Friday, February 29, 2008

Cambodia - The Dark Years - 1975 to 1979

It’s hard to believe that only a few short years ago, Cambodia (then Democratic Kampuchea) was reeling under the communist Khmer Rouge who systematically oversaw mass genocide against it’s own people on a scale similar to Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War. It is estimated that 2 – 3 million Cambodians died during the 4 years of Khmer Rouge rule, prior to the eventual Vietnamese intervention during 1979. During this period of time, the cities were emptied and a mass ruralisation took place, with forced labor in the fields and rice paddies throughout the country by the entire populace. People who were educated or skilled above the level of a farmer, or associated in any manner with the previous military or government under Lon Nol were executed. Survivors worked 20 hour days, with essentially no food, and existed in work camps which housed thousands of people living like wild animals in the open. Families were split apart, most to never see each other again as death from starvation, disease, and execution became the norm. It has been estimated that the mortality rate was between 50% and 70% of the population! And all by Cambodians against Cambodians with different ideological and religious beliefs. The Khmer Rouge were essentially hill people led by a small group of local reactionaries (Saloth Sar or Pol Pot and his pals) who filled a power vacuum caused by American carpet bombing in eastern Cambodia and the subsequent influx of Vietnemese military forces. They were backed by China, who provided weapons, machinery, and support for the Mao style communist revolution in Cambodia, which was in China’s best interest as well.

It would be easy to go on and on about the causes and effects of this dark chapter in Cambodian history, however many good books, documentaries, and films have been created which tell the story well. One of the best is ‘Survival in the Killing Fields’ by Haing Ngor, who won the Academy Award for his role as Dith Pran, the Cambodian journailist in the movie ‘The Killing Fields’. I highly recommend this book for those who want to learn about what really happened during these tragic years.

As far as our learning here, we visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center where 8,000 skulls are collected and displayed in a memorial stupa. As well, the mass graves (pits), execution trees where children were smashed, and other grisly reminders are presented for all to see. One cannot visit this site without feeling nauseous, totally speechless, and very confused. I think it’s the physical evidence of all the helpless, innocent souls – civilians - men, women, and children of all ages - and the eerie feeling of so many ghosts everywhere.

Our next visit was to the Tuol Sleng prison (formerly the Tuol Svay Prey High School ) which was used as a torture and interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 17,000 people who were processed and detained there, 7 survived because they were artists capable of documenting what was happening through their artwork. The Khmer (pronounced hard c like in cat and then my) Rouge painstakingly documented all of the histories of the people they killed and had these 7 people paint and sculpt works that immortalized their atrocities. Their paintings and artwork provide the graphic detail about really happened there. The endless rooms filled with the photographs of the inmates as they were being admitted is haunting beyond words. All the children…

Our last visit was to the Killing Caves (Wat Phnom Sampeau) in Battambang, enroute to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh by car. Here we witnessed more grisly evidence of the mass killings of innocent civilians.

Anyways, it’s all really sickening and very upsetting to see just how awful human beings can be to each other. One of the hardest things to come to grips with is that we, human beings, never seem to learn as a race from the past – genocide has been happening for so long and continues today – just different countries, races, religions, and politics - all the same victims, primarily
innocent men, women, and children.

It just doesn’t make any sense.


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