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.