I didn’t know if I’d write about this, but as a lay on a gurney at the side of a crowded Cambodian ER, I knew I had to.
What I saw in that fluorescent lit room told the story of these people, and their history in a way that reading a book, watching a documentary, or touring around never could.
The legs of an elderly man showed the scars of torture, his emaciated frame reflecting the years of starvation, disease and hard labour in intolerable conditions, and the “good years” of subsistence living.
Lovingly cared for and made as comfortable as he could be, his final act of resilience would be a slow and painful death from the two large tumours protruding from his chest.
That he survived the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime is a testament to his strength, resilience and possibly wit. But to finish his final days in agony like this – attacked by his own body – seemed almost unconscionable.
And that’s what those days back in the 1970’s were. Unconscionable.
That a history we never learned in our western schools, happened during our lifetimes, all while the world looked the other way. We need only look to Syria to see that we haven’t learned the lessons of the past, and until we do, genocidal maniacs will be allowed to commit hideous atrocities against their “own people” time and again. Bombs won’t stop the cycle. They never ever do.
The Americans had been carpet bombing Cambodia for years in the lead up to 17 April 1975, Mark’s 5th birthday, and the day the Khmer Rouge rolled into cities across the country and emptied them in a matter of hours. The bombs had been dropping out in the countryside as a spillover from the war with Vietnam.
The official line is that they were attempting to disrupt supply lines to the Viet Cong, but in reality, the Americans dropped more bombs on farmers and villagers in Cambodia than all of the allies dropped in WWII combined. Let that sink in for a moment. Just 25 years later, we had grown a trigger-lust that couldn’t be satiated by targeted attacks. We just bombed everything.
In reality, the west was so gripped by our Cold War paranoia, that the Americans led a secret campaign to eliminate Maoist Pol Pot and his followers in the Khmer Rouge. A group they had earlier trained and armed in an effort to get them to do their dirty work with the Vietnamese.
America tried the same tactics in Vietnam and failed. Cuba was scarcely different, neither was Afghanistan, Nicaragua, the list goes on. I will secretly be your ally, arming and training you, then change my coat, support the other guy, and presto, we’re now fighting a war against people we trained and armed ourselves. I know it’s never that simple, but surely third (or sixth) time unlucky, we might have learned a lesson or two. But that was not to be the case.
Not surprisingly, country Cambodians lived in fear and hatred of the Americans, and Pol Pot had no problem sowing the seeds of rebellion with a belief in a utopian agrarian society among these lifelong, and long suffering farmers.
Right about the time I was being born, the US pulled out of Saigon as the country fell to the North Vietnamese. Just a month later, the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phom Penh, a city of more than 2.5 million people, and evacuated them all, telling them that the Americans were coming to drop more bombs. They were promised they could return in three days.
In fact, in three days, families had already been marched out into the countryside in the first of a series of moves designed to separate families, send them far from home, and enslave an entire nation.
The Khmer Rouge abolished money and personal possession. Nobody had anything of their own. People weren’t allowed to wear colour – it was a sign of vanity or a sense of self – for which there was no room in the new Kampuchea, as Cambodia was called during that time.
City people were not to be trusted. Anyone who wore glasses, had soft hands, or spoke a different language weren’t to be trusted. Intellectuals, professionals, monks and nuns were tortured and executed first. Small children were taken from their mothers and smashed against trees before being thrown into pits to die. Bullets were too valuable to waste on a life, and often the methods of one’s demise was brutal and rough.
The new society would be entirely self-sufficient – growing all of the food they needed, and creating a culture who desired nothing else. In reality, the food was sold to China or fed to the soldiers. The people would never enjoy the utopian society Pol Pot and his Comrades imagined.
Men, women and children worked long hours in the fields with little more food than watery rice gruel. They succumbed to disease, starvation, injury and despair. In total, an estimated 3 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and that’s before they starting turning on themselves.
Many of those Khmer Rouge soldiers who had spied, tortured, lied and killed were now spied upon, lied about, and mistrusted to the extent they became victims themselves. Tortured, imprisoned and killed, the Khmer Rouge began self-destructing from the inside out.
Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, and it’s been rebuilding ever since.
What I find most fascinating is that the Khmer Rouge not only still exists, but they are the majority party in government, even today. For 12 years after the end of their reign of horror, they were allowed a seat at the UN, as the sole representative of Cambodia. There were more political skirmishes throughout the next two decades, and finally, in 1998, some of the key leaders stood trial.
In the first month after liberation, more than 300,000 people filed through the meticulous records kept by the regime, in an effort to locate their family members. Many would never find out whether their family lived or died, but many were reunited as well.
Hundreds of people stepped forward to give their evidence of the atrocities the Khmer Rouge committed against them personally. Those who couldn’t speak for themselves, were represented by their surviving family members. Including the brother of a man from New Zealand, who’s sailboat blew into Cambodian waters during a storm, and who was captured, tortured and killed. 110 foreigners in total suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
There is not one person over the age of 40 alive in Cambodia today who did not personally experience the brutality of this regime. Nobody was left alone to live their lives in their villages. Everyone was transported, separated and made to work in camps. You could also say that the revolutionary soldiers – many of them just children – were victims themselves – brainwashed into serving Ankar and nobody else.
Every. Single. Person.
They don’t all wear it on their faces today, but behind the wide smiles, you know it exists. There is a fierce determination to create a new and improved Cambodia – one that will never forget and never repeat the horrors of just one generation past.
But Cambodia isn’t out of the woods yet. The Khmer Rouge may not be using the same tactics as in the 70’s, but the country is inexplicably ruled by the same people. Not just the same party – the same people.
The leader of the current opposition party, as well as some its other leaders have been jailed for various reasons. Many of the free press have been expelled from the country, and protests are routinely shut down. The PM has a fiery tongue, a huge ego, and is prone to making macho statements like threatening to chase any Australians who protest his upcoming visit to Sydney back into their homes where he will beat them. Not sounding like a benevolent leader now, is he?
We witnessed a fantastic disparity of wealth in Cambodia. Lexus SUVs roam the streets in greater proportion than any other vehicle save tuk tuks. We also saw an interestingly high proportion of Ferraris, lamborghinis and porsches, considering how poor much of the country remains.
New construction is everywhere. Shiny skyscrapers form the skyline of Phnom Penh, and an abundance of cranes build even more. Investment in education is obvious, and healthcare is now widely available in the cities.
In the village, we saw large houses with shining trucks parked outside, alongside entire families living in huts that are barely more than a raised bamboo platform with three walls made of woven palm leaves. Primitive to luxury – the great disparity continues.
We witnessed the evil horrors of the Killing Fields and the S21 Genocide museum – once a prison dedicated to torture. But we also met some of the kindest, wide open people, full of hope and a determination to see their dreams into reality.
We left Cambodia with mixed feelings. Their ancient history has left a proud and enduring legacy. Modern history has been just as impactful, and it’s humbling to see the resolve with which the average Cambodian strives to improve on their present, and never repeat the atrocities of the past.
At the micro level, Cambodia is an inspiring and wonderful place to visit and learn. At a macro level, the corruption and behaviour of their government continues to be atrocious – even more shocking that they aren’t held to account.
Cambodia is a place that made us examine our understanding of the world, and that is exactly why we chose to call our blog Longitudinal Shift.
By traveling “sideways” across the globe, we have learned the many degrees of difference between cultures.
We have shifted our perceptions of places and people, and nowhere was this more impactful than in Cambodia.