A brief and bastardised history
Cambodia still bears the scars of the civil war and subsequent ‘revolution’ at the hands of Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like much of South-East Asia, Cambodia has been invaded time and again by foreign powers eager for land and resources.
For much of mid-twentieth century, Cambodia was ruled by weak kings under the ‘protection’ of either Thailand or Vietnam, until the French arrived in the 1860s.
Following WWII, the French left Cambodia but kept it under the French Union. However the next four decades until the early 1990s when the United Nations finally intervened, were decades of political and civil turmoil for the Cambodians. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia became a second battle ground as the Americans savagely bombed any suspected communist base camps in the country. While that foreign war was being played out in their country, a second – civil – war erupted in Cambodia between the ruling junta and an indigenous revolutionary movement called the Khmer Rouge, who had gained strength and numbers over the years as ordinary Cambodians suffered at the hands of foreign invaders.
In 1975, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, ousting the current government under General Lon Nol, who himself had ousted Sihanouk, a former King then ‘Citizen leader’ of Cambodia. The civil war was over but the destruction to the country was just beginning. The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot was committed to the idea of a ‘pure (Communist) revolution’. Within days, the populations of Phnom Penh and provincial towns were marched into the countryside to work as slaves. Dissent was punished by death and ‘purges’ of people thought to not be believers were commonplace
Though only in power from 1975–1979, the Khmer Rouge affected what has come to be recognised as the Cambodian Genocide. Not only were millions of people deliberately killed, but agricultural ‘reforms’ caused wide-spread famine and starvation while a refusal to import foreign medicines led to devastating outbreaks of disease. In total 1.5 – 3 million people died before the regime was ousted following an invasion by Vietnam.
The remaining former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are on trial for Crimes Against Humanity in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
One side effect of the devastation of the 80s and 90s is that the population of the whole country is noticeably young. There are very few old people but children and babies everywhere. A sign of a decimated population slowly being re-born.
Visiting the Killing Fields and S-21
Killing Fields can be found all over Cambodia. On a tour of the countryside with a local in Kampong Cham, we stood at the top of a hill and he pointed out where all the local killing fields could be found. Killing Fields are exactly what you might think. They were locations were victims of the Khmer Rouge were brought in, perhaps following torture, to be killed. Some were shot, some had to bury their own graves and no one was exempt. One tree bore a sing telling us it had been used to bash-in the heads of babies and infants.
The main site for Phnom Penh is a 45 minute tuk tuk ride out of the city, in sleepy countryside. The centre piece is a towering memorial, filled with skulls found at the site arranged by age and sex of the deceased. Signs ask for solemnity and respect and it certainly was a horrifying, if peaceful place to visit. It was worth the money to rent the audio guide, as it gave so much more detail including personal stories of victims as well as former members of the Khmer Rouge.
S-21 was once a high school but during the reign of the Khmer Rouge it became infamous as a place of torture and execution. Classrooms were converted into tiny dark cells or used as make-shift torture chambers. Today many of the cells remain along with some of the basic instruments used by members of the regime on the educated, the free-thinkers, the prosperous and the person who ‘looked suspicious’.
They are both dark and sobering places to visit, especially as the hurt is so recent, within one generation, but critical I think to an appreciation of Cambodia as a country, not just a destination.