Quiet and powerful, I neither want nor need a tuk-tuk and more limbo

The Wandering Nerd April 26th, 2008

First, and quickly, I want to drop upon you the general street level gallery of that which is Phonm Penh. I know there aren’t a lot of photos this time, but between you and me, it’s kinda’ boring here and something of a heavy atmosphere and I’m not just talking the heat. The tuk-tuk guys are starting to get to me and I’m really close to thrashing the next bloody sod who tries to sell me drugs as I’m walking down the street. Ladies and germs, Phonm Penh:

I mentioned earlier in one of the Siam Reap posts that I was going to be covering the Khmer Rouge in more detail when I reached Phnom Penh. Well, here I am and here’s when the coverage happens. This is some really heavy stuff and after a day spent going through all of the historical sites I’m not in much of a comical mood, i.e. minimal in the way of jokes on this one, and fair warning there are some gruesome images in the galleries. View at your own risk.

While I don’t want this post to be any sort of history lesson, I do want to briefly recap the situation that allowed all of this to occur. Ancient Cambodia existed with the same malleable border lines of the other countries in SE Asia during the time. Various kingdoms rose and fell, as power shifted so to would control of the lands. Thailand and Cambodia have always had an uneasy relationship with the Thais sacking Angkor as late as 1432. Which caused the Cambodians to move their capital - formerly Angkor - to what is now Phnom Penh. Throughout most of the 19th Century the Thais and Vietnamese continued encroaching into Cambodia until - ironically - the French stepped in and helped defend the countries autonomy. That was the theory anyway. The French occupation, or ‘protectorate’ was set up more as a monitoring and diplomatic point to envoy into the kingdom of Vietnam.

After WWII the French granted independence to the then King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled successfully until 1970 when his increasingly repressive and erratic policies irked essentially everyone else in the government inciting the military to overthrow him. He then fled to Bejing, remember that.

During this time a well known ‘police action’ was taking place just over the border. The Vietnam Conflict was getting fully into swing and drew Cambodia along with it. The wacky US decided that carpet bombing sites that maybe possibly could have been communist bases in Cambodia. Then, upon the military coup that saw Sihanouk fleeing to China, the south Vietnamese and American troops entered Cambodia to root out the enemy insurgents - sound familiar? Unsurprisingly, attacking an ‘enemy’ on his own ground with the intent to miraculously discern who was really your friend and who wanted to slide a nice sharp piece of tempered steel betwixt the third and fourth rib on the left side of your body turned out to be quite difficult. It turns out ‘insurgents’ don’t like to advertise so much. They like playing sneaky thief with dagger. So this pushed the populace farther against the new ‘invaders’ and the actual real insurgents had plenty of time to fall back into the interior of Cambodia.

Fast forward a couple of years to The Paris Peace Accords which led to a complete cease-fire and an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. Troops from Vietnam. After the intense fighting in Cambodia, the rebels - Khmer Rouge, or The Red Khmer, finally marched into Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975 and claimed that the US - that’s us - were going to bomb the city. Remember our ousted king who fled to China, while there he was ‘asked’ to back these communist rebels, which greatly bolstered their support and credibility. Next they called for an immediate evacuation to the countryside leaving only a skeleton number of people in the city. Many left with just the clothes on their back fearing the imminent ‘airstrike.’ The ploy worked, the fear engendered by what the Cambodians had already seen of the war in Vietnam, the ‘War on Communism’ if you will, led them out. The intent, however, was not their safety.

Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge perpetrated a sublime coup, they intended to turn Cambodia into a Maoist agrarian society where everyone was equal - well everyone except the rulers, y’know how it goes.

For the next four years or so, the Khmer regime instituted mass genocide on it’s own people. Numbers range up into the millions of people dead through systematic torture and exterminations or to disease and malnutrition. These were intellectuals, doctors, teachers, philosophers, anyone who was educated, to the point where wearing glasses target you as a ‘parasite’ and marked you for death. Speaking out against the regime, or even being suspected of harboring ill-will to the collective would also seen you taken away in the night, often with your entire family, never to be seen again.

Finally, and again in a strange irony, the Vietnamese stepped in and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer continued waging guerrilla warfare through the 1980s and in 1991 a peace accord was reached. While the bloodshed was ended the political turmoil continued on through until 1998 when Khmer Rouge faced mass defections and Pol Pot finally died - after being under house arrest for a goodly long time.

For giggles let’s look at that timeline. U.S. invades Iraq…er, Cambodia - in addition to its original and stated goal of engaging Afghani…er Vietnam - in early 1970. We did this to stop the spread of terro…damnit, I mean Communism. Twenty one years later peace is finally brought to the region. What is that about those who don’t remember the past being condemned to repeat it?

I’m off my soapbox, though the place we’re going now isn’t as pleasant. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge numerous extermination camps were set up to rid the country of the ‘parasites.’ The most visited of these Killing Fields is Choeung Ek, about 14km outside of Phnom Penh. It’s almost an idyllic setting. Lush green surroundings, there’s a quiet creek running behind the area, and in the distance you can hear children laughing and playing from some nearby school. Assuming you don’t read any of the signs, don’t look at the giant pagoda with the glass columned center full of human skulls, or notice any of the bones still lying around, you may not realize you’re surrounded by over a hundred mass graves. 17,000 people were executed by the Khmer Rouge here, many women and children. To save bullets the would bludgeon them to death or use plastic bags to suffocate them.

One of the signs even reads - ‘Here was the place where chemical substances such as D.D.T…etc. was kept. Executioners scattered these substances over dead bodies of the victims at once after execution. This action had two purposes: firstly to eliminate the stench from the dead bodies which could potentially raise suspicion among people working near by the killing fields and secondly was to kill off victims who were buried alive.’

The Killing Fields were the final stop for anyone even suspected of being a dissenting voice. The true horrors were reserved for the ‘Security Offices.’ Torture chambers would be a more apt term. The former site of ‘S-21’ was set up in 1976 and was one of the most secret entities of the Khmer Rouge. Its charter was to detain, interrogate and exterminate any anti-Khmer elements…that’s people that is.

In 1962 this was a high school called “Ponhea Yat” by 1970 it was renamed “Tuol Sleng which means poisonous hill to keep those who bear guilt [to Angkar]… They turned a FRACKING SCHOOL into a torture chamber. It is a full on school, like many others I’ve seen around Cambodia. You can easily imagine children running through the courtyard, and then you look around at the barbed wire, or step into the bare classrooms with iron beds and the photos of a victim lying in that very room and realize, with dawning revulsion, what cruel acts humanity is capable of. Photos are displayed throughout the museum of the ‘inmates’. Everyone is represented, old, young, male, female, there are great grandparents, mothers holding infants, and children. Speaking of children…

By 1976 the KR employed a large staff, almost 2000 persons, responsible for S-S1, divided into four units. In each of the four units were sever sub-units composed of male and female children aged 10 to 15 years. Inevitably these sub-units became the most brutal and cruel of the staff. In the nature vs. nurture debate, this lands squarely on the nurture side.

There are a number of torture devices still on display, along with gruesome artistic representations of how they would have been used. Anyone who thinks torture is an acceptable human endeavor in any circumstance should tour through here, it will sway opinions.

Lastly there is an photographic exhibit dedicated to the staff of S-21 showing them as they were then, as they are now and what, in their own words, they feel happened then. I must admit it does beg an interesting moral thought exercise. Would I be able to kill someone if my life depended on it? Would I be able to torture them? Would you, if your life depended on it? What about if your families lives also depended on it? Tough eh?

<no music today, sometimes silence is the only appropriate soundtrack>

3 Responses to “Quiet and powerful, I neither want nor need a tuk-tuk and more limbo”

  1. The Parentson 27 Apr 2008 at 12:43 am

    I really enjoy reading your blog page. Sounds as though you’re not at all impressed with Cambodia.
    Our 50th ann. is tomorrow, Wish you could be here with us , but I know that isn’t possible, So just keep on enjoyiiing your self, I think that is wonderful.
    I will let you know how many came to our big event, Love you Mom And Dad

  2. Hoshion 06 May 2008 at 9:41 am

    Well, happy 50th anniversary, G&G!!! I hope y’all had a wonderful and memorable celebration.
    Well broi, it’s seeming like you’ve been gone forever. I hope you can make it back soon to spend some time before heading back to Oz. Got a lot going on here too.
    Oh, I think they’re called Khmer ROUGE, not ROGUE. Red hats, not superhero hats. That would be just plain silliness. :P
    Sent you a quick email. Send me one back to let me know what your plans are or just make sure Ogre or Tony or someone knows and also knows to share with others. Otherwise, Rochambeau-by-proxy WILL ensue. I can guarantee that much.
    Hopefully see ya soon, bro,

  3. The Wandering Nerdon 06 May 2008 at 11:21 pm

    ah, silly spell check changed and I didn’t pay attention, it’s been fixed. got the email, just havna’ had time to get back to you yet. getting connectivity here is unpleasant. moving on soon, hopefully will know more by the end of the week.

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