As invigorating as Cambodia’s youthful energy is, its very existence emerged from a disastrous set of decisions made by a regime that had a lot of things backwards.
Major wars are always enclosed in a set of infamous dates that most of us can’t think about without associating them to these dark chapters of human history. But in such major conflicts, there are always violent preludes and devastating aftershocks. The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the political situation in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. A force once hailed by some in the West as anti-communist deterrents to the Northern Vietnamese, they are responsible for wiping out a large percentage of their own people in a perverse effort to rebuild the country from the ground up. Farmers and blue collar workers were pitted against urbanites and scholars. The Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, pumped out a constant flow of propaganda, insinuating that the rampant poverty that plagued the countryside was due to the indulgences of academics and those who greedily inhabited the capital.
The numbers are inconsistent depending on the source. The human mind has an extremely difficult, if not impossible, time of empathizing with, or even processing, human suffering once it reaches a certain level. All I will say is that everyone who survived the Khmer Rouge knew one, often many more, people who were brutally, pointlessly murdered, or raped, or tortured, or illegally imprisoned for indefinite lengths of time.
We visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, resting on the edges of Phnom Penh, where many of these unspeakable atrocities were carried out by men and women in uniform under the orders of their officers and generals. Choeung Ek exists now as a vivid reminder as to what humanity is capable of, both good and evil, and as a place to educate visitors, to walk them through dozens of real examples of these reminders.
I’m not going to repeat the details of what we discovered was done to the victims of Pol Pot and his army. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of the possibilities, in my opinion, considering genocide has been committed on several occasions in the last century alone. And there is no doubt that this is exactly what occurred between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia. The details do swim in my mind from time to time, though. In a central monument, the skulls of thousands of people rest. Women, men, hundreds of little children. No nuance seemed to evoke sympathy from those who delivered these barbaric orders, nor, I’m sure, from many who carried them out.
We toured around the grounds, guided by a prerecording of a man who suffered under the regime as a child and lived to tell his story. It made it all the more vivid, to hear both the personal experiences and the history of Choeung Ek from the voice of a person who had lived through it.
We also visited a museum that held memorabilia such as starchy Khmer Rouge outfits, both for men and women, hanging stiffly behind glass. I tried to picture actual people filling the clothing and it made me look around at the locals, wondering who amongst them had a relative who was a part of the Khmer Rouge, whether at a military capacity, an administrative role, or whatnot. Maybe some of the older ones took part in some of the fighting, potentially having fought for either side. But when you look around, there really aren’t a lot of older people, at least not as many as you might be used to seeing anywhere else. That’s how many people died: enough to drastically reshape the demographics and effect the feel of the country for generations to come.
Despite the agonizing past through which this country has suffered, a tremendous spirit endures here. Things are not perfect by any means, though. Poverty is still alive in much of the countryside, as well as the larger cities. Hun Sen, a political installation on behalf of the Vietnamese, has remained in power as Prime Minister since the defeat of the Khmer Rouge and remains the longest serving national leader in present times. The youth are well aware of the corruption behind the current regime and some even spoke candidly to me about the election that was 3 weeks ahead at the time I was there in June 2013. A young man I met told me that during election times, the country sees a massive influx of Vietnamese people who have showed up to vote illegally in favor of the Vietnamese-backed government. An interesting and infuriating dynamic to say the least; I’d never heard of anything like this before. It made me even more grateful that I was able to converse with these interesting, politically-aware/involved individuals who could give me a much broader perspective on the country I was visiting and, yet again, falling in love with.