[Issue 8 / February 2014]
I kept looking at the old man’s hands to see if they had calluses on them. This was one of the peasant hallmarks by which the Khmer Rouge decided if you were to be executed or spared to join their great agrarian experiment. As Phnom Penh flew past, I looked at my own elegant writer’s hands, sitting there on the back of his puttering motorbike. With hands like these I wouldn’t have survived.
Here in today’s Cambodia those with the calloused hands are still disenfranchised peasants, still alive. But many who were the killers are now government officials driving around in their SUVs and tending to their lucrative tourism concessions. These peasants—the survivors—only own motorbikes. But they put them to good use ferrying us tourists around; back and forth all day from S21 prison museum to the Killing Fields. If their hands now have calluses on them it’s from gripping a worn out motorbike accelerator all day, not a hoe.
A whole generation has been born since December 1979 when the nightmare was abruptly ended. A forty four month nightmare of terror and death. The majority of these people around us, industriously going about their grubby third world business, never experienced the sleepless nights of Angkar. Some of the others—my age—are now orphaned; their fathers and mothers didn’t have enough calluses on their hands. But the older ones who survived are here with us today, like this old man, that fruit seller, and the much photographed beggar with his grotesquely burnt face. Even the sweet old grandmother in the guesthouse trying out a bit of English, every single one of these twentieth century Cambodians have a dreadful book of memories. A sullied past. Every time I meet one I look into their dark eyes, searching for the sadness. But there is only blankness, as if they are trying to airbrush something out of their history. Trying to forget the nightmare of Angkar.
Today’s Cambodians have never had it so good. They’re no longer among the ten poorest countries in the world. They earn, on average, $2,400 a year. Less than 25 per cent of children are now considered malnutrition. That’s in a country where half of all people are children. Consequently unemployment rate is zero. There’s a job for everyone old enough to do some work, just like there was a job for everyone under Angkar. In fact, you had to do the job of two people back then, that’s how understaffed they were. The numbers were never officially recorded but history has made this point clear: nearly a third of all Khmers perished in less than four years. Not from warfare, not from famine, nor from disease. They were often exterminated for failing the simplest tests of obedience to the regime. It wasn’t just your uncallused hands. If you wore glasses you were sent for. Perhaps you might have mixed up the words of propaganda song. Even if you have been the most loyal of comrades you could’ve been fingered in a zealous orgy of whistle blowing during the frantic height of survival. And if that happened it was even worse, because they’d first send you to S21 before they eliminated you. Suspected spies suffered the worst ending. They didn’t have enough people to help dispose of all the cadavers, they didn’t even have enough bullets. A thick whack to the back of the cranium with a bamboo pole sufficed. They got the children to do that job, it required very little skill or thought. Imagine that, having to co-operate in the pointless task of digging your own grave pit, then staring down at the sodden earth, waiting to be exterminated by a kid. For the tourist these Killing Fields are a disappointing experience. Apart from the busy activity of vendors in the car park, there’s a bunch of grassy depressions, that’s all. Wandering among them you might feel a crunch of old brittle bone underfoot, for extra effect. There is, however, a three storey tower marking the site. It’s filled to the brim with skulls. I couldn’t bare to look at it; the size of the eye sockets, the protruding dentures. Craniums squashed in like egg shells.
I’m sorry, I feel I can’t go on. I’m exhausted by the telling of this. Excuse me, could we take few minutes out…
Wherever I go on this trip, it hangs on my mind like a far-fetch doomsday movie script. How could mankind have let that happen, such an effective genocide. As historian Ben Kiernan suggested in his attempt to document the extent of death in his book The Pol Pot Regime; ‘The building of Angkor was one of the greatest achievements of its era, but the total enslavement of nation under the brief Angkar rule was an even greater feat, unmatched in the history of mankind.’
But that’s all the past now, let’s move on like all these Cambodians have done. Southeast Asian’s are taught to forgive and forget, to let it go, just like the good pious Buddhists they are. Besides, there’s money to be made out of this tragedy. This morning in the Phnom Penh Post, the local paper, are two lead stories. The bigger headline says ‘Tourist arrivals to top 2.5 million’. Juxtapositioned with it is the latest update in a 10 year trial to bring someone, anyone, even one-single-person to account for the horrors of the Pol Pot era. The face of the trial is the dishevelled Kang Kew Leu, better known as Comrade Duch. Ironically he wears glasses these days, after all, thirty years have passed since his alleged crimes. He stands trial of being the most successful purveyor of Pol Pot’s vision; a ruthless killer who saw to it that all but four of the 17,000 people who passed through his S21 prison were put to death. And no tourist to Phnom Penh leaves without visiting his legacy, Tuol Sleng.
We came from there this morning, before we jumped on the motorbike in search of the Killing Fields. It was once a school and I tried to imagine the cheery chorus of kids yelling ‘Good morning teacher how are you…I’m fine thank you and you’. But instead I pictured the screams from the classrooms. In one of them was an old iron bed, a single prop in the sweaty monsoon air; like something from a Medieval torture chamber. The bigger rooms were full of faces, mug shots retrieved from Comrade Duch’s meticulous records, now displayed for the voyeuristic benefit of us tourists. We filed past them silently, too appalled to talk, stopping to look into the petrified eyes of some. It was the older ones that knew the imminent fate facing them, the kids just stared innocently. What could a kid know about political espionage? But that was part of the whole cleansing; ‘pull the weeds out by the roots’ was how Angkar put it. If one man has the seeds of incorrect thought, it’s better to exterminate his whole family. I meditated briefly on that thought as I stood there. I meditated on life. The tourists were quietly shuffling around me, and outside somewhere was a dim buzz of modern-day Cambodia. Somewhere out there, people were surviving somehow. Probably making money off the tourists. You can’t bury the human spirit, it insists on thriving.
The award winning documentary, S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine is shown twice a day to the tourists. In it survivor Vann Nath confronts former prison guards who spared his life because they needed his artistic skills to paint propaganda murals. Nowadays he paints scenes from prison life based on memory and sounds (the screaming) rather than sight witness. The movie is a sobering account, particularly the tearful begging for forgiveness from the guards, fearful the karma will catch up with them in their next life.
Outside the museum a few guesthouses have opened, unperturbed by the sombre mood. They’re boutique, in a French colonial sort of way. Big tropical rain trees hang over the roads, there’s a gleaming spire away in the distance, some kids are flying kites in an unweeded park besides the sluggish Mekong. This unhurried city, with its Napoleonic city planning and handsome boulevards, still vaguely resembles the charming Indochine capital described affectionately by Jon Swain in Rivers of Time. It was his photos that were used to fiddle a fake passport for Dith Pran, portrayed in the real life drama The Killing Fields. When everyone else was evacuating he flew into this doomed city and found himself holed up in the American Embassy for a week after the fall of Phnom Penh, when the Khmer Rouge couldn’t quite decide what to do with them all. The victorious army emptied the city during that week, marching all the urbanites out to farm rice or to face death. Eventually, when the first foreigners were permitted entry in 1979—a pair of Yugoslavian journalists—they were astonished at how abandoned it was. The regime really had taken the country back to year zero.
Nowadays Phnom Penh is a work in progress, NGO money being put to good use everywhere you look. A few modern buildings will eventually change the skyline, hotels for the tourists perhaps. The lakeside guesthouse I’m staying in serves happy pizza for breakfast. It’s on prime real estate, a swamp that is being reclaimed with objections from the World Bank about the lack of compensation to locals. Still, the owner of the establishment is a policeman and seems to always be there, tending to business behind the reception. Everyone here is busy making money from tourism, it accounts for a sixth of GDP. The taxi riders are busy. The noodle carts are busy. The prostitutes are busy. All these Chic-ai (foreign dogs) have money they want to spend. Pol Pot would be turning in his grave. The krama-wearing recluse was barely known even to his own people at the time, shunning publicity and closing Kampuchea’s borders to the world. He has no idea of the legacy his experiment has bequeathed the tourism industry.
It’s only been five years, mind you, that the tourists started coming. Pol Pot lived on for another two decades, holed up in the jungle near Preah Vihear, now a disputed world heritage site on the escarpment bordering Thailand. Astonishingly, that country, the United States and UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the official government of Cambodia for another decade, such was the geo-politics disapproving of a Vietnamese controlled government. In fact, Hun Sen, who defected with his cadres to help them invade, was eventually installed as prime minister and has remained in power to this day. That might suggest why the tribunal has gone nowhere, too many high ranking officials would be implicated. I stop to think how many hospitals or schools could have been built with the money that this trial has wasted. A retired New Zealand or Polish judge is rather naive about the dynamics of accountability in Asia. Maybe they could bring the tourists to see the trial, turn the court into an attraction. At times the tribunal was so frustrated with its own inactivity it resorted to organising trips to S:21 so that ordinary Cambodians can truly understand their undignified recent past.
But looking at the 20 million foreigners who pour into the region annually, how could you ignore the tourist dollar. Most the visitors jet in to Siem Reap for a weekend visit to Angkor Wat. Before the 2003 UN-sponsored elections it was too unsafe. In any case, for much of the last 900 years Angkor Thom and its temples were abandoned to the jungles of these flood plains, before being rediscovered. There are few ancient sites of the world quite as magnificent and extensive. The architecture was advanced and unique for its time, their prangs have been left standing like gherkins of history across the region. As a legacy of antiquity, Angkor is perhaps Southeast Asia’s star of the show.
Yet, for all Angkor’s grandeur that graces the tourist brochures of this Kingdom, it is still the genocide that is the really big story of this plucky country. When people come to visit Cambodia they know it as a country famous for genocide, in the same way as they know Hitler.
Cambodia now has a chronic lack of educated or intellectual people. Qualified judges, professors, writers and thinkers are not really part of their society. Education and intelligence was wiped out. Wherever you are in the country it’s still hard to ignore the tragedy of Pol Pot’s misguided experiment. The kids bunk school to sit outside the temples selling you books on Pol Pot, and though they can scarcely read, they possess excellent spoken English skills. Then there is the landmine museum outside Siem Reap. And the countryside villages, located between one touristy temple and the next, that seem to still be stuck in year zero. But most of all there are those blank eyes among the elderly, drilled into passivity, winching when yelled at by impatient tourists.
I think back to the motorbike ride, comparing his hands and mine. We bargained for a price of three bucks to take me to the Killing Fields. And bring me back, that was important. He seemed satisfied and pleased to be working, concentrating on the chaotic traffic while I lurched around with my camera. How fascinating; a year-zero country getting back on its feet.
In the time of Angkar these streets would have all been deserted. There were no motorbikes to take you to the Killing Fields. There wasn’t even money to pay with, and those who went had to go on foot. It was a one-way journey.
Andrew Bond is a travel writer based in Thailand. His company Virtual Travel Guides publishes online guides and travel apps, as well as servicing large corporate travel companies. He writes short fiction and travel stories, and is presently compiling a collection of creative non-fiction on Southeast Asia. He's also reading for a second degree, in English Literature, through Goldsmiths' UoL international program.