Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phnom Penh & The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

Seeing all the warm smiling faces of the people in Cambodia, it is hard to believe that the country experienced what was effectively a brutal genocidal war led by a homicidal regime that had Khmer (the Cambodian term for their people) killing Khmer less than forty years ago. An estimated 2 million people - out of a population of only 8 million - died, either from starvation, sickness, or outright murder, under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. That's a quarter of the population gone in less than 5 years (1975-1979) - 5 years! . The scariest part of this? The Khmer Rouge were recognized as the legitimate government of Cambodia and allowed to keep their seat at the UN despite all of this until 1987, as western governments were loathe to lend their support to the Vietnamese backed opposition.

As a fair warning, much of what I'm about to type (and the photo captions in particular) will be upsetting - and it should be. Cambodians say that it is their duty to remember and educate so that nothing like this ever happens again.

The Victims Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre - also known as 'The Killing Fields' just outside of Phnom Penh. Although by no means the only such site, this one is the biggest and most well know, with 8,985 corpses found in in the 86 (of 129 total) mass graves excavated. As bullets were expensive, many were killed with blows to the head from a hammer. Children were smashed against trees, women stripped of their clothes, and 'traitorous' Khmer Rouge cadres were beheaded. As numbers increased in later years, many were not even killed outright, but pushed into pits, covered with DDT and left to rot. To make matters worse, many victims killed at Cheong Ek had already been held and tortured at the notorious Security Prison 21.
First, a quick run down of recent Cambodian history for context. After being home to a great civilization, which, at it's height, covered nearly all of Indochina, from about AD802 until AD 1594 when Siam finally captured the capital, Cambodia became somewhat of a vassal state, subject to tributes demanded by invading Siamese (Thai) and Vietnamese forces. In 1863, King Norodom was forced to negotiate away mineral and timber rights to the French in exchange for military protection from Cambodia's neighbors. In this trade, France also gained the right to chose Cambodia's future kings. In 1941, shortly before the outbreak of WWII and invasion by Japan, 18 year old Prince Norodom Sihanouk was chosen in place of his farther. After the war, whilst France was occupied with the rebellion in Vietnam, King Sihanouk was able to successfully negotiate for his country's independence - officially granted in May of 1954. At this point, Sihanouk abdicated, appointed his father as King, and chose to run in the elections. His party won every seat. However, in 1960, when his father died, Sihanouk appointed himself 'Chief of State', effectively remaking himself king and causing some unrest. Around this time, Sihanouk also tacitly agreed to allow the Viet Minh to establish some of their bases along the border in Cambodia, prompting a rash of fly-over bombings by the US in those areas and his eventual deposition by Prince Sisowath Matuk and General Lon Nol in 1970 while he was out of the country. Whilst in exile, Sihanouk initially lent his support to a supposed rag tag group of communist farmers called the Khmer Rouge, encouraging his people to go out to the jungle and fight for their country. Sadly, all of this culminated in a civil war which led to the eventual take over of the country by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Tragically, this war would not come to an end until 1998, after defections by high level Khmer Rouge and the death of leader Pol Pot. Even more tragically, the country is still home to a great deal of unexploded ordinance (such as landmines) bringing remnants of the horrors of war into the present day.

One of the torture chambers at S21 (Security Prison 21) in Phnom Penh - now Tuol Sleng Genecidal Museum.  Prior to its use as a detention and torture centre, Tuol Sleng was actually Tuol Svay Primary and Secondary School. This was a classroom. When the Vietnamese arrived they found 14 severely decomposed bodies in each of the torture rooms.

Although the Khmer Rouge were initially welcomed with open arms when they marched into Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975, emotions changed rapidly when all of the city's population - including the old and the sick - was forced to march out into the jungles and begin a life of farming devoid of any outside aid. The vision of the (largely French educated) Khmer Rouge inner circle, was to abolish education, hospitals, religion, technology and all forms of knowledge, turning their country into a 'self-sufficient agrarian paradise' (ring any bells?). As people - including children - were forced to work in the fields with little or no food, true medicine or relief day in and day out, many died. Still more were outright killed or forced into battle. Although it was only intellectuals (including anyone who wore glasses), government workers and Lon Nol soldiers who were initially killed, numbers rose drastically in later years as Pol Pot became more and more paranoid, killing off anyone he thought might oneday pose a threat - including his own troops.

Bricked up prison cells, normal prisoners were held here and tortured for 2 to 4 months, political prisoners 6 to 7. An estimated 20,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng en route to their deaths. Between only  7 and 21 people are known to have survived. Two of these, Bu Meng and Chum Mey, now in their 80s, volunteer at the museum, selling their memoirs and discussing their memories. Of the survivors, all have forgiven their day to day captors, many of whom were forced to preform their duties - and some of whom even had to watch their parents go to their deaths. Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch,  the former head of S21and the first of the former Khmer Rouge leaders to stand trial for war crimes, has also said that those under him cannot be blamed, taking upon himself full responsibility for the atrocities carried out under his directive at Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Brought into the fray by raids across it's borders, liberating Vietnamese troops finally marched into Phnom Penh and the greater countryside in 1978, setting up a government with Khmer Rouge defector Hun Sen at it's head. After many years of vicious fighting, particularly in the Thai border regions where the Khmer Rouge had fled, a UN Transitional Council was set up to aid the country in holding elections which boasted a 90% turnout in 1993. Although Prince Norodom Rinariddh's FUNCINPEC party appeared to have won, he was forced into a coalition with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party by Hun Sen. In some form or another, the two men have been leading the country ever since. It should be interesting to see what this year's up coming elections hold. 

1993 also saw the re-coronation of the still much beloved King Sihanouk - this time as constitutional monarch. Despite Cambodia's turbulent recent history and his role in it, King Sihanouk's loss was heavily mourned by his people when he passed in October of 2012. The current King, his youngest son, Norodom Sihamoni, who was appointed by council upon Sihanouk's medically-prompted and unexpected (second) abdication in 2004, also appears to be well loved by his people - he's also the only siting monarch who speaks Czech and is a former classical dancer. Both are wins in my book.

Chum Mey's cell. To give some idea of the horrendousness of the conditions, in his memoir, Chum Mey writes this about his visit to one of the Nazi Concentration camps as a tourist later in life: "When I was taken to the camp, I thought of Toul Sleng. There was the same kind of killing at these two places. [...] It was also different from Tuol Sleng because they had many beds and didn't have to sleep on the floor. They could bathe, too, so Tuol Sleng was worse." (Chum Mey, 2012 p.44)

For more information on life under the Khmer Rouge and the slow process of bringing the perpetrators to justice, check out:
First they Killed my Father: a daughter of Cambodia remembers by Loung Ung
When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge revolution by Elizabeth Becker
Survivor: the triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rough Genocide by Chum Mey
Choeung Ek's Website (www.eccc.gov.kh/en)
The Tribunal Website (www.cambodiatribunal.org)

No comments: