(Written in July of 1995)

Cambodia is not a country that does anything by half-measures. Whether it be genocide, war, UN programs, poverty or the stunning beauty of its countryside and ancient monuments, the country attacks everything it does with a vengeance.

Recently UNTAC (the United Nations Transitional Authority on Cambodia) gave Cambodia back something it had lost for a long time, hope. Yes UNTAC caused problems, but it also did a tremendous amount of good bringing back the world community to a war ravaged nation. Before UNTAC, many Cambodians were walking around in a daze, forlorn and listless, conditioned by fear and sorrow, they were too scared to hope.

The country is just now awakening from a long suffering nightmare that at times seemed like it would never end. Cambodians are beginning to dream again, for little hopes are starting to come true. People are able to buy a second set of clothes, books for their children, radios and TVs for entertainment. It is true that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider, but there is a growing middle class, which will continue to expand as long as the country can stay peaceful. It seems as if the whole country is studying English at night school and this s another hopeful sign. People are starting to plan for their future, whereas before they were just trying to survive to the next day.

Many people still suffer from irrevocable trauma caused by the war years. They have tremendous difficulty describing the horrors they witnessed or experienced as if it was one gigantic nightmare that couldn’t possibly have happened, because it was so awful. Many are still scared to speak of the atrocities for fear or retaliation from former Khmer rouge cadres. Almost everyone lost at least one relative to the Khmer Rouge and some lost entire families and everything they owned.

What the Khmer Rouge did to their own countrymen is still unfathomable to many people. Brother killed brother, son killed mother, it made no sense at that time and still doesn’t today. Some blame the Americans for bombing the Khmer Rouge sanctuaries so heavily and causing them to live like animals for years. Foraging in the countryside, constantly fearing B-52 raids, which caused the death of so many of their comrades.

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Victims of the Khmer Rouge

Some blame the tight disciplinarian structure of the Cambodian family unit, which can be very intolerant. Scholars say that the Khmer Rouge cadre used this to pit children against their parents. Whatever theory you espouse, or whoever, you want to blame for the tragedy, whether it be the Vietnamese, the Chinese, or the Americans, the bottom line is that the Cambodians turned on and killed themselves in numbers not seen since Hitler’s Holocaust, Mao’s and Stalin’s purges and the recent bloodshed in Rwanda.

The tragic irony is the people (except for the cyclo drivers and motorcycle taxis) are very kind and friendly. The children are full of life, seemingly oblivious to the poverty all around them. The countryside is gorgeous, especially Angkor Wat, the site of some of the most spectacular ancient ruins anywhere.

In many ways Phnom Penh (pronounced Panom Pen) resembles Ho Chi Minh City. Both are very dirty, poor and teeming with people. Both also have antiquated sewage and electrical systems.

Cambodia’s problems are manifold, including a lack of educated people to run a market-based economy. Tschaisiri Samudavanija, a former lecturer in journalism at Chulalongkorn University wrote, “Before the Vietnam War, Cambodia had something of a middle class, most of them ethnic Chinese, which constituted a minority of the population. But the former middle class, after having escaped from Cambodia, are now selling hamburgers in the USA. They must return home to spearhead a general mobilization of human resources to bring about a revival of a capitalist-free market economy.”

Angkor Wat

The largest temple complex in the world is simply everything you have heard about it and more. A ten-year-old girl was my guide through the ancient temple and it seemed as if she said: “Khmer Rouge shoot gun, Khmer Rouge cut head” at every statue we passed as the rebel army did a thorough job of desecrating any monument linked to Buddhism on the temple grounds.

The first Westerner thought to have visited Angkor Wat was Henri Mouhot in 1860. This French naturalist/explorer brought back news of the massive ancient city to France and in 1873 Louis Delaporte launched a scientific expedition to explore the ruins. In its heyday the Angkor empire extended as far west as Three Pagodas Pass at the Thai- Burmese, as far south as the Malaysian peninsula, as far north as Vientiane, Laos, and as far west as the central Vietnamese coast. The site was abandoned in 1431 after it was sacked by the Thais (ironically, the translation of Siem Reap is the Siamese, or Thai, defeated).

Guest houses can be had cheaply in Siem Reap, but this probably won’t last. Angkor is so beautiful that it’s only a matter of time before Siem Reap will look like Cusco (close to Machu Picchu) or Kathmandu (gateway to the Himalayas). Admission onto the grounds is US$20 a day.

ta phrom

King Jayavarman is probably the monarch most responsible for Angkor’s beauty. Michael Freeman in his beautifully photographed book on Angkor describes his reign, “A fervent Buddhist, unlike his predecessors who worshiped Hindu gods, Jayavarman VII crammed into his 30-year-rule the largest building program ever undertaken. His new city was the surviving Angkor Thom, centered on the Bayon. He was also responsible for Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan, among others, not to mention hundreds of temples, hospitals and other buildings across the empire.”

Freeman goes on to describe Bayon as follows: “The 54 towers of Jayavarman VII’s Bayon were each carved with four near-identical faces, aligned in the cardinal directions. When first discovered, it was thought that they might represent the Hindu God Brahma, who is characteristically in this form. Now it is known that they are of the Compassionate Boddhisattva Lokesvara, one of the most worshipped divinities in the Mahayana Buddhism that the King adhered to – probably under the influence of his devout wife. However, the significance of these enigmatically smiling faces goes beyond this, for they are carved in the likeness of Jayavarman VII himself.”

There are over 17,000 apsaras (feamle divinities) gracing the walls of the temples in and around Angkor. The apsaras sang, danced and entertained the Gods. And it is interesting to note that the volume of stone at Angkor is equal to that of the ‘Great Pyramid of Cheops’ and the majority of its is carved in exquisite detail.

Tuol Sleng & Choeung Ek

David Robinson in the Lonely Planet book on Cambodia describes the history of Tuol Sleng Museum: “In 1975, Tuol Svey Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a security prison known as S-21. It soon became the largest such centre of detention and torture in the country. Over 17,000 people held at S-21 were later taken to the extermination camp at Choeung Ek to be executed; detainees who died during torture were buried in mass graves on the prison grounds.

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KR rules at Tuol Sleng

“Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes both before and after being tortured. The museum displays include room after room in which photographs of men, women and children; virtually all the people pictured were later killed. You can tell in what year a picture was taken by the style of the number board that appears on the prisoner’s chest. Several foreigners from Australia, France and the USA were held before being murdered.

“As the Khmer Rouge revolution reached ever greater heights of insanity, it began devouring its own children. Generations of torturers who worked here killed their predecessors and were in turn killed by those who took their places. During the first part of 1977, S-21 claimed an average of a hundred victims per day.

“When Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese army in early 1979, they found only seven prisoners alive at S-21. Fourteen others had been torture to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing bodies were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard.

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KR torture method

Located 15 kilometres from downtown Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Robinson in the Lonely Planet book describes them as follows: “Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women and children (including nine Westerners) detained and tortured at S-21 prison were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek to be executed. They were bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets.

“The remains of 8,985 people many of whom were found bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in the one-time longan orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. Over 8,000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the glass panels of the Memorial stupa, which was erected in 1988.”

As you enter the grounds of Choeung Ek there is a placard describing the horror of the Khmer Rouge. It reads as follows (unedited):

“The most tragic thing is that; even in this the 20th century, on Kampuchean soil, the clique of Pol Pot criminals had committed a heinous genocidal act, they massacred the population with atrocity in a large scale. It was more cruel than the genocidal act committed by the Hitler fascists. With the commemorative stupa in front of us, we imagine that we are hearing the grievous voice of the victims who were beaten by Pol Pot’s men with canes, bamboo stumps, or heads of hoes, and stabbed with knives or swords. We seem to be looking at the horrifying scenes and the panic, stricken faces of the people who were dying of starvation, forced labor or torture without mercy on their skinny bodies; they died without giving the last words to their kith and kin. How hurtful those victims were when they were beaten with canes, heads of hoes and stabbed with knives and swords before their last breathe was taken out. How bitter they were on seeing their beloved children, wives, husbands, brothers or sisters seized and tightly bound before being taken out to the mass graves, while they were waiting for their turn to share their tragic lot. The method of massacre, which the Pol Pot clique carried out upon the innocent people of Kampuchea cannot be described fully and clearly in words, because the invention of this killing method was strangely cruel. So it is difficult for us to determine who they are for they have the human form but their hearts are demon’s hearts. They have got the Khmer face but their activities are purely reactionary. They wanted to transform Kampuchean people into a group of persons without reason or a group who knew and understood nothing, who always bent their heads to carry out Angkor’s orders blindly. They had educated and transformed young people and the adolescents whose hearts are pure, gentle and modest into odious executioners who dared to kill the innocent and even their own parents, relatives and friends. They had burnt the market places, abolished the monetary system, eliminated books of rules and principles of national culture, destroyed schools, hospitals, pagodas and beautiful monuments such as Angkor Wat Temple which is the source of pure national pride and preserves the beliefs, knowledge and intelligence of our nation.”

 

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Skulls at the stupa in Choeung Ek

It is still hard to believe the world stood idly by and let this massacre happen. It is even harder to understand why so many people still choose to ignore it. Everyone knows of the Holocaust in Europe, but why has so little publicity been devoted to the Cambodian Holocaust? If its weren’t for the film The Killing Fields hardly anyone would know the massacre took place. And when will a War Crimes Tribunal be set up to try Pol Pot and his cadre?

(Sources for this article included the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit on Cambodia by Daniel Robinson and Tony Wheeler and A Golden Souvenir of Angkor by Michael Freeman, published by Asia Books.)

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