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The Killing Fields

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 23 February 2010 | Views [622]

To begin to understand Cambodia you must first face its tragic, horrific, recent past.

Buddha near Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

A brief and probably inadequate overview of recent Cambodian history:

Post-colonial Cambodia saw a military coup of King Sihanouk in 1970 (with 'tacit US consent'...oh yes, the hands of the US aren't clean in this story either) and Sihanouk* fled to Beijing setting up an exile government aligned with a revolutionary group known as Khmer Rouge, ostensibly to support the overthrowing of the overthrowers.

*If you can figure out this guy's chameleon-like role in Cambodian history you're a smarter person than I...he's on every side at one point or another and ends up leading the country again in the 80s and 90s.

The US and South Vietnam, meanwhile, invade eastern Cambodia and spent 4 years carpet bombing the hell out of the place, trying to flush out Viet Cong from the countryside, which of course just resulted in the VC further into the country. This combination of events led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and encouraged many Cambodian people to flee to rural areas to fight with them...indeed, many thought that by joining the Khmer Rouge they were taking up their king's call to fight against the government and the invading Vietnamese.

1975 was when it really got nasty, as the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh and almost overnight turned it into a ghost town as residents fled to family in rural villages (or were marched there). Led by Pol Pot - Brother Number 1 - the Khmer Rouge wasn't just any communist rebel group. They had a particular brand of crazy that is nothing short of sheer terror and brutality, and it was inflicted on the Cambodian people for 4 years until the Vietnamese invaded.

Men's and women's Khmer Rouge uniforms

Same same but different

The closest thing to the actions of the Khmer Rouge, that I'm aware of, is probably the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The KR objective, you see, was to go back to 'year zero' and build a purely agrarian society made up of 'base people'. This necessitated, in their view, complete isolation and additionally destruction of institutions from banking and currency to medicine, religion, industry, schools and of course private ownership - destruction which was executed with incredible speed. In these respects, the Khmer Rouge was Mao's Red Guards on amphetamines - the lunacy and brutality was probably more thorough and controlled in Cambodia versus China.

Some gems from this era:

  • All people from the city were sent to the countryside to work as hard labourers (they had to walk, by the way). Would you know how to plant rice? I wouldn't. Widespread famine resulted.
  • Economic plans based nowhere in the sphere of reality were launched - to produce 3 tonnes of rice per hectare (previously 1 tonne was produced), resulting in 12 hour days of backbreaking labour, fueled by 2 bowls of watery rice porridge. Of course this goal wasn't met, either.
  • Hairbrained irrigation schemes were also launched - but wait! We've killed the intellectuals! Perhaps a few engineers would have come in handy.
  • Followers (and later everyone, in an attempt to disguise themselves as followers) dressed entirely in black, save a red scarf, and the women had the same bobbed haircut. The objective, of course, was to overcome individuality and emphasise commitment to the cause of the base people.
  • Children were separated from parents (thought to be 'capitalist influences') and housed in children's camps for work and re-eduction, often far away from their parents.
  • Families were separated for months or years as the Khmer Rouge worked to essentially destroy what is a very strong and extensive family support network. To this day many don't know exactly what happened to relatives during this period.

No revolution is complete without its enemies and essentially everyone was a potential target depending on who the local Khmer Rouge authorities thought might be tainted with wrong thinking.

  • Goes without saying, former government officials and anyone with connections with the outside world were immediately detained and later put to death.
  • All intellectuals or educated people were killed. Some were killed for being suspected of being intellectual or showing intellectual characteristics. Like...oh...wearing glasses.
  • Religion being banned and all, Buddhist monks and anyone practising another kind of religion were a target.
  • Family members could be put to death for communicating or acknowledging other family members.
  • And then the Khmer Rouge started to turn on itself...even being a member didn't grant you immunity from the insanity.

I toured the S-21, or Toel Sleng, prison my first day in Cambodia, which is where nearly 20,000 prisoners were kept in the late 1970s. Only 7 survived, the rest were executed at the Killing Fields 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. What is most shocking and horrible about these sites is the incredible brutality inflicted on victims. People were tortured to reveal information and elicit confessions (most of course were false, to stop the torture), and the implements for torture and death were common garden hoes, bamboo poles, water, electric wires.

The Killing Fields: "Killing Tree Against Which Executioners Beat Children"

The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, where there are mass graves of 17,000 people, is one site out of 70-odd throughout Cambodia which now rest as memorial to the dead. At such killing fields, the Khmer Rouge executed men, women and children using particularly brutal methods - bullets being so expensive. Many executions were completed by bludgeoning the victim with a bamboo pole or axe.

And...then there is the Killing Tree...against which children's skulls were bashed until death came, in full view of their mothers, before the parents were killed themselves.

As I listened to my Toel Sleng guide calmly show me on a wall map of Cambodia the locations where every one of her family members was killed, not only the scale of the tragedy but how recent it was really hit home and I broke into sobs.

All told, somewhere between 2 and 3 million people were killed in the 4 short years between 1975 and 1979 between the Khmer Rouge murders, famine, disease and being worked to death.

(Historians are conflicted about the exact number).

Out of a population of 7 million.

One quarter of the population.

Having been born in 1976 myself, I just kept thinking that every person my age or older in this country has lost family and experienced famine. Most have experienced torture, hard labour, loss of limbs or other disfigurement, or perhaps grown up in orphanages. The chaos didn't end with the Khmer Rouge retreat in 1979 - civil war and unrest continued for the better part of 20 years until the late 1990s.

Such destruction of society has resulted in predictable but further tragic consequences - corruption, pollution, prostitution, poverty, NGO dependence. Child sex trafficking is a particular problem, because families are so poor they are forced to send away their children (or children such as orphans are targeted). The entire society has had to be rebuilt from the ground up in the past 10 to 20 years.

"Please Do Not Go Backward" - A sign meant for tourists at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

And then there are the landmines, which to this day remain a significant problem. Around 300 deaths per year, not to mention loss of limbs, result from an unexploded ordinance or land mine. Not a day went by that I didn't see several victims of land mines begging on the street.

And justice? Pol Pot died of malaria in 1998. His cronies are gradually dying of natural causes. And nothing that can resemble a trial for war crimes and genocide has commenced for the rest of them.

Cambodia is a sad story, indeed.

Tags: cambodia, khmer rouge, pol pot

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