Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cambodia's Dark Past

Cambodia is a difficult place to write about for many reasons.  It is truly a land of contradictions - so rich in ancient artifacts, spectacular scenery and friendly, gregarious people, but so poor despite massive amounts of international aid.  The bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-late 1970s casts a pall over the nation that was difficult to wrap our heads around.

We started our Cambodia trip in the capital Phnom Penh, a city that was evacuated in its entirety in three days after the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975.  During the Khmer Rouge reign, Phnom Penh was home to the notorious S-21 Prison, where political prisoners were incarcerated and tortured, and the nearby Killing Fields where they were sent to be killed and buried in mass graves.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)
A corridor of S-21, a former high school turned tortue prison turned genocide museum.
Inside are exhibits showing the torture devices used, as well a photographs of the many people who lost their lives here.
Of the approximately 20,000 Cambodians (as well as some foreigners) incarcerated here, only 7 survived.
The posted rules of the prison.
Later, we met one of the survivors, a painter who recreated the scenes of torture and violence he witnessed.
These paintings are hung throughout the museum.
Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields)

The Killing Fields are an unassuming former orchard and Chinese cemetery located about 17 km from Phnom Penh.
Each of these depressions marks a mass grave.  Bits of clothing and even bone are still scattered about.

Some of the graves are fenced off and marked, such as in the photo above, and the next few photos below,
but the memorial is still very much a work in progress.

These sharp serrated leaves were used as blunt knives to kill victims.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a Buddhist stupa,
where skulls and clothing unearthed from the mass graves are displayed.

Earlier in the trip we had visited Dachau.  The former concentration camp is now an excellent and extremely moving museum and memorial.  The Genocide Museum and Killing Fields in Cambodia were far less developed, but equally striking, especially given how recently the Khmer Rouge genocide took place.  Anyone over the age of about 35 would have lived through the years of starvation, disease, forced labor and executions that marked the Khmer Rouge reign.  And former victims of the Khmer Rouge live and work alongside their former captors.  Even many government officials today are former Khmer Rougers who defected in the years following Cambodia's liberation by the Vietnamese.

Last year, the former head of the S-21 Prison, a man known as Duch, was found guilty by the ECCC, a United Nations-backed tribunal, of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He will serve about 19 years in prison.  While we were in Cambodia, the second tribunal was just beginning, and the trial is expected to start in September.  The defendants, four high-level Khmer Rouge officials, including the "number 2" after Pol Pot, are all in the eighties and in poor health.  The Cambodians we asked about the trials had mixed feelings.  A few felt that the trials would provide them with a modicum of justice for their suffering under the Khmer Rouge.  Others pointed out that the millions of dollars sunk into the tribunals (notoriously plagued with corruption, disarray and delays) could be better spent on helping the struggling Cambodian people.  Still others just shrugged, of the opinion that the trials didn't concern them, and they didn't concern themselves with the trials.

Obviously in our three weeks in Cambodia we were barely able to scratch the surface of the Cambodian people and the effect of the Khmer Rouge on the national psyche.  But it was clear even to us that despite billions of dollars of international aid (more on this in the next post), Cambodia still has a long way to go.

There are a number of excellent books about life under the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia today.  I can recommend the following:
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.) - Loung Ung
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind - Loung Ung
When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge - Chanrithy Him

Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land - Joel Brinkley

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