Cambodia’s lost generation

“You can talk about the Khmer Rouge, but you can’t cry”
“Why not” I asked
She paused. “Because there would be no stopping”

The Lost Executioner – Nic Dunlop

Well you’ve had your comedic Dad contribution and your jolly video so now I guess it’s about time for another serious post. For those of you wanting a light read, keep scrolling. The next few posts have lots of pretty pictures, the introduction of a crazy Belgian with ridiculously short shorts and an amusing anecdote about an unexpected torrential rainstorm and so will likely be more up your street. This post however is about genocide. That cheery old topic.

Before I begin I feel like I should state that I am no expert on Cambodia’s history and in no way claim to be so. The events that led to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is clearly way beyond the scope of both me and this little blog but for anyone who is interested I’ve listed some books on the topic at the bottom of this page and I would encourage you to take a look – in particular should you ever visit/have visited Cambodia. I can do no more than make a crude attempt to explain the impact that my visit to S21 and the nearby Killing Fields had on me. With that in mind let me begin…

On the 17th of April 1975 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government and captured Phnom Penh. Within 3 hours the city was empty. Having been told by Khmer Rouge soldiers that an American bombing raid was imminent the city’s residents were forced to the roads. Those who refused were killed. They were on foot, they had little food and the majority would, unknowingly, never return. In just under 4 years a quarter of Cambodia’s population would be dead (this figure varies depending on the source from which it is taken).

Pol Pot’s vision was to create a Cambodia that was, bar China, sealed from the rest of the world. A pure, peasant society that was self sufficient and void of the educated urban class. To achieve this the cities were emptied and the population sent to the fields. Working hours were long and brutal, personal possessions forbidden and food scarce. Many died of starvation and disease and those alive were kept intentionally weak and malnourished…  unable to fight back. Anyone deemed to be a threat to the revolution was killed. Scholars, doctors, engineers, teachers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone with soft hands, anyone at all. It was social cleansing at perhaps it’s most brutal and it resulted in a genocide that would, unsurprisingly, leave it’s mark on the Cambodian people for years to come.

“Hunger is the most effective disease”

It was the Vietnamese who discovered the chilling Tuol Sleng (also known as S21), the Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh upon the liberation of the city and it is now a museum. Originally a school it’s classrooms were taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into rudimentary cells and torture chambers. The idea wasn’t to kill people at S21 but rather extract information; death was saved for the brutal Killing Fields where to this day fragments of human bone peek chillingly through the dark, dusty earth, continually exposed by the wind and rain. At the Killing Fields you must watch where you step. At S21 however, death was an inconvenient side affect that, if inflicted accidentally or prior to a full “confession”, could leave the torturer himself on the wrong side of the barbed wire. Under the Khmer Rouge no one was safe.

It is thought that 20,000 people passed through the gates of S21 and onto the Killing Fields… less than 200 survived. Walking around the prison, the concrete buildings and barbed wire are oppressive and threatening. Steel beds in some of the private cells mirror photos on the wall all but for the absence of a corpse. The Khmer Rouge were meticulous record keepers and thousands of mug shots fill the corridors and cells… the eyes of the damned watching your every move. Some prisoners are wide eyed with fear, some resigned, some confused, some hopeful, some smiling – perhaps in an attempt to placate their captors or perhaps in ignorance of their fate. There are so many photos. There are so many faces. I searched them desperately looking for something that would bring the events that happened here into a reality I could comprehend. A detail, an expression, an item of clothing, anything that would connect my world to the horrors committed within those walls. Sometimes I felt like I had found it but then with a glance to the left or right it would dissolve in the sheer number of faces. The sheer number of dead.

“To destroy you is no loss, to keep you is no gain”

One of the hardest things I found to comprehend was how recently this all happened. It felt like the events barely qualified as “history”… Pol Pot wasn’t deposed until 1979. What were you doing in 1979? As such it seems nearly everyone in Cambodia has some link to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Our guide for example was a young girl whose mother was 14 years old when Pol Pot’s army “liberated” Phnom Penh. Her mother’s journey to the country and their allocated labour camp, would take months and the family were woefully underprepared. “My mother still struggles with what happened to her” our guide explained to us. Some wounds, it seems, are irrecoverable.

It would take a cruel soul indeed to find the acts of the Khmer Rouge anything but horrifying but if I am honest it is not the horrific acts that terrify me the most. Rather it is the reaction to them, or more accurately lack therefore, from the outside world and it’s subsequent failure to shoulder it’s share of responsibility in the creation of an environment that allowed the Khmer Rouge to flourish that is truly terrifying. Furthermore, in the years after the Vietnamese invasion, the direct support of Khmer Rouge leaders by the West is nothing short of shocking. How is it that the Khmer Rouge, with such unfathomable atrocities to it’s name, was the official representative of Cambodia in the United Nations until 1999? How is it that Pol Pot, having murdered an estimated 1.7 million people, was never held accountable for his actions? How is it that many established figures in Cambodia’s current political society held positions of varying influence within the Khmer Rouge? Seriously? How?

Perhaps more terrifying still is the fact that we seem to have learnt nothing from Cambodia’s violent history and we are as committed as ever to our unwavering belief that our ways are superior to others. We united to fight communism yet with an agenda of our own we succeeded only in promoting the rise of an unfathomably brutal regime. I wonder what we will promote the rise of next… or need I wonder?

Note: Uncredited quotes are from “Pol Pot’s Little Red Book – The sayings of Angkar” by Henri Locard.

A good place to start for anyone who wants to know more…
The Lost Executioner – Nic Dunlop
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare – Philip Short
Survivor: The triumph of an ordinary man in the Khmer Rouge genocide – Chum Mey

Cambodia S21 Survivor

S21 survivor Chum Mey selling his account of his experiences at the prison but how he can bear to return is beyond me

3 thoughts on “Cambodia’s lost generation

  1. Tori, you have a very special knack of highlighting to the rest of us just how much we all take for granted our every day lives. You are witnessing first hand things some of us cannot even begin to imagine. Thank you for sharing with us, in such a way, that makes us stop and re-think the everyday things we should be so grateful for.


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