Post #26 from SE Asia — the Khmer Rouge
March 6th, 2010
pulling into Phnom Penh, Kampuchea
I could feel the difference immediately riding in Cambodia. (They call it Kampuchea.) Slower drivers, much less honking, the roads not nearly so dangerous. More smiles. I knew that I was back in the ”Buddhist belt'”.
You have surely heard of the disasters that Kampuchea has been thru. Just watch THE KILLING FIELDS again to get an idea. Briefly, after the bombing of Cambodia destabilized the country, there was a civil war where the Khmer Rouge came to power in April of 1975. In the next 4 years, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to kill 2 million people, 1/4th of the entire population in one of the most insanely genocidal unleashings of this century. Anyone with any education, who spoke any foreign language, was immediately executed.
It went far beyond that. The regime on day one changed the calendar to YEAR ZERO, banned all money, and ordered the immediate evacuation of ALL cities on Cambodia. All two million residents of Phnom Penh had 72 hours to go to the countryside and grow rice or face execution. Anyone found within the city after 72 hours would be shot. And that is what happened. The Khmer Rouge army stayed behind and looted the city of everything. But for 4 years, a city of 2 million stood vacant and without human life. Hard to believe.
The story gets worse. I did visit the Tuol Sleng Museum. It had been a high school before the revolution. The Khmer Rouge converted it to a prison and torture chamber. They kept accurate records including photos of all the inmates. When the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they found the prison intact. Of the 21,000 prisoners who were held here, only 12 are known to have survived. After I saw this, and all the grisly evidence, I decided not to go visit the killing fields 20 km to the southwest. I had seen enough skulls, bones, and photos to last me a while. I have already visited Dachau, Auschwitz, Birkenau, the Anne Frank house, and the Rio del Sangre in the Dominican Republic. I know what we humans are capable of. I came out with a feeling of pity for what the Cambodians have been thru. Every last family lost members, and lots of them. The actual fighting and hostilities went on sporadically until 1998. This is recent.
There are many NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations — the do-gooders) here now, doing what they can for education and reconciliation. They seem to be making a difference. You have the sense that the remaining people are so relieved. Just happy to begin to live anything approaching a normal life. One-half the population is younger than 17, so I am a very old person here. There are lots of orphans, and many people with missing limbs. I have a general policy to not give anything to beggars but food. But this does not apply to the amputees, and especially the kids who have stepped on land mines.
I can only hope that these gentle people here get their deserved peace. They sure are peaceful and gentle on the street and in their interactions. They have paid so high a price.