Shadows of the Khmer Rouge

Current ongoings have me in the mood to write about something rather solemn.

As a fellow reader of things, I find I’m always baited in by these sorts of *cautious disclaimers* at the beginning of articles. It’s like a promise from the author that you’re going to be disturbed or otherwise moved to feel something by whatever is coming when you scroll down the page. I’m making no such promise (this isn’t WorldStarHipHop), but you’ve been warned:

This post contains descriptions of horrific events and includes some graphic images. Continue at your own risk.

Read on if you would like to learn more about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their destructive era in Cambodian history, which, all things considered, really wasn’t that long ago.

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Dad and I arrive in Phnom Penh after a five hour journey southward from Siem Reap by bus. Much like our other stops, there is little time for rest. We hit the ground running upon our arrival, exploring what Cambodia’s capital city has to offer.

As in most Southeast Asian capitols, I found that Phnom Penh is a full on assault on the senses. Throngs of tuk-tuks and motorbikes flood the streets along with the sounds of honking and construction, the smells of exhaust and garbage and fish markets. It is a sensory overload, even more so than Bangkok. That said, the sights of the Royal Palace and the delicious noodles we try make up for the craziness.

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The Cambodian independence monument, built in 1953 to celebrate Cambodian independence from France. It is shaped in the form of a lotus flower that has not yet bloomed, much like the style of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments.
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The Silver Pagoda, part of the Royal Palace, which is actually a complex of buildings, half of which are open to the public. The other half comprise the King’s living area, closed to the public for obvious reasons.
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The Moonlight Pavilion
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The Throne Hall, once a place for the King’s confidants, generals, and royal officials to carry out their duties. Today it is mostly used as a place for ceremonies like coronations and royal weddings.
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After tooling around the palace grounds, we went for a stroll along Sisowath Quay, which runs along the west bank of the Tonle Sap River.
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Dad making his way through the craziness of the night market.

Much like in Bangkok, Dad and I see a number of monks and novice monks walking through the streets, taking an evening stroll. Along the quay, people are praying at small temples, relaxing, eating dim sum from streetside carts, or just walking aimlessly. We notice groups of expats, tourists, and the like, toting shopping bags and cameras. We see children playing soccer on the banks of the Tonlé Sap river, which connects to the Mekong river, the 12th largest river in the world that flows from China to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

My first impression was that Phnom Penh has everything it needs to be a dynamic and thriving city: A bustling downtown with tons of commerce, a powerful waterway connecting to major ports, beautiful tourist attractions, and a thriving expat community indicating ongoing progress in trade and diplomacy.

Phnom Penh has the same foundation that makes Bangkok such a world-class city. So why has Bangkok out-progressed Phnom Penh by every relevant metric?

The following day I wondered this out loud, in so many words, to our guide. His response surprised me.

“I am ashamed”

His name is Keo. A Phnom Penh native, he has been to Bangkok and has seen the  city’s numerous high rise buildings, incredible shopping malls, intricate skyrail system weaving through the city, and the overall high-tech society that their residents enjoy.

I tell him there is no need to be ashamed, that he alone can’t bear responsibility for the challenges beset on an entire country. And Cambodia has seen its share of challenges. Bear with me for a brief history lesson.


The year is 1953. Nearly 100 years of French dominion has ended in Cambodia. A man named Pol Pot returns home from attending technical school in Paris. While there he learned of Marx and Communism and even participated in a secret society known as the Cercle Marxiste (“Marxist Circle”).

15 years later Pol Pot has gained a significant following as a leader in the Communist Party of Cambodia. Him and his cohorts have set up an insurgent base in North Cambodia, they align themselves with North Vietnam and the Viet Cong to oppose anti-communist forces in the region, including the Cambodian government itself. The Khmer Rouge officially forms and the Cambodian Civil War begins.

On April 17th, 1975, after a bloody five years of war, the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. Many residents of the capitol make merry in the streets, optimistic of the newly installed communist regime which would make life better for everyone. Their celebration would be short lived.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed schools, hospitals, and factories. They abolished banking, finance, and currency. They burned books and bank records. They outlawed all religions, confiscated all private property and forced people out of their homes, relocating them to farms and forcing them to cultivate rice. They completely isolated the country from all foreign influences.

The sick were killed. The elderly were killed. Children were killed. The otherwise unable to work were killed. Dissenters were killed. Doctors, bankers, lawyers, those who could read or speak articulately, pretty much everyone deemed an “intellectual”, were seen as potential dissenters and thus killed. Much of these killings occurred en masse in places which came to be known as “Killing Fields”.

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Keo takes us some 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh to a killing field, one of thousands across Cambodia, called Choeung Ek. He leads us toward a shrine surrounded by trees and meadows.

Keo is a young man in his late 20’s or early 30’s, thus he was not alive during the Khmer Rouge regime. But he did lose a brother and a grandfather that he never knew. You can see the pain in his eyes as he tells the story of the land we are walking on.

Once I enter the shrine and realize what I’m looking at, my stomach does a flip.

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A column of 8,000 human skulls encased in glass towers over me.

I’ve been to the Dachau, Srebrenica, and other places where genocide was carried out. When it comes to memorials for horrific human-on-human crimes, I had never seen something more visually arresting than that shrine in the middle of Choeung Ek.

The skulls are color coded by the method used to torture and kill the victim. Beaten by a metal rod or stone, having their teeth removed, beaten against a wall or tree, or death by bullet wound or bayonet.

Looking up at the 8,000 empty eye sockets, I imagine the horrific last images these people witnessed before being killed. Countrymen torturing other countrymen, slaughtering them, throwing them into mass graves.

Keo explains that the 8,000 skulls displayed does not even constitute half of the deaths at Choeung Ek. Indeed, there were over 20,000 victims, but only 8,000 skulls have been recovered. The rest are completely shattered or still buried. As we walk among the mass graves surrounding the shrine, Keo explains that, to this day, some bones embedded deep in the graves will emerge during heavy rains.

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Each pit was filled with the bodies of anywhere between a dozen to over 100 people.
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Keo spotted some teeth that were embedded in the ground.

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This type of tree has thorny bark which the Khmer Rouge used as indicated by the sign. People from all over the world have left bracelets in their remembrance.
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Bracelets hung on a fence around a mass grave that contained 166 bodies.

A solemn tone follows us as we stroll through the sprawling mausoleum.

I now begin to understand the massive and sweeping effect that the Khmer Rouge regime had on the progress of Cambodia. A whole generation of intellectuals and thinkers wiped out virtually overnight; it is a small wonder that Cambodia has not seen the high-tech development that other Southeast Asian countries have.

All told 1.7 million Cambodians were killed from 1975 to 1979. 21 percent of the population.

Our second and final stop on our tour is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh. Once a high school, under Pol Pot Tuol Sleng became a torture camp, prison and execution center.

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The former school turned prison now serves as a museum for the horrors that occurred under Khmer Rouge rule.

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Keo shows us the cells that the victims were kept in. We also see torture weapons, bullet holes, blood stains, and thousands upon thousands of photographs of men, women, and children who were executed.

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Keo explaining a map of the routes that Cambodians were forced to take out of urban areas and into the fields to grow rice.
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Prison cells.

Keo points out the cell of Chum Mey, one of only 12 people to survive the Tuol Seng prison, and one of two still living today.

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Later on Keo takes us to meet Chum Mey himself.

His life is both fascinating and unbelievably tragic. During his two years at Tuol Seng the Khmer Rouge spared his life solely due to his high level of competence in machine repairing for Pol Pot’s soldiers. For two years he endured horrific torture, both mental and physical, given hope only by thinking of his wife and unborn child that he left behind before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

In 1979 the Khmer Rouge were being overrun by the Vietnamese army and were forced to flee Phnom Penh. Still a prisoner, Chum Mey was forced to march from Tuol Seng. Remarkably, his wife and son were grouped with him as they were led away from the city. His wife had given birth just weeks after Chum Mey was taken to Tuol Seng. That was the first time he had ever seen his two year old son. They would spend two days together. The rest of the story I will let him tell:

“First they shot my wife, who was marching in front with the other women,” he said. “She screamed to me, ‘Please run, they are killing me now’. I heard my son crying and then they fired again, killing him. When I sleep, I still see their faces, and every day I still think of them”

 

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Chum Mey

I buy his book and shake his hand.

Of everything I had seen and heard that day – the skulls, the bones, the blood stains, bullet holes, torture weapons, photographs of disfigured prisoners – nothing quite compared to seeing Chum Mey and reading about his story. You can learn more about him here.

And yet I remind myself that every single person that perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge had a story to tell like Chum Mey. All 1.7 million of them.

Today the shadow of the Khmer Rouge still looms large as their destructive agenda greatly dialed back progress in infrastructure, innovation, education, and just about every other important economic catalyst. Though things have improved for Cambodia and growth has been solid, they still trail Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in economic development, in no small part to the losses sustained under the Khmer Rouge.

Social implications linger as well. Keo explains to me that many former Khmer Rouge surrogates still walk among them today, though he adds that:

“We do not seek vengeance because we want peace.”

Keo’s words are noble. In this uncertain time of global populism, divisiveness, and uncertainty, he reminded me to be empathetic toward those I disagree with.

Tomorrow the world will begin what will likely be a radical period of change. I hope we can look to historic tragedies like the Cambodian Genocide and Khmer Rouge regime as a reminder of how quickly society can fall apart and how we must take every effort to resist inhumanity, concentration of power, suppression, and oppression.

Stay vigilant. Respect your fellow man. Be ever mindful. Our history is being written every day.

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Chum Mey actually has empathy for his captors “I consider them victims like me” he says. “How can I say I would’ve behaved differently? Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill if the penalty was my own death?”

 

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