**We originally wrote this post during our first week in Cambodia, but were advised to wait to post it until we were well and clear of the country. Cambodia seems to be a forgotten country sandwiched between two countries that are doing fairly well on the world market–Vietnam and Thailand. We are curious how an already poor country like this will fare in the current world economic situation. **
Today we took a break from work and played tourist with Laurie and Michelle. Our “tour guide,” Ravy, a local woman, helped us navigate the National Museum and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Both were very interesting, the latter being incredibly sobering and educational.
To be honest, before last year we knew nothing about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which brutally ruled the country from 1975 – 1979. For such recent history–things that have actually occurred in our lifetime–it’s sad our lack of knowledge. It makes us wonder if and how the incredible humanitarian atrocities and crimes that have occurred in the past even 10 years and are in the process of happening now–Darfur, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Congo, and so many more–will be remembered. History surely repeats itself and the Khmer Rouge had reflections of Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. It seems even worse since Pol Pot’s genocide was against his own people. Those responsible for the deaths of between 750,000 and 1.7 million (historians don’t agree on the total number) people whose only crimes were being Vietnamese or being educated or being from the city or being related to someone who was part of the previous regime or a number of other un-criminal acts, haven’t even been through the justice system yet. There are still people in the government who were in some way connected to the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot himself was never tried and lived until the early 90s as a free man.
Here are a couple of major things that stuck out to us:
The Khmer Rouge was a communist regime that did away with everything resembling education and societal classes. They did away with religious practices, family units, money, schools, private property, law, courts, and even eye glasses. Their objective was to double the production of rice and everyone in the country worked for the government to reach that goal (of which they came nowhere near meeting).
The regime wanted everyone to live in rural areas where they could work for “The Organization” as they called the government. They succeeded in clearing out Phnom Penh by telling everyone that the US was going to bomb the capital city. This was a believeable lie as the US had dropped 500,000 tons of bombs on the border of Cambodia and Vietnam over 14 months in the early 70’s, as part of the Vietnam War. The US, later, was in favor of the overthrow of the standing government (not sure if they were supportive of the actual Khmer Rouge, but they didn’t care for the guy in power before the regine took over). The people of Phnom Penh believed the lie and evaucated the city.
On the surface, communism in Cambodia appeared to be working quite well. At a closer look, however, besides the genocide that was taking place, people were going hungry because all the rice and other food they were producing was being sent to the government to meet their quotas. People were divided from their families and put into work groups where they were expected to work, eat, and sleep together. In these non-family groups with little food, eating was “unpleasant and cruel.”
Those unfortunate enough to be sent to the S-21 prison (where the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is housed), the largest torture center in the country, were assigned to a definite death. They were chained to beds with no mattresses, unimaginably tortured, and horendously killed. Doctors, teachers, government leaders, ethnic Chinese, Muslims, Vietnamese, and anyone involved with the previous government’s miliary were all targets. If they weren’t killed in the prison, many people were killed by other henious means at work camps–being buried alive and excuted are two examples. The museum seems to be a monument stuck in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese and the prison was discovered.
We really learned a lot in our time in Cambodia. Humans can be so incredibly cruel to each other it’s hardly fathomable. This country is still recovering from the years of war that completely devastated the people and the land. Of the four countries in SE Asia we visited, Cambodia had the most beggars by far. There is a very distinct difference between the four countries and it was obvious Cambodia was one of the poorest. Also, they still experience the horrors of war as landmines are littered across the landscape and continue to be discovered by unsuspecting civilians.