Cycle of History


I loved our time in Cambodia; it is a beautiful country and the people are the friendliest you are likely to meet anywhere in the world.  There are unspoiled islands and grandmothers sweating in park aerobics classes, cute children and amazing historical sites, vibrant ports and untouched jungles.  I would go back in an instant, and I highly recommend that you visit, too.  Read Jacque’s post on Cambodia to get a feel for the wonderful parts of the country.

This post, however, is not about the wonderful parts of the country.  It’s about the country’s upsetting recent history and uncertain future.  I hope it brings to life some of the brutal realities of the Khmer Rouge, particularly for those in my generation who didn’t live through the 1970’s, and also sheds light on the current state of Cambodia. That said, it is a long post that may be disturbing to some and uninteresting to others. Consider yourself warned.

– PLA, Saigon, July 14th, 2014

The Sites of Past Atrocities

On an overcast June 26th in Phnom Penh, we met our tuk tuk driver, Kla (“Tiger” in Khmer), early in the morning. We met Kla on the street the previous day, one of the army of tuk tuk drivers calling out from every street corner to any tourists on foot: “Sir! Tuk tuk?” He went above and beyond, though, chatting us up amiably until we asked him to show us a good restaurant nearby. The meal was good, so we called him to drive us to the prison S-21 within the city and the killing fields about 15 kilometers outside. Kla was a decent tour guide, stopping at various points along the way to describe monuments and pontificate on the politics of Cambodia, although he was not allowed to come inside the sites with us.

In the almost four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, one in four Cambodians were executed or died in the forced-work fields.

S-21 was a high school until April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and turned it into “Security Office 21,” a highly secretive interrogation location. (Not that it needed to be highly secretive: the Khmer Rouge drove everyone out of Phnom Penh to the rural areas, so the city was essentially a ghost town except party leadership.) Eerily, S-21 looks nearly identical to the modern schools that we see around Phnom Penh, but with no children running around the grounds. The Khmer Rouge turned the school’s various buildings into cells and torture chambers for the condemned. At first, it housed only a few prisoners – 154 estimated in 1975 – but as Pol Pot continued his reign and became more paranoid, the numbers rose to nearly 6,000 by 1978. Of the 20,000 total prisoners to pass through S-21, there are seven known survivors. The rest were executed on the grounds or, after there was no more room to bury them, driven to the nearby killing fields. Since the local population around the killing fields knew nothing of the executions, the Khmer Rouge blared revolutionary music while executing prisoners to cover their screams. Prisoners were executed with a variety of weapons – hammers, machetes, clubs, even the jagged edges of palm leaves – but bullets were never used as they were too expensive and overly loud. The 10-story display of skulls pulled from the mass graves around the fields show hammer impacts, chipping from bladed weapons, and various blunt-object fractures; all are evidence of the brutal executions. This was not the cold, calculated efficiency of Nazi Germany’s gas chambers; it was a more Asian type of genocide. Dirty, noisy, chaotic, random: the methods mirror the barely-restrained chaos of the streets of Phnom Penh. By the time they were overthrown by the Vietnamese army on January 7, 1979, the Khmer Rouge had caused the deaths of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. In that brief almost four-year rule, one in four Cambodians died.

The Khmer Rouge blared revolutionary music while executing prisoners with hammers, machetes, clubs, even the jagged edges of palm leaves – bullets were too expensive and loud

Poverty in Plain Sight

Today, Cambodia appears quite poor. We see persistent evidence of government jobs programs everywhere. On arrival at the Siem Reap airport, for example, a long counter awaited us to get a visa. The first person sitting at the counter took our passports and money, which were then passed down, person to person, until about 15 uniformed agents had handled them. Finally, they were handed to us with the visas attached – 15 people successfully completing the job of two. Despite these jobs programs, many Cambodians are on the streets. One highly visible artifact is the number of street sellers – kids, particularly – that follow tourists everywhere. Simply driving down any street also drives the point home; the majority of roadside dwellers we see don’t have much beyond a small dusty shop and some whiskey bottles full of gasoline out front. The tuk tuk and moto-taxi drivers that run their vehicles on those whiskey bottles are more often than not idle, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a fare. (Drivers are also involved in the black market – I couldn’t count the number of times a tuk tuk driver offered us drugs – and I won’t get into the sex tourism here except to say that it is pervasive.) Although the poverty we see is obvious, we only saw the tip of the iceberg in the heavily touristed areas we visited. The prices we paid were 2-3 times the prices in non-tourist areas, which must translate into higher income for those nearby. If the relatively mild poverty around tourism seems extreme, what must the true rural poverty be like?

Khmer children selling eggs to bus passengers

Khmer children selling eggs to bus passengers

Protests and Crackdowns

The day before we visited S-21 and the killing fields, Jacque and I went on a walkabout around Phnom Penh. With no particular agenda, we braved the non-existent sidewalks and persistent garbage piles to explore. After a bit, we stumbled on Wat Phnom, the city temple, in the middle of a roundabout with a park surrounding it.  Although it is a tourist site, it was much more gratifying to stumble upon it, and it was just the sort of place we were hoping to find. We did some people-watching then wandered back toward the south. On crossing what looked like a blocks-long park, we noticed that half of it was closed off with a double strand of Concertina wire; the park looked vaguely like it was actually a prison or military base rather than a public space. The closed-off area was just in front of a government building, and nobody was inside the wire.

Six months ago, the government opened fire on a group of striking garment workers in Phnom Penh. Four were killed. I missed the story back in the US, as I imagine many of you did, although the US Department of State did condemn the action. The next day, Prime Minister Hun Sen cleared out the protest camp from Freedom Park, prohibiting any further demonstration there and injuring 20 protesters in the process. The camp originally arose after the July 2013 general election, an election in which Mr. Sen was accused of fraud. He has been in office for 28 continuous years and shows no signs of relinquishing his power. During the drive to the killing fields, Kla told us about the strikes, protests, and government crackdown; only then did we realize the Concertina wire we had stumbled across was the site of all the trouble. Our wanderings had taken us from a jewel of the city, Wat Phnom, to a stark, fenced-off reminder of the conditions in the country: the people are dissatisfied.

Hillside clock in the park outside Wat Phnom

Hillside clock in the park outside Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Disturbing Popular Sentiment

Letting our Khmer hosts ramble led to interesting insights. After talking about the politics of the protests, Kla mentioned that some of the dissatisfaction had to do with Vietnamese influence in the country. Illegal Vietnamese immigrants are taking jobs from locals, while Cambodia’s other neighbor, Thailand, recently deported a few hundred thousand Cambodians from good jobs. They returned home to find their jobs taken by immigrants.  He specifically referred to the Vietnamese as a cancer: they spread out aggressively from their country, he said, and soon Cambodia may be no more. The manager of the guesthouse in Siem Reap, Jia, talked to us at length about racism in Cambodia among Khmers. He told us that lighter-skinned people are preferred over dark-skinned, an observation supported by the dizzying number of skin-lightening products in the market. Traditionally, the dark-skinned Khmer are rural poor, dependent on agriculture and physical labor for their living. (The dark-vs-light division was obvious when the Khmer Rouge was in power. City dwellers were forced from their homes into the fields in an attempt to return the country to an agricultural utopia; hundreds of thousands died trying to adjust to the new lifestyle in addition to those intentionally executed. The official policy of the Khmer Rouge was uplifting the dark-skinned rural poor over the light-skinned city dwellers. “To keep you is no gain, and to lose you is no loss,” was the party motto for city dwellers, known as the New People.) During one of his monologues, Kla said that he couldn’t judge Pol Pot. Many people were involved, he said, who knows whether he was responsible? Jia thought that the major failing of the Khmer Rouge political system was the fact that it didn’t feed the workers enough; a similar system that fed the workers would be ok.  Jia also thought the city dwellers who died in the forced labor were “soft” or “sat around in the city and had a nice life.” Granted, these are only two substantial interactions, and importantly both are from the lower class. Nevertheless, the conclusion I draw is this: the Cambodian people are dissatisfied, mistrustful, and don’t oppose radical action to accomplish ends they view as justified.

“To keep you is no gain, and to lose you is no loss.” – Khmer Rouge motto for the New People

Map showing the forced evacuations of Cambodian cities in 1975

Map showing the forced evacuations of Cambodian cities in 1975

Repetition of History is Not Impossible Here

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Every student in the Western world has heard Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s words as the motivator for sitting through boring history lectures about the causes of wars and the rise of nefarious dictators. Cambodia, though, ranks 170th in the world in school spending at only 1.6% of GDP; the vast majority of Cambodians are not hearing history lectures at all, boring or otherwise. The lack of education for most Cambodians is the keystone of the volatile mix that seems to still be in place here in Cambodia: the people are poor with few prospects of improving their situation; the long-standing government is corrupt, firmly entrenched, and highly unpopular; and, most importantly, there are several opportunities for the mass scapegoating or dehumanizing that is required for genocide. The Vietnamese are viewed cynically, the light-skinned Khmer enjoy social status, and the dark-skinned Khmer are resentful of the social status. The right leader could use this mix to his advantage by creating a division within the country, just as Hitler and Pol Pot did, then use the division to justify the deaths that follow.  “To keep you is no gain, and to lose you is no loss.”

We spent a few hours wandering around S-21, going in and out of cells too small to lay down and reading how the pull-up bars were used for torture. We marveled at the ridiculous confessions that were extracted from prisoners – every foreigner that passed through was part of the CIA, and every Khmer was plotting to burn rice fields – and strolled row upon row of portraits of the condemned. We listened to the audio tour at the killing fields and absorbed the horrendous descriptions of state-sanctioned executions; we stared blankly at the tree used to bash babies’ skulls to fully end traitors’ lineage. We saw the bones that rise from the mass graves to this day during heavy rains. We looked up at the skulls and femurs of those executed on the site, overwhelmed by just a small portion of the total horror. Throughout all of it, I wanted to believe in the upbeat perspective of the narrator on our audio tour. I wanted to believe that the unbelievable atrocities of the Khmer Rouge could never be repeated here in Cambodia. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe it, and the realization that it could happen again made S-21 and the killing fields much more haunting.

Jacque inside the skull room at S-21

Jacque inside the skull room at S-21


I am no expert on Cambodia or the history of the Khmer Rouge. I haven’t studied in-depth the factors that lead to genocide throughout history, nor do I have any particular knowledge of the current politics or demographics of Cambodia. It goes without saying, then, that since my viewpoint is a conclusion extrapolated from a limited set of observations, it carries no weight. Cambodia will probably be fine. (Hell, during the Vietnam War, our own troops killed four protestors at Kent State, and the US didn’t collapse into bloody strife.  More recently, the clearing of the Occupy Wall Street camps injured quite a few protestors; again, no bloody collapse of the country.) Nonetheless, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, truly, conditions are quite poor in Cambodia, and I didn’t see any indications – however slight – to conclude that history cannot be repeated. It scared me a bit, and I wanted to communicate that feeling to you, my friends and family, to help drive home the experience of visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (the killing field outside Phnom Penh).  If you do go to Cambodia, don’t miss them.  The tuk tuk driver will cost you $18 and the entrance fees about $9.

– PLA, Saigon, July 14th, 2014


One thought on “Cycle of History

  1. Stunning perspective on a part of history that was certainly a part of my teen/young adult years. The excellent way you expressed this is a stark reminder of how this has happened throughout history and across cultures. Along similar lines, I declined going to the torture museum in Budapest – partly due to time constraints and partly not.
    Thank you Paul for taking the time to share your insight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s