Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Brief History of Life in Cambodia

Written by Lynn

When the horrific word "genocide" is used, most people will think of the internment and incineration of European Jews by the Nazis in WWII, or of the slaughter of the Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus. While these events are heart wrenching, and inspire a deep despair in one faced with the depravation of the human spirit, somehow what happened in Cambodia cuts deeper. Somehow, the thought of a country destroying 20% of its own population makes an already horrendous word seem worse. We're not talking about an ethnic minority being ruthlessly cut from a conquered country's land or even soldiers caught up in a religious zeal. This was about neighbours killing neighbours because they had worked for the government, or drove a fancy car, or even just because they wore glasses. This was children being tortured into confessing that their parents had spoken against the ruling class, then being forced to execute them. This was simply a tragedy.

Perhaps one of the hardest things I had to face here was the fact that this had happened in my lifetime and that I knew NOTHING about it. I had heard of the Killing Fields, I think I may have even seen the movie of the same title. But I didn't really understand or comprehend what had happened in Cambodia until I came here to see it for myself.

Even with the benefit of hindsight and the clarity of time it is hard to peice together the "when", the "how" and, most importantly, the "why". So what I write here is a attempt to understand what I have gathered together from the information and books I have read. I realize it is just part of the puzzle, so I apologize for any inaccuracies or questions I leave unanswered.

The fervour of the Cambodian people to be completely self reliant is likely rooted in the French occupation of their country for over 100 years starting in 1863, and the constant incursions by Vietnamese and Thai military forces. Except for a brief period when it was occupied by the Japanese Imperial troops during WWII, Cambodia remained as a French colony and suffered under their rule, constantly concerned over the loss of their country's identity.

In 1953, with UN support, Cambodia officially declared independance and became a monarchy under the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk. For the next few decades King Sihanouk walked a fine line of neutrality, not willing to side and accept aid from either communist China and the Soviet Union, or the United States. He struggled to maintain the independance of his country while trying to establish a stable economy, not an easy task in the boiling cauldron of what would become the second Indochina War and that would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War.

Then in 1970, while King Sihanouk was in England, he was overthrown in a military coup by General Lol Nol and Prince Sirik Matak. The new government was openly pro-American and anti-communist, allowing US troops to station in southern Cambodia to make forays into neighbouring Vietnam. From his exile in Bejing, King Sihanouk aligned himself with the communist Khmer Rouge party, which automatically gained the political group a lot of support from the lower castes in Cambodian society. Civil war had come to Cambodia.

Pol Pot (french for "politique potentielle") was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. In the territories he controlled he began instituting small changes that would eventually snowball into a genocide of unimaginable proportions. He declared that the working class was the lifeblood of the revolution and that Cambodia's "bourgeois enemies" would have to be cut out of society in order to purify the people. His army consisted mainly of young men and women from peasant families and his goal was to reduce the people in "liberated" areas to feudal peasant equality.

By 1973 he controlled over 2/3 of the country side and enjoyed significant support in much of the remaining territories. In these areas he instigated restrictive policies, such as forbidding the ethnic Cham minorities from wearing traditional dress. He also started moving the population of conquered urban areas into the country side as an attempt to achieve enforced socialism. Pol Pot wanted the "parasitism of urban life" uprooted. Land reform was instituted, and all large properties confiscated then redistributed with the goal of making all holdings of similar size. All means of private transportation were reallocated for military use.

On April 17, 1975 the troops of the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Pehn, capital of Cambodia, with barely a whisper of resistance. The populace celebrated in the streets, cheering the conquering army and the end of war. The Khmer Rouge had finally achieved power.

Under the guise of the threat of American bombings, the Khmer Rouge immediately emptied the entire city of Phnom Pehn, some 2.5 million people. They were allowed to take only what they could carry and abandoned the rest, being promised they could retrieve their possessions once things were safe. Even seriously ill patients in the local hospitals were forced to leave. It is estimated some 3000 citizens died in this evacuation alone. The population from urban centres were termed "new people" (as opposed to the "old people", or rural peasants) and subject to the harshest treatment by the Khmer Rouge as their political inclinations and professions of patriotism were not to be trusted.

People sent to the country began enforced labour for the good of Cambodia. All forms of outside aid were refused, for fear of becoming indebted to another super power (the reason for the original occupation of Cambodia by France). Religion was abolished and a rule of communal property was instituted. Families were seperated, males and females living apart, their children taken from them. The children were instead raised by dedicated members of the Khmer Rouge, and indoctrinated into their way of thinking. They were considered the "pure souls", the only ones without past sins against the ruling government, whether by thought or deed.

Pol Pot developed an ideal of ruling that combined Marxist and Maoist principles. His goal was to return Cambodia to an agrarian society, based on agriculture and completely self reliant. His ministers once boasted to King Sihanouk "we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermdiate steps". The Khmer Rouge banned all modern technological contrivances and ordered the people to begin the back breaking labour of establishing dike and transport systems that would increase production and distribution efficiency within the country. All of this was done by hand. Many people spent 16 hours a day in hard labour. The food was limited as war had managed to destroy or prevent production on arable land, and no foreign aid was accepted. Medical supplies, and those trained to use them, were not only in short supply, but considered unpatriotic to use. Use of traditional therapies was encouraged, though none of the required material was provided. People began to die in the thousands from malnutrition and disease, but the government seemed to not care. If anything, they seemed to encourage the wanton destruction of the populace. People were executed for such minor infractions as not cheering revolutionary slogans loud enough, or not having developed callouses on their hands (indications of "soft lifestyles"). Killings were done with hammers, axe handles and spades in order to save on bullets.

Pol Pot estimated that only 1-2 million people would be required to build his utopia. Based on this his decisions regarding how to deal with dissenters within the country seemed to be influenced. As he stated "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss." He began a campaign to weed out all "undesirables" from his new envisaged community. Former government workers, educated professionals, intellects, ethnic Vietnamese and Chams, Cambodian christians and Buddhist monks became the dregs of society in the new Cambodia, renamed the Democratic Kampuchea. "Re-education" of these selected groups began in earnest. Many were forced through torture to confess to pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes. Any previous contact with foreign agencies, such as missionaries, international relief organizations or even tourists was grounds for execution. Starting in 1976 people began to be classified as either those with "full rights", "candidates" or "depositees". Depositees were marked for destruction, and had their rations cut even further, down to a mere 2 bowls of rice soup a day.

While life for the average Cambodian continued to deteriorate, war with Vietnam continued. Thousands of refugees fled to the Thai border with their horror stories of torture, abuse and starvation. In January 1979 the Khmer Rouge was finally defeated by the Vietnamese army. Pol Pot fled with his supporters to hide out along the Thai border and continue their resistance. Vietnam used this as an excuse to leave a military force within the Cambodian territory. As a result the UN refused to recognize the new government, which was under Vietnamese control. This left Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia who was officially recognized on the world stage, meaning the country could not begin the process of rebuilding itself. It was not until Pol Pot's death in April 1998 that the Khmer Rouge army was finally declared defunct, leaving an opportunity for the renewal of life in Cambodia.

From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot as their leader, ruled Cambodia with an iron fist, attempting to create their vision of a perfect, independant, socialist country. In their fervour to acheive this goal, they slaughtered untold millions. Official estimates place the number dead somewhere between 1.5 to 3 million people, in a country with a population of a mere 7 million at the beginning of the 1970's. Pol Pot himself admits that his Khmer Rouge party was resposible for about 1 million deaths, an obviously grossly low estimate.

So with this as a barely understood history, we flew into Phnom Pehn to visit the "killing fields". The first question that should be asked from a pure interest perspective for future travellers, is "why fly". We were coming from Bangkok with our purpose of going to Cambodia two-fold. We wanted to visit Angkor Wat, a mere 7 hour bus ride east from Bangkok, then head south to Phnom Pehn. But the border crossing into Cambodia at this point is notorious in South East Asia for how incredibly common it is for tourists to get extorted. Hark and Tod, from Jakarta, had crossed here just a few weeks before and they strongly advised against it. The bus trip was delayed by 5 hours at the border while they negotiated with the Cambodian "taxi mafia" who insisted they would have to pay extra for another bus as the one they had booked was "delayed". The visa prices are doubled and the border guards insist that you must change your Thai baht into US dollars there, giving extortionist rates of exchange. The road from the border to Siem Reip/Angkor Wat is hellishly maintained, some say at the insistence of Bangkok Air, the only airline that has flights in and out of Siem Riep (hmm, interesting, and the cost of this flight just happens to be double or even triple any other in Asia). All in all, way too much trouble. Instead we caught a cheap flight into Phnom Pehn, with the plan of getting a bus ride to Siem Riep afterwards.

One thing to understand about Cambodia is that it is NOT Thailand. Up until 1999 there was minimal to no economic growth in this country that suffered from continual cival wars, internal strife and government corruption. Since then they have had a steady increase in general prosperity, their main sources of income being textile exports and tourism. Over half of the tourist who go to Cambodia go only to Angkor Wat, then leave as quickly as possible. People here are poor, and on a scale we haven't seen since Bolivia. This means that the rich white tourists are prime targets for beggars and schemes designed to wrest their precious dollars from them. The touts will appear in an almost constant stream to harass you when you are sitting at restaurants. Many of the beggars are children dressed in dirty rags, carrying babies and begging for change. As heart wrenching as they can be, NGO's working in the area strongly recommend not encouraging them by adding change to their begging bowls. Children who are successful beggars often become a family's only source of income, meaning they will not go to school and be educated, thus perpetuating their impoverished state. Other, more subtle ways of making money involving overcharging tourists for EVERYTHING, usually meaning there may be two different menus at small local restaurants, one for Cambodians, one for others. Hotels will ask for one price, which is usually grossly inflated, and you then have to bargain downwards. People wander the streets selling everything, common items being post cards, jewellry and photocopied books. What they charge depends on whether or not you look like you just stumbled off the bus. Sounds cruel, to complain about being overcharged what would amount to $2 or $3, when that money goes to someone who is desperately poor, and there were many times when we just didn't worry about it too much. But it does become a big struggle here, having to constantly be on your guard and wondering how much you should be paying. Gilles did overpay by about 500% for a book on Angkor Wat to these three girls who were the smartest, funniest group of teenagers we had encountered in a long time (their french was better than mine, and they got an extra dollar out of Gilles when they beat him at tic-tac-toe).

Phnom Pehn itself is not a city that inspires you to linger. It does have the Royal Palace and the National Museum, which are interesting, but brief stop overs. What people are really here for, and what they want to try to understand, is the Killing Fields.

Choeung Ek, the most well known of the killing fields in Cambodia, sits 15 km outside of Phnom Pehn. Here, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge executed 17,000 Cambodians. Some 8,900 of the bodies were discovered in mass graves after the fall of Pol Pot from power. A Buddhist stupa was built on the spot to commemorate the tragedy. In it there is a fibreglass case containing some 5,000 skulls from the victims found here. You can also walk through the back fields, where large pits bearing signs that indicate the number of bodies each contained cover an area almost 1 acre big. On the dirt paths that traverse this area you can still see the occasional shin bone or scrap of shirt poking out of the dirt. Near by I could hear the singing of children at a local school, making the experience all the more surreal.

After Choeung Ek, most will move on to Tuol Sleng, also called S-21. This former highschool was converted into a dentention and interrogation centre in 1975. It was used mainly to hold former Khmer Rouge members and soldiers who were suspected of treason. Often high ranking officials that Pot Pol feared were fomenting plans for a coup were detained here and occasionally their whole families would be brought in to be executed. There were also about 79 foreigners executed here, most of them of Thai and Vietnamese descent. However, 11 of the victims were western, being from the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand and the States, most of them journalists in Cambodia to investigate the rumours of what was happening.

Upon arrival at the prison, all prisoners were photographed and forced to give a biography of their lives, which was closely examined for evidence of a lifestyle deemed undesirable. The prisoners were often interrogated over and over, in an attempt to find descrepancies in what they had originally writen. It was not uncommon for torture, such as partial drownings and beatings to be employed. Should evidence against them be produced (and it almost always eventually was), the unfortunate prisoner would then be shipped to Choeung Ek for disposal.

When you first walk into the prison you encounter row after row of black and white photographs of the prisoners. Some appear afraid, some resigned, occasionally one or two is actually smiling. There are photographs of the emaciated bodies found by the conquering Vietnamese army, as well as the corpses of people still chained to beds. Other pictures taken at the time of discovery show corpses with flies collecting on their eyes, or with head wounds from large caliber guns. Some of the bodies had had their throats slit, others were covered with bruises from beatings, all were skeletal in thier appearance. Small, windowless, wooden cells line the rooms that used to hold students, each only big enough for a person to lie down in and have a bucket in the corner. The following sign is posted, which outlines the rules a prisoner had to obey, or face execution, upon being brought to S-21

1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.

3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.

4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.

5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.

6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.

8. Don’t make pretext in order to hide your secret or traitor.
9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many many lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

Of the 17,000 prisoners who entered S-21, only 7 survived.

It was a hard, heart wrenching day, trying to put yourself in the place of these people. While it seemed awful to me that the only reason that Phonm Pehn was a stop on the backpacker trail was this tragedy, I think skipping it and remaining ignorant of the facts would be worse. After our visit here, suddenly we viewed the people begging for our spare change in a new light. These people, many of them our own age, deserved our respect because they had survived through something we never could and are now struggling to make themselves a place in a world that can quickly forget that this ever happened. Once again, I am humbled by how lucky I am to live the life I do.

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