly difficult so please be advised, it won’t be for everyone. The pictures are from, first S21 the Khmer Rouge’s prison and torture centre based in a high school and, second from the Cheong Ek Genocidal Centre based at one of the Khmer’s ‘Killing Fields’ and mass graves. I deliberately chose soothing views.

You cannot come to Cambodia and not confront its recent history. The depth of its civilisation comes to be seen through the prism of one of the twentieth century’s most egregious conflicts and disgusting social experiments, up there with the genocides of Bosnia and Serbia and Rwanda (if we only dip back into the recent past).

If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s when the news contained regular references to the Vietnam war, you will have heard Phnom Penh mentioned, alongside the Ho Chi Ming Trail. The names Pol Pot, Lon Nol and Prince Sihanouk may also resonate with some.

But if, like me, it was a distant war fought between other nations that may be the extent of it. Perhaps you saw the film the Killing Fields and remember its depiction of horrors in a foreign land? Did it stay long in the mind?

I studied the Vietnam war in history, back in 73 to 75. I learnt of the backdrop of the collapse of European Imperialism   – in this case the French – and the success of the Vietnamese Rebels under Ho Chi Ming in defeating the French and winning independence.

What I never saw, what never held my attention was the multilayered reasons why this event led inexorably to genocide. In much the same way the fall of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s has led inexorably to the rise of Daesh and the current turmoil across the Middle East and terrorists atrocities at home.

In both cases, you start with Russia and America and the Cold War. Alongside the Cold War there were several proxy fights. Fears about on whose side various strategic countries sat has fuelled fights that were otherwise destined to be sad, always unnecessary but contained and short lived – no fun for the peoples involved but not likely to spread far and wide.

Cambodia won its independence in 1953 through diplomacy, though it would be naive to ignore the growing success of the fight its neighbour North Vietnam was having in taking the battle to the hollowed out French forces in the success of those negotiations. Sihanouk, who was King of Cambodia in the late 40s abdicated so he could stand, as Prince Sihanouk, in the 1955 elections which he won.

All seemed set fair for a new chapter.

But across the border trouble was brewing again. America espoused the domino theory of communist spread: if one country falls, then the next is more at risk and so the momentum builds. While this hardly says America had much confidence in its own form of government it was a serious philosophy.

So when North Vietnam went communist, America panicked. It was determined a line had to be drawn and as soon as Ho Chi Ming started pressing to unite the North and the South, it began to stiffen the sinews of South Vietnam, to resist what it perceived as the oppressor, part of a global conspiracy for world domination.

Back then America abhorred the idea of direct involvement. It had suffered in Europe and then Korea. Numerous skirmishes had almost triggered a direct conflict with Russia so a proxy fight, with arms and expertise being supplied was preferable to boots on the ground. It had also taken the moral high ground with the British and French over the Suez Canal in 1956, when they were both more directly involved. Either way their policy failed as history shows only too well. Eventually American troops would have to come in or the fight was lost.

But the conditions for Cambodia’s collapse and Pol Pot’s accession to power were by then well established.  The supply lines used by the North Vietnamese in their fight against the South and the Americans went through Laos and Cambodia – the Ho Chi Ming Trail: goodness how reading that name takes me back to news broadcasts in the 70s sat at home safe in Hampshire – and to stop them the Americans bombed it to hell and beyond. And kept in bombing it. And then some. And local villages, too, in case they gave harbour to the Vietcong. How do you maintain stability in such times? Sihanouk didn’t. He sided with the Vietcong, though with little enthusiasm and America increasingly distrusted him.

When a military coup took place in 1970 America backed the coup not the legitimate government, something they do when their bigger picture is threatened: here communist influence, in Iraq with the toppling of Sadam it was another perceived threat from Al Qaeda.

Sihanouk took refuge in China and, as happens when people are desperate – in his case to get back into power – he aligned himself with the least obvious force, but the one fighting the new Khmer government – the Cambodian communists under Pol Pot – the Khmer Rouge.

While the US forces were in play in the region, it wasn’t likely to succeed but then Nixon and Kissinger decided to get the US Troops home. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1974 and America withdrew, including its support for Lon Nol.

By 1975 the Khmer Rouge had entered Phnom Penh to cheering. Peace at last, they thought. Pretty much instantly the residents of all the large cities were rounded up and made to leave. Within days they were ghost towns. An experiment in agrarian communism was underway.

In four years the country was ripped apart. One quarter – I’ll repeat that, 25% – of its population was dead through execution, starvation disease and, in large measure, a loss of hope.

Internationally no one cared. The US, Britain, France and the communist countries recognised Pol Pot as the legitimate leader. They took a seat at the UN while murdering their people.

As genocides go, this was ferocious and efficient. And everyone stood by.

The legacies are dreadful. The current government is a nepotistic disgrace, Cambodia registers somewhere around 150 on the list of the most corrupt governments – the U.K. is at 10. It has a major street children issue in its capital and there is the highly tangible and highly deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance as well as land mines placed by the self same US forces, some by air (how is that possible – we were told it was) and by most by of the various forces involved down the years – the Vietcong, the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian government after military take over and on.

Yet the Beacons of light here are strong. Enter Ali Ra, a boy soldier for the Khmer who laid hundreds of mines before defecting and spending his life to date removing them. Personally he has cleared thousands, often at dreadful risk to himself. He set up a land mine museum  which tells that story and the wider picture of the moves to make such devices illegal, while raising money to fund his support for and education of those injured by these devices. At the end of our tour there were banners with personal stories relating to other genocides around the globe: the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanada and here in Cambodia. It was easily the moving harrowing of reads that day. One statistic among dozens stood out: over 1 million land mines and UXO remain to be cleared.

Later, we met two survivors of the notorious S21 prison and torture facility in Phnom Penh. Two out of seven in the 4 years over killing. That’s all who survived of the ten of thousands who passed through. Smiley old boys who tell their story because they have to. They like young people; they want for then what they and their families didn’t have.

S21 was a high school adapted for its new purpose  – the school high beam used for exercise before became a gallows and torture facility to string up prisoners. You wonder how these gentlemen cope with what they lived through. What levels of resilience are involved.

We travelled to Cheong Ek, the Genocidal Centre based at one of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Field that is a memorial to the thousands killed there. It is a peaceful place, full of shading trees, blossom, butterflies, hens and silent people. So silent. Everyone is alone in themselves. Children and teens take their time, they are beyond fidgeting, understanding perhaps this is a special place, through the body language of their carers. It hollows you out, this place, in the functionality of what transpired every night under cover of darkness and loud revolutionary music.

Bullets weren’t used as too expensive so any instrument was pressed into service. Even a stout tree. The Killing Tree. But for the fact every piece of bark has a hair band hanging from it giving it a jolly rainbow appearance it would be unremarkable. Yet it was here that children, small enough to be picked up and swung were killed, brutally often in front of their mother’s before they too were killed. Pol Pot killed families to stop any familial revenge. ‘To kill a tree, first you must dig up the roots’. One of many sick slogans we heard. Truly it beggars belief.

I wandered back to the Stupa monument. It is a simple shrine of classical proportions with Hindu and Buddhist iconography built into the decorations. But then your eyes adjust.

You see the metres high glass sides filled with skulls. When you see them you cannot look away. Hundreds of them, catalogued by age and sex. There are other bones there, clothes too, not that you see them. How can you move beyond those staring, deep sad empty eye sockets, still asking why.

If not now, when? If not me, who?

I admit to a tear. Several.  So many questions but mostly why do we still do this to each other? We need to teach how this terrible event came about, alongside the Hollocaust and the others. It is the creation of the conditions that is so appalling, just as much as the killing itself. Unless our young people can see the path their leaders might be on how can they stop them? It is already too late when the terror has taken hold; frankly most people would find it hard to resist the basic kill or be killed requirement of these regimes, when established.

Do not let governments, in our name, align themselves with killers, for ‘strategic’ reasons. It never leads to good. The reasons are rarely, if ever, sufficiently compelling. We could start with a Saudi ban but there are others too. And stop selling arms, period. Because others do, why should we?

I remain amazed at how Cambodia is dealing with its past. The world should revere the tough determination of this harshly treated yet hardy people to be themselves and achieve reconciliation and acceptance on a personal level despite what every family hereabouts suffered.

It’s sometimes bloody difficult to be an optimist but if there’s a nation of optimists on this planet Cambodia is in the top three. I think at heart I’m one third Cambodian (the rest being one third loon and one third Labrador). It’s all that keeps me plodding on.

Today, no story. Nothing warrants your attention but thinking about how you would have coped before, during and after this. You owe it to yourselves to be grateful it hasn’t happened, if it hasn’t and to ensure you do whatever you need to ensure you and this who represent you do nothing in your name that could lead that way.

Thank you for reading.

Tomorrow, it is back to Singapore for a few days, with a few more stories to tell.

 

 

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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45 Responses to Cambodia Day 7: Tales from the dark side

  1. trifflepudling says:

    Horribly gripping subject, well summarised and conveyed. I would term it ‘the US’ not ‘America’, though. One does one’s best to protest, write letters, sign petitions, but do they take any notice? Not very much (not that it should stop one). In a way, you could say that these periodic episodes keep us on the right side as the majority human response is revulsion. Awful for the poor sods caught up in it, though. I always felt flower power and all that was a reaction to the nightly news bulletins on US tv and film of the actual fighting and of endless coffins coming home.
    When you’re back in Singapore a visit to ‘Reflections at Bukit Chandu’ on the Kent Ridge path might be worth a visit if you have time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflections_at_Bukit_Chandu ; http://www.visitsingapore.com/editorials/walk-on-the-wild-side.html ). It’s a quiet and understated memorial centre to one of the final fierce battles for Singapore in WWII. It was very affecting. I noticed when I got home that it was the one place at which I didn’t take photos. I expect I felt just a bit overwhelmed and never thought to do so.
    People of our age in the West have generally been very lucky to live through largely peaceful times with no actual call-ups etc. and yet some people now seem more dissatisfied than ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A history and information that is hard to read, hard not to. I was going to comment on that excellent photo taken through the barbed wire. But then…those skulls. No words.

    “The Killing Fields”…stayed with me for a very long time. Thanks for sharing this, Geoff.

    Like

  3. Mary Smith says:

    A very moving post, Geoff. I think I mentioned before I was working for Oxfam and campaigning for Pol Pot to be removed from his seat at the UN. Oxfam sailed a barge along the Mekong (after Pol Pot was deposed obviously) bringing supplies to Cambodia. Along with the food and medicines they took footballs, dolls and colouring books because there were no toys in the country. Children did not know how to play. It wasn’t allowed.
    I always remember Guy Stringer, who was Oxfam’s deputy director and went to Cambodia on that first barge, becoming quite angry at a talk he was giving when someone remarked that Cambodians are a lovely, peaceful people. He pointed out that Pol Pot and his supporters were Cambodian. It made me realise we shouldn’t make sweeping statements about a people and wonder how I would behave in such a situation. Of course, I’d have been killed on day one because I wear glasses and that would have shown I was an ‘intellectual’.
    Thank you for this and for reminding people of what happened not so very long ago.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    As Geoff Le Pard says in his intro although graphic this post is chilling. Geoff is on a trip to Cambodia and in this post visits the darker side of Cambodia’s recent history. Whilst we were enjoying the emergence of the decade of flower power and love to all, the citizens of Cambodia were being subjected to genocide and starvation. Hard to read.. certainly but thought provoking and fascinating too. #recommended

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Anabel Marsh says:

    Lucid explanation, thank you. Like you, I grew up with this constantly on the news. Like you, I wonder how it can still happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Sue Vincent says:

    My youngest granddaughter was born this morning; a tiny child like any other… like those murdered in Cambodia. Like those dying every day through war, greed and the neglect of the international ‘community’ who see life in terms of power, profit and political chicanery instead of in terms of people. I want a better future for my children and my children’s children than one in which genocide can pass unchallenged.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. dejahgatz says:

    Beautiful post. I will never forget my day at the Killing Fields and S21.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ritu says:

    I am so glad I saved this post to read properly tonight. What a history. Born in the mid 70’s I wasn’t really made as aware of all thst happened there but it was a truly humbling post His Geoffleship, making me feel grateful for all that I have and feel compassion for those poor souls who suffered so…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. noelleg44 says:

    A good explanation of a horrific place and time. I saw The Killing Fields and it wrenched my soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mick Canning says:

    Excellent post, Geoff. As others have already commented, I watched ‘The Killing Fields’, absolutely horrified by it all. And yes, we should bloody well stop selling arms to people, just because ‘others do it’.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. willowdot21 says:

    Thank you Geoff you very moving.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Colleen’s Weekly #Poetry Challenge # 45 – #Haiku #Haibun or #Tanka: Hate & Pride | willowdot21

  13. ellenbest24 says:

    I, at the end of March 2017 I went to Poland I stayed in the heart of Krakaw, a beautiful city, truly a wonderful place with stunning architecture art and music; … and Auschwits/Birkinau.
    My personal experience of that place fundamentally altered me, the me I was. Other than one poem which I penned on the day I have not been emotionally able to write my account, as you have done here. Your words so eloquent yet simple put me back in a flash to the place where 1.1 million men woman and children confronted evil. To think that after all of the horror that was exposed, could then, thirty or so years later be repeated and a simular genocide happened once more. It beggars belief. Will mankind ever truly learn. Thank you for your post, your strength and the simple way in which you told it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I didn’t know an awful lot about this Geoff, but what I have just read has sickened me to the core. I cannot imagine such atrocities not would I evven want to try. The sad thing is, that we never learn. It must have been a very humbling experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Eileen says:

    My niece teaches in Saudi Arabia now. She taught in a small village in Alaska on the Bering Straits before this. But this summer she spent traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam. One of the people she met in Cambodia remembers when he was about six or seven years old riding in a ox drawn cart over the bodies that literally covered the roads. My grandson was teaching in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. Two of the students in the school of about 200 were expatriates whose parents left some years ago and after becoming Christian moved back in hopes of being able to help others. The father and the teenage children were executed by theTaliban. The mother was at the grocery store and escaped. The school administration was notified shortly after that of a plan to bomb the school, so it was evacuated and closed. During the 1950’s in Texas, my father was a newspaper editor who editorially supported the first African American to run for a place on the local school board. This was when the schools were segregated and there was no representation for the schools for African Americans. The night of the election, someone set off a bomb in the entrance hall to our apartment. Fortunately it wasn’t as sophisticated as bombs today, but did damage to the entrance and had I answered the door bell, sharp pieces of slate that were stuck into the door would have been stuck in me. In the sixties because of some work I was doing for civil rights, I saw so much hatred on both sides, that I became convinced that America was headed for a bloody race war. I realized later that without Martin Luther King, Jr., most likely we would have. We need more people willing to risk their lives for peace than for war.

    Like

  16. That was a very moving and heart wrenching post. Thank you for opening up my eyes to this Tan Gental.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Makes me wonder if human kind will ever learn.

    Liked by 1 person

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