Sunrise on the Mekong is full of life an full of color

Sunrise on the Mekong is full of life an full of color. Even before the sun rose over the bridge over the Mekong River at Kampong Cham Cambodia, the fishermen were out in their tiny boats.

 SHSA3969x2Photographed with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, with XF55-200mm. Exposed at 1/350 f/13 ISO400

SHSA3920x2Photographed with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, with XF55-200mm. Exposed at 1/30 f/13 ISO400

SHSA3972x2Photographed with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, with XF55-200mm. Exposed at 1/350 f/14 ISO400

December 8th, 2014, 6:17am. 

Ghosts of Cambodia: S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Ghosts of Cambodia: S-21 Prison and Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21)

Cambodia – a land of stunning natural beauty, and a Terrible past. To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have carried it on my chest long enough – and it is important to tell the world about what happened in Cambodia during the era of the Khmer Rouge. Sadly this is not the first time that genocide of this proportion has occurred, and not likely the last.

Genocide is the systematic destruction of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. Well-known examples of genocide include the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian Genocide, and more recently the Rwandan genocide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide).

In December 2014, we traveled throughout Cambodia, visiting villages, visiting temples(Wat) and had seen a few small memorial stupas in grassy fields. Nothing had prepared us for what we were to see at the last part of our visit to the capital city of Phomn Penh. Phomn Penh, a vibrant, modern city has two memorial sites dedicated to those that were killed during the Khmer Rouge legacy: Tuol Sleng (Prison S-21) and Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields). In Phomn Penh, we visited two memorial sites dedicated to those that were killed during the Khmer Rouge legacy: Tuol Sleng (Prison S-21) and Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields).

Knowing that Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) would be an emotionally intense experience I went on my own, though my two daughters age 11 and 9 went the following day to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields).

Deep in my gut I really did not want to go. I had seen photos and read blog posts about the former school turned into Khmer Rouge prison: seeing photos is one thing, actually going there and seeing with your own eyes is another. Simply, I had to go to fully understand why the Khmer Rouge killed so many people, and also to understand Cambodia modern history. Like millions of visitors to Tuol Sleng – I struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge – things that can never be unseen.

When the Khmer Rouge captured Phonm Penh in 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School was a school. During the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) the school was a secret prison (S-21) for interrogation and torture, one of 196 secret prisons set up through out Cambodia. Only S-21 remains, now re-named to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Read more on the history of Cambodia since its Independence from France in 1954, learn about the chain of event that lead to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the legacy of war and corruption [Cambodia: Civil war, Communists, Capitalists, Cold War and Corruption].

The Khmer Rouge used S-21 to eliminate the educated and elite, all professionals, teachers, doctors, artisans, military personnel, members of the previous government, people speaking foreign languages, people wearing glasses, anyone who showed slight hint of intellect– and their families. They were labeled traitors, arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed. Many were accused of absurd and completely fictitious acts of treason, and various methods of torture were used to get names of other ‘traitors’, whom were also arrested along with their entire family (immediate family, aunts, uncles, nephews, niece even babies). During the later years of the Khmer Rouge regime, members of the Khmer Rouge whom were suspected of treachery or sabotage were imprisoned and tortured in S-21. Most victims brought to S-21 did not die from torture or starvation, they were taken to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and their bodies thrown into mass graves.

Between 1975 and 1979 a total of 14,000 people were known to have entered S-21, only seven survived !. It was only when S-21 was liberated by the Vietnamese Army in 1979, that the rest of the world became aware of what had really happened inside Tuol Svay Pray High School.

I knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.

Think about it – Where were you between 1974-1979 ?.
Most likely, you were not even born. I was between 6 and 11 years old during this time; going to school, playing games with my friends, eating lots of food, …not a worry in the world.

Kids in Cambodia were going through Hell. Interestingly, my father was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War 2 when he was between ages 6 and 11. From what little he was willing to tell me about, he also went thorough Hell.

At Tuol Sleng Prison I did not take the guided tour, instead wanting to wander through the site at my own pace and not have to rush to keep up to the guide. While in my solitude several tours came and went. I heard enough of the gruesome details, most of which won’t be written here. Many of the guides were relatives of those whom were brought here, one was even a survivor !. It must be an awful place to be a guide, telling the same heart wrenching stories over and over.

Inside the gates, it looks like any high school; five buildings face a grass courtyard with pull-up bars, green lawns and lawn-bowling pitches.

 

 

As much as possible, the site has been undisturbed. The ground floor classrooms still have the original school desk and steel frame beds with leg shackles, left just as they had been found by the Vietnamese in 1979. On the walls, are photos of the last victims, their maimed and mutilated bodies still chained to the beds with pools of wet blood underneath. These were the sights that greeted the two Vietnamese photojournalists who first discovered S-21 in January 1979. These last victims of S-21 are buried in the court yard. Stepping into these rooms, I can’t even imagine the horror that happened here.

Interrogation rooms as they were in 1979.
Interrogation rooms as they were in 1979.
Interrogation bed, with photo of last victim
Interrogation bed, with photo of last victim
Interrogation room in color. Notice the stains on the floor.
Interrogation room in color. Notice the stains on the floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the courtyard of the prison, the Khmer Rouge used the former gym equipment as a torture device, hanging prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness, then dipping their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness to continue their interrogations.

In the courtyard of the prison, the Khmer Rouge used the former gym equipment as a torture device, hanging prisoners upside down until they lost consciousness, then dipping their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness to continue their interrogations.

 

 

 

The upper floor classrooms were used as holding cells. In some buildings, large numbers of prisoners were shacked to the floor, in other buildings the original class rooms were divided into tiny spaces. [Click on the photo to see it larger]

 

 

The Khmer Rouge were meticulous at record keeping. Each prisoner was photographed before they were tortured and sometimes after they were tortured. Fortunately, the Khmer Rouge did not have enough time to destroy all the records before the arrival of the Vietnamese Army. Each of the nearly 6,000 photos of S-21 victims tells a story. One room at S-21 contains hundreds of black and white photos of victims staring back at you. Rows and rows of portraits – their haunting faces become etched into your brain. Imagine, they were killed just because they could read or write, or their mother was a school teacher !. [Click on the photo to see it larger].

 

One building at S-21 contains an small display of eight Khmer Rouge combatants that worked at S-21 as guards, interrogators and other prison staff. During that time, they would have been between 15 and 19 years of age and were from peasant backgrounds. Their stories of those years include remorse, guilt, and some consider themselves to be victims – fearing for their lives and forced into the killings otherwise they would be tortured and killed. To read their Bio’s click on the photo to see it larger.

 

Take some time to reflect.

 

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

From a distance, Choeung Ek resembles a grassy area with a few pits and a large lake surrounded by a moat.

SHSA4923

Coming closer along the trail, you see fragments of human teeth, bones and shreds of clothing that are slowly being exposed by erosion. Reality hits. Reality hits hard !.

 

The signs along the trail point to the pits, more accurately called mass graves where bones (only skulls) have been excavated. Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time. In 1980, 86 mass graves were excavated and almost 9,000 bodies were exhumed. Many skulls still had cloth tied over the eye sockets – the victims were blindfolded, rope fragments were uncovered still wrapped around arm bones. There are 43 mass graves that are left untouched. The large lake surrounded by the moat also probably contains the remains of hundreds – even thousands of victims. Below – photos taken of photos, showing the huge pile of bones and skulls that were excavated from the mass graves.

 

There is also a particular tree. From a distance it is instantly recognizable, covered with hundreds
friendship bracelets. This is the tree, that the Khmer Rouge used to smash the skulls of babies and children, or be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol. The friendship bracelets are left by visitors wishing to pay their respects.

SHSA4938

At the end of the path is Choeung Ek Memorial, built to commemorate the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is a multi-layed structure, filled with thousands of skulls that were excavated from the pits in 1980. Some of the skill are labelled, indicating the method of death and the type of implement used.

 

We placed some flowers beside the memorial. It is impossible not to be over-come with emotion.
The kids, are too young to grasp the full reality of what happened here. We skipped over parts of the audio recording of what happened here. There is no need for them to be permanently affected by this experience.

Visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek killing field was a deeply heartbreaking experience, and I am thankful that I did visit both. They are the most horrific places that I have ever visited, and the experience helped me better understand and appreciate this brutal time in Cambodia’s history, and its impacts on Cambodian people that lived through those years.

The Khmer Rouge experience is fresh. It is raw. It is recent and the atrocities committed at these two sites are absolutely horrendous. Having been there – I cannot erase the mental images from my mind. I am now different, and will never be the same again.

The Prisoners last moments at Choeung Ek
For those of you interested in more details of what happened at Choeung Ek – read on. If you have already experienced enough, you should not read the next section. It is a gruesome tale of the prisoners last moments alive at Choeung Ek.

After the prisoners in S-21 were tortured enough, they were brought for execution to Cheoung Ek, one of the many killing fields established by Khmer Rouge throughout the country. Victims were trucked out to Choeung Ek, at about 8 or 9 o’clock PM, to be killed. The guards took the prisoners from their cells to the main gate where a large truck waited and told them that they were being transferred to another place. This lie was created to prevent the prisoners from crying, refusing to go or from escaping.

On a monthly basis two or three trucks would go from S-21 to Choeung Ek. Each truck held three or four guards and twenty to thirty frightened, silent prisoners. When the trucks arrived at the site, the prisoners names were verified. Depending on the number of prisoners, they were sent for execution immediately, or packed into a small building until the following night. Executions were always done at night, under the bright lights and with patriotic Khmer Rouge songs blasting from speakers in the killing field. When their names were called, they were led in small groups to ditches and pits. The end was close.

They were ordered to kneel down at the edge of the hole. Their hands were tied behind them. They were beaten on the neck with an iron ox-cart axle, hoe, stick, axe, wooden club or whatever else served as a weapon of death. Sometimes with one blow, sometimes with two… Some were stabbed with knives or swords, and others had their throats slit with knifes or serrated sugar palm. Bullets were deemed to be too expensive.

Photo of the prisoners being taken off the truck from S-21, blindfolded and soon to be executed.

Cambodia: Civil war, Communists, Capitalists, Cold War and Corruption

Cambodia – a land of stunning natural beauty, and a Terrible past. After nearly three weeks of touring Cambodia, including stops at the 12th century temples in Angkor (Siem Reip) and two weeks teaching english in a small rural school. Our last destination was the capital city of Phnom Penh, and out last sight seeing excursions were to the former prison Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek killing fields. In retrospect, we should have done it the other way around; seen the terrible side of Cambodia, then refresh our memories with the friendly children at the school. The way we did it, I was left with a terribly puzzled as to why Cambodia’s recent history included so much bloodshed, so much pain and there are still so many lingering effects.

So where do I start ?. To be able to grasp this mystery, we have to go back to history.

Calm before War

The recent history of Cambodia is intricately linked to competing Cold War loyalties in neighbouring Laos and Vietnam. Until the mid 1950’s Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were all part of the French Colonial empire. Cambodia and Laos became independent peacefully. In Vietnam, the path for independence was decided by the Geneva Accords of 1954, that ended the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) with the French, and divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel [1]. Trouble for Cambodia and Laos started during the Second Indochina War (1955-1975), more commonly known as the Vietnam War, fought between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Both sides were supported by Cold War adversaries: Soviet Union, China and other communist nations supporting communist North Vietnam, and United States and other anti-communist allies supporting pro-Western South Vietnam [1]. Other combatants in the Vietnam war were the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a Vietnamese communist group that was aided by North Vietnam and China [1]. The Viet Cong were based in south Vietnam and fought against the South Vietnamese army. Cambodia had its own communist group that was aided by North Vietnam and China, known as the Khmer Rouge, that fought against the pro-western government forces in Cambodia [1]. The Vietnam war would soon pour over into Cambodia.

Era of the Vietnam War

As the Vietnam war progressed, both Laos and Cambodia became involved [2, 3]. Initially Cambodia was neutral, allowing both the North Vietnamese, and Viet Cong to transport weapons, soldiers and supplies along the Ho Chi Min Trail in eastern Cambodia and a location for military bases to attack South Vietnam [3, 4]. Cambodia also allowed the US to stage Special Forces reconnaissance missions to the Ho Chi Minh and secretly and bomb Viet Cong hideouts in Cambodia [5,6,7]. A military coup in Cambodia added a US-backed Cambodian general, and opened the door for expanded US involvement – both on the ground by US troops and an escalation of the carpet-bombing raids by massive B-52 bombers to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines and Viet Cong hideouts in eastern Cambodia and all along the Cambodian border with South Vietnam [4,8,9,10]. The amount of bombs dropped on Cambodia during the war exceeded the amount dropped on Europe during World War II [8]. The bombing was considered illegal under US law, because it was unauthorized by Congress. In 1969 the US government officially announced that bombing in Cambodia would start. However, based on US Airforce computer data released in 2000, the scale and magnitude of bombing missions escalated in 1969, and not that bombing had actually started in 1964 [8]. The escalation in 1969 included carpet-bombing by massive B-52 bombers, dropping high explosive 250lb bombs, napalm and dart cluster-bombs in their effort to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines and Viet Cong hideouts in eastern Cambodia and all along the Cambodian border with South Vietnam [8].

The Khmer Rouge started as a small communist insurgency against Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s neutralist Government, and its rise of power was driven by resentment caused the large number of civilian casualties caused by the indiscriminate and secret carpet bombing raids of eastern Cambodia by the United States (1969-1973) and the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk by a pro-American general in March 1970 leading to thousands of new recruits joining the Khmer Rouge [10]. When the deposed Prince embraced the Khmer Rouge, many loyal Cambodians followed [11,12]. Supported by the North Vietnamese Army, and given training, and weapons from China and North Vietnam the Khmer Rouge continued to defeat the US backed Cambodian army. In 1975, the communist forces in Cambodia (Khmer Rouge), Laos (Pathet Lao) and North Vietnam had defeated the anti-communist forces lead to peace and re-unified Vietnam [1,2,3].

3 years, 8 months and 20 days-long era of Khmer Rouge

By this time, Cambodia had endued five years of foreign interventions, bombardment, and civil war and now the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – and one of the most deadly genocides in human history was just starting. The Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot implemented their radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist restructuring of the society; its goal was to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agriculture cooperative [13]. Schools, mosques, churches, and government buildings were closed or turned into prisons, re-education camps or granaries. Money and personal property was deemed worthless. Religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture were banned. 

All political and civil rights were abolished. Books were burned; cars and any form of private or public transportation was banned; communication infrastructure like television, radio and telephone wires were all dismantled. The country was cut off from the outside world. Under threat of death, everyone including the sick, elderly and infirm were forced to leave the towns and cities, and march into the countryside. Children were placed in “re-education” camps while adults were forced to work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day, without adequate food, rest or medical care. They had to grow rice – though not for them, the food was taken away and traded to China for weapons [13,14,15,16]. Anyone with a connection to the defeated pro-US government (civil servants, politicians, soldiers, military officers), anyone with an education or training (doctors, academics , school teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists and professionals in any field, journalists, artists, students, even musicians and mechanics, electricians), anyone deemed pro-American, pro-Western, pro-capitalist, religious groups (Buddhist monks, and those with muslim or christian beliefs), those belonging to minority groups such as the, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, and also Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry [13,14,15,16]. Even those knowing a foreign language, wearing glasses or foreign clothing styles was enough to be taken away, along with their extended families, to be executed and their bodies disposed of in mass graves in what are now called “the killing fields” [10,13,14,15,16]. Others were taken to prisons, to be interrogated and tortured to obtain names of other people whom are considered a potential enemy to the regime, sign a ‘confession’ and then taken to be killed. 
Being a member of the Khmer Rouge did not guarantee safety. In the eyes of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge contained a series of factions that needed to be ‘cleansed’ [10,13,14,15,16]. The Khmer Rouge soldiers trained by the Vietnamese were imprisoned, interrogated and executed during the purges of its own ranks. During the three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule it is estimated that between 1.2 and 2.2 million Cambodians died either at the hands of Pol Pot’s murder squads, or from starvation and disease. Almost every Cambodian alive lost a family member under the Khmer Rouge, in one of the most brutal and genocidal regimes in modern history [9,10,13,14].

Invasion and occupation by Vietnam

During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communists had worked together to fight the U.S.-backed regime. After taking power, the Khmer Rouge leadership began to loose trust in the Vietnamese communists and instigated border raids on Vietnam [1]. In December 1978 Vietnam retaliated by invading and removing the Khmer Rouge-dominated regime, and forcing Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge forces to flee to the border region with Thailand. On 7 January 1979, the Vietnamese army, captured Phnom Penh and ended the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days-long genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge [9,13,14,15]. Suddenly, the Khmer Rouge’s unspeakable atrocities were revealed and had generated an outcry echoed throughout the world [15,16,17]. As news of mass starvation, torture, and killings from Cambodian refugees reached international headlines, Cold War rivalry at the United Nations in New York, continued to dictate political and diplomatic decisions. United States, Britain and other European nations, China and pro-Western Asian countries, while denouncing the Khmer Rouge crimes, voted to award Cambodia’s contested seat in the United Nations to the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea which was controlled by the Khmer Rouge, instead of have it go to a communist government controlled by Vietnam and its mentor, the Soviet Union [10, 17]. Simply, Vietnam was on the wrong side of the cold war [18]. Opposing this UN decision to maintain Khmer Rouge representation were the Soviet bloc and its allies, including a number of non-aligned countries, notably India , but were easily outvoted in the General Assembly [11, 18]. Thus the international organization that adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that conflict happen again.”), the Genocide Convention (“Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.”), and the Convention on Torture, chose to prioritize politics over the genocide of millions. In turn, the war-torn country of Kampuchea was denied international aid and trade. The Khmer Rouge continued to have a seat in the United Nations General Assembly for 11 years, and no one seemed to be in any hurry to bring the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime to trial [18, 19]. Understandably, Survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime were appalled.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s the Khmer Rouge forces were secretly receiving training, weapons, battle plans, uniforms, money and satellite intelligence from the US, UK, Thailand and China because of their united hostility to communist Vietnam [17, 20, 21]. Only in 1989, did the British finally admit that they had secretly provided training the “resistance” for more than four years in land mine–laying techniques, on the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices [17, 21]. The Khmer Rouge continued to attack government-controlled garrison towns, planted thousands of mines in rural areas, attacked road transport, blew up bridges, kidnapped village chiefs and targeted civilians. Hundreds of thousands become refugees, and joined UN-supported refugee camps along the Thai border, although these were controlled by the Khmer Rouge [17]. To defend themselves from repeated attacks from the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese laid the world’s longest minefield, stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao border, and then in 1989, Vietnam withdrew its occupying army from Cambodia [1,3].

Enter the UN – UNTAC

In 1992, a United Nations peacekeeping force arrived in Cambodia, part of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to ‘restore and maintain peace’ and to supervise the country until a Cambodian government was elected. As part of the UNTAC brokered peace process, all of the genocidal actions of the Khmer Rouge were ‘forgotten’, by UN officials and the Khmer Rouge were welcomed back from their jungle hideouts to join the peace process [11, 17, 47]. The UNTAC mandate also included a disarmament program; while other militia groups surrendered their weapons and military supplies, the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm, refused to allow UNTAC enter its territory and even attacked and captured UNTAC personnel [46, 47]. Based on voter turnout, the UNTAC mission was considered a success [46], it did not lead to a disarmed Khmer Rouge, did not enforce the election results, and by the time that UNTAC left Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had more weapons and occupied more territories than when UNTAC arrived [46].

A New Beginning ?

In 1993, big changes were coming to Cambodia. Peace has returned, the monarchy is restored, the country is re-named to the Kingdom of Cambodia, Buddhism is re-established as the state religion, the newly formed Cambodian Government officially outlaws the Khmer Rouge [22], and the Khmer Rouge loose their seat in the UN General Assembly.

The beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge regime began with kidnapping and murder tourists [23], followed by a Cambodian Government declared an amnesty law. Thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers surrendered, others defected and joined the Cambodian Army to battle their former colleagues (including those implicated in the murder of the tourists in 1994 [23]. The Khmer Rouge regime continued to exist until 1998, by which time, all of its leaders had defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or had died. Initially supported by Cold War alliances and Communist China, the demise of the Pot Pot Khmer Rouge regime was accomplished by Cambodians [11, 12].

From one Dictator to Another

Politically, since 1979 Cambodia has been dominated by one person – Hun Sen. Hun Sen, a former mid-level Khmer Rouge leader defected from the movement to Vietnam in 1977 and is currently serving in his fifth term as Prime Minister [25].

In 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, he was appointed Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Vietnamese-installed government. He remained in the government throughout the Vietnamese occupation during the 1980s.[58]. In 1993 during the UN supervised general elections, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which represented the previous communist government, had lost the election. However, not willing to play gracefully (or fair), he and the other CPP government ministers refused to accept defeat, throwing the country into political crisis. A UN brokered ‘compromise’ left Cambodia with a three-party coalition government and two co-Prime Ministers. In 1997 Hun Sen used his influence and control of the Army in a coup d’etat, ordering the arrest and execution of political opponents in the coalition government with a clear objective of achieving sole control of the country [24, 26, 27]. After the 2013 general election (not surprisingly Hun Sen and the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) won the election, opposition parties and EU monitors reported widespread election irregularities followed by six months of political deadlock, demonstrations and mass protests [28, 29, 30, 32], and opposition groups asked the United Nations to investigate [32, 35].

The former Khmer Rouge commander has a reputation as a ‘wily operator who destroys his political opponents’ [25, 36], Hun Sen is widely viewed as a dictator that has assumed authoritarian power in Cambodia using ‘brute military strength’ [3,25], corruption and ‘web of patronage’ to maintain his power base [37, 38, 39]. Protests in support of higher wages, land rights or greater political freedom are brutally dealt by deploying the Army or riot police [35, 40, 41]. During the mid 1990s remnant factions of the Khmer Rouge were still waging sporadic attacks on government forces [58]. Hun Sen wanted to bring peace to Cambodia, and be seen as a political hero by ending the long standing conflict with the Khmer Rouge [58]. In 1996, the Cambodian Government offered an Amnesty to Khmer Rouge, and senior-level employment opportunities in the government and military [58]. Hun Sen and the CPP are synonymous with corruption. Transparency International ranked Cambodia at 160th out of 175 countries, and Global Witness 2009 report that Hun Sen’s government is accused of carrying out secret negotiations with interested private parties, taking money from those who he would then grant rights to exploit the country’s resources [42]. During his tenure, Hun Sen’s government has sold 45% Cambodia’s total landmass to foreign investors, including wildlife protected areas, national parks, and causing forced eviction of more than 150,000 Cambodians [43]. According to G. Evans, “There are stories, unverifiable but plausible, that 20 or more of Hun Sen’s closest associates have each amassed more than $1 billion through misappropriation of state assets, illegal economic activity, and favouritism in state procurement and contracting” [40]. There has also been political patronage bordering on parody, with one recent count putting the government’s size at 244 ministers and secretaries of state [40]. Hun Sen’s immediate family and senior members of the CPP government also have absolute control over all television and radio stations in Cambodia [44, 45]. In every town and rural village there are offices of the CPP, large billboards with pictures of the party leadership, and many house owners woke up to signs attached to their houses supporting the CPP. Whether or not everyone (or anyone) actually supports Hun Sen and the CPP, one thing is clear: today he is the richest man, and most likely, the most hated man in Cambodia.

 

What happened to the Khmer Rouge ?.

A quick internet search on the history of the Khmer Rouge comes up with a couple of heading lines:

 

“Cambodian Khmer Rouge trial of Comrade Duch set to end”[51]

“Verdict due in Comrade Duch Khmer Rouge trial”[49]

Khmer Rouge Figure Is Found Guilty of War Crimes”….“A United Nations-backed tribunal on Monday found a 67-year-old former prison warden (Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as ‘Duch’) of the Khmer Rouge guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes for overseeing the torture and killing of more than 17,000 prisoners [50].

 

This was in 2009, and Kaing Guek Eav was the first major figure to be tried in the murderous Khmer Rouge regime since it was taken out of power in 1979 !. These headlines and the articles intrigued me to do more research on the recent history of Cambodia and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. I had been to Cambodia, toured large parts of the country and had visited Toul Sleng Prison Museum (S-21) and the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek 158 one of 159 prisons and 309 killing fields set up by the KR between 1975 and 1979. As it turns out, Kaing Guek Eav was ‘discovered’ by a journalist [48]. Why had the government not found him and put him on trial ?

What happened, why did it take so long for justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime ?

The reason that an internationally-supported tribunal for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge was not established until nearly thirty years after these crimes were committed, was largely the result of Cold War geo-politics.

In January 1979, the Vietnamese installed a new, a pro-Vietnamese government in the country now known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Even though Vietnam had ended the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge and set up a new government, the influence of the Cold War still ruled. Western nations, while denouncing the Khmer Rouge crimes were still slaves to Cold War mentality and decided it was better for the United Nations to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Kampuchea (Cambodia), instead of have it go to a communist government controlled by Vietnam and its mentor, the Soviet Union [8]). The Khmer Rouge continued to have a seat in the United Nations General Assembly from 1979 to 1990 [8], and continued to launch sporadic attacks on the new government and government military installations [11].

Between 1990 and the late 1990’s, the Cold War had ended, causing a shift in strategic allegiances, a change in military support, withdrawl of Vietnamese troops, a United Nations brokered peace plan, and eventually….Peace. With peace, came the opportunity to prosecute those that had been a part of the mass genocide during the Khmer rouge regime. With the legal system in tatters (most of the lawyers and judges were murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime), the co-Prime Ministers, wrote to the Secretary-General of the UN requesting UN assistance in prosecuting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge [51]. Negotiations between Cambodian Government and the United Nations on the actual format and mandate of the tribunal evolved into a “power struggle” [51] that continued for years. The UN wanted a ‘large’ number (10 – 15) of former Khmer Rouge to be prosecuted, whereas the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Government insisted on mechanisms to control and restrict the tribunal from determining who could be indicted and convicted and that the tribunal be limited to “senior Khmer Rouge members and those most responsible”, Hun Sen was adamant that the middle and lower rank officials in the Khmer Rouge would be reintegrated into Cambodian society, and not be prosecuted [52, 58]. As a one-time Khmer Rouge battalion commander, Hun Sen knows only too well that important members of the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have complicated ties to the former regime and that more investigations down the Khmer Rouge chain of command could expose their own shady pasts [58]. In the end, the UN compromised and ceded to Cambodia’s insistence on ownership of the trials” [11], a majority of Cambodian judges [52,54], and that the tribunal be limited to only “those most responsible” for the regime’s crimes” [52, 53, 58]. Finally, twenty-eight years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power, and following six years of intense negotiations between the United Nations and the Government of Cambodia the Khmer Rouge tribunal was established in 2007. The tribunal, a Cambodian court with UN-assistance with international prosecutors and judges, is officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) [12, 52, 53].

United Nations Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

After 72 days of hearing of evidence, 9 expert witnesses, 17 fact witnesses, 7 character witnesses and comments by 22 Civil Parties the first conviction by the ECCC, known as Case 001, was delivered on July 26, 2010 [56]. Kang Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, a 67-year-old former prison warden at S-21 was convicted of war crimes for overseeing the torture and killing of more than 14,000 prisoners, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions [56, 57]. He was sentenced to serve 19 years in prison — 35 years minus 16 years for time already served [56, 57]. “First came the verdict. Then the disbelief. Finally the outrage”[55]. Many Cambodians reacted angrily to the news of the relatively short sentence for Kaing Guek Eav, the man who oversaw the torture and murder of thousands of people – could be free in 19 years[55]. After the sentence, Kaing Guek Eav – did the unthinkable, and launched an appeal – claiming, that he was not among “those most responsible.”[58]. In February 2012, the Supreme Court Chamber of the ECCC quashed the appeal by Kang Guek Eav, the regime’s most recognizable torturer, changing his sentence to life imprisonment . Touted as a historic victory for the Khmer Rouge’s victims, the decision is final and cannot be appealed [25].

 

Resignation of Judges

Even from the beginning, the proceedings at the ECCC were not without conflict. Several high-profile international (i.e. Western) lawyers, prosecutors, and judges resigned unexpectedly from the tribunal citing “heavy-handed political interference from the Cambodian government, refusal from senior CPP government officials that had been subpoenaed by the court, allegations of kickbacks involving national staff, bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence, and disturbing levels of conflict between international and national staff” when the ECCC legal team investigated other suspects those names were Hun Sen approved list [53, 57, 58, 62, 63, 64, 65]. Many current senior members of the Cambodian government; including the Prime Minister Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Senate President (who has been President of the Senate since 1999), National Assembly Chairman, the Foreign Minister, and two star generals in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces; all had senior positions in Khmer Rouge government, or senior military leaders in Khmer Rouge are suspected of committing war crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime [58]. Attempts have been made by the ECCC to investigate some of these individuals. Simply, they are not on Hun Sen’s approved list !.

Between 2012 and 2014, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary died while awaiting trial for genocide, and the two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who are in their 80s, Nuon Chea (also known as Brother Number Two) was the deputy to the movement’s late leader Pol Pot, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan [60] were jailed by a UN backed court for life. They were found guilty with crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of up to 2,200,000 Cambodians from execution, starvation, disease and overwork; both had denied responsibility for these crimes
 [60]. Despite the high profile nature of the ECCC tribunal and the life sentence commuted to the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, three decades after the genocide 75% of the Cambodian population is too young to have directly experienced the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and are more interested in their career than advancements than to the tribunal [12]. Most Cambodians over the age of 40, have chosen to forget their traumatic recollections of the atrocities [61].

 

 

What about the other Khmer Rouge leaders – where are they ?

In 1996 Khmer Rouge received an offer many could not refuse – Defect to the Cambodian government and receive a royal pardon and amnesty [19]. Many Khmer Rouge took up this offer and moved to Palin, a region of Cambodia was set aside for former regime [67], where approximately 70 percent of the residents today are ex-Khmer Rouge fighters and commanders [67]. Although several high profile former Khmer Rouge leaders were arrested in 2007, and received sentences for life in prison, their families still live and thrive in Palin, taking advantage of the network of former Khmer Rouge members that live in the region. In many ways, the Khmer Rouge still controls the region, controlling strategic political positions in the local and regional government [61, 67]. In other regions of Cambodia former Khmer Rouge reintegrated into Cambodian society, getting jobs in the government, joining the military to fight their former comrades, growing rice, operating businesses, working as school teachers, (before being discovered, Kang Guek Eav worked as a school teacher and at a Christian Church)[56]. Imagine, discovering years later that the ‘friendly’ man at the grocery story – was formerly a Khmer Rouge regional commander and had tortured and imprisoned 1000’s of people; and maybe even your aunt, uncle, grandfather, brother and sister !. To add insult to injury, the government amnesty in 1996, prevented the criminal prosecution and punishment of perpetrators, and prevented the victims from seeking damages, truth, and other forms of accountability from those responsible for the violation of their rights [69]. Such is the reality in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

 

UXO – The Legacy of many years of War

Since gaining “Independance” from France in 1953, Cambodia’s history has been dominated by Civil war, Cold War, Communists, Capitalists, Killing and Corruption. Without a doupt, the worst is over, though Corruption continues as does the legacy of three decades of war and internal conflicts that ended in 1998.

Long after the wars have ended, land mines and unexploded bombs (UXO) continue to kill and maim. Casualty statistics from the Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service (CMVIS) shows that Cambodia has one of the highest casualty rates in the world, listing at least 64,314 landmine and unexploded ordnance casualties from 1979 to December 2013 [70], and the recovery and destruction of 900,493 anti-personnel mines, 20,779 anti-tank mines and 2,063,175 bullets and bombs [72]. Although the yearly number of casualties is generally decreasing from 4,320 in 1996 to 111 in 2013 [70], there have been years where the number of deaths and injuries due to unexploded ordnance and land mines have increased. During the first six months of 2014 there were 101 casualties compared with about 110 cases in the whole of 2013 [72]. The majority of these deaths and injuries are due the transition from manual labour to the increasing use of heavy machinery to cultivate farmland [72]. Iconically, many of the land mines in rural Cambodia were planted by the Khmer Rouge [19, 75], in the areas where they wanted people to live and grow food and ‘build a new Cambodia focused on agricultural success'[75]. Currently, most of the remaining mines are still frequently found in the fields [73] preventing safe access to land, in a country where around 80 per cent of the rural population is dependent on agriculture or related activities [70, 74]. Between 1992 to 2010 63,962 ha of mine-affected land have been cleared nationwide for housing, farming and other infrastructures [72], and Cambodia is seeking about 30 million U.S. dollars a year of in-kind contributions until 2020 to completely eliminate all unexploded ordnance in Cambodia [73].

 

 

……

Note:

This is page was not intended to be an academic paper, it was simply a way for me to understand the complex history of Cambodia since 1954. As a kid, back in the early 1980’s my brother had an LP (record) with the song “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. I never actually understood the lyrics… until now.

 

“So, you’ve been to school
For a year or two
And you know you’ve seen it all
In daddy’s car
Thinking you’ll go far
Back east your type don’t crawl

Playing ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five-grand stereo
Braggin’ that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slum’s got so much soul

It’s time to taste what you most fear
Right Guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear
Brace yourself, my dear

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
It’s tough, kid, but it’s life
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Don’t forget to pack a wife

You’re a star-belly snitch
You suck like a leech
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch
So you can get rich
While your boss gets richer off you

Well, you’ll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where the people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son…
What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people are dressed in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot

It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll do what you’re told
It’s a holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul
Pol Pot”

 

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  55. De Launey, G., Tears and disbelief at Duch verdict. 26 July 2010 BBC News, Phnom Penh http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10763409
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  68. Eimer, D., Khmer Rouge killers live in contented retirement as Cambodia struggles with the legacy of Pol Pot. 21 Jul 2013 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/cambodia/10192536/Khmer-Rouge-killers-live-in-contented-retirement-as-Cambodia-struggles-with-the-legacy-of-Pol-Pot.html
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Cambodia – I Loved It and I Hated It.

Last month I posted about stewing; how the culture, language, history and food  in Thailand needed time to mix with my own culture, language, history and culinary appreciation. This past month, I was in Cambodia, as it feels as if the pot holding the stew was placed on a landmine (no pun intended). Two countries, geographically adjacent, yet so very different.

I am writing this post from Australia, and looking at my journal entries from the past month. Even without reading every work – my handwriting tells the story; calm smooth letters represent a calm day, where as bold, angular letters with many unanswered question marks represent a more challenging day.  Since my arrival in Australia, I have felt an overwhelming sense of relaxation – and a return to sort-of normal life. It is the little things that make me feel at home. Although the traffic is on the opposite direction from Cambodia, and the opposite direction from my home country of Canada – the drivers seem more more similar to home. There are rules that motorists follow, they stay in the appropriate lane, and there is no need to look right-left-right and left again before stepping off the curb when crossing the street. Also, in Australia, as a tall, light-haired white male I seem to blend into the crowd, instead of feeling the the odd-ball in the crowd of shorter, darker-skinned, black hair Cambodians.

In Australia, store-front private security do not carry machine guns – in Phnom Penh – they were sporting AK-47 and “Property of U.S. Government” M-16’s.

In short, and in in summary…
After one month – I Loved It and I Hated Cambodia.

Top 10 things I loved about Cambodia

1) My Cambodian friends
2) Making a difference – volunteering at a small school
3) The price of food and accommodation. (I beer for 0.50$ USD).
4) Incredible archaeological sites (Angkor Wat)
5) The country is not over-developed and over-touristed (except for Angkor Wat)
6) Cambodian people have an incredible ‘make it work attitude’.
7) Delicious Food !
8) There is no “Road Rage”. Traffic seems to go in all directions, people get ‘cut-off’; it all seems normal, no one gets upset.
9) Bargaining with vendors – and no tax
10) See how overloaded a vehicle can be….

SHSA5230
This busy – and it isn’t ‘rush-hour’. Traffic is merging from four directions, people getting ‘cut’off’ – though no one gets upset.

 

Top 10 things I Hated about Cambodia

I should say that during our time in Cambodia, nothing went wrong; we were not robbed, assaulted or physically harmed.

1) Hassled by Tuktuk drivers….”Mr – You want tuktuk?”   …leave me alone !
2) Corruption. Government officials have no shame in asking for extra money; Customs officials, Post office, even Police.
3) Politics & Human Rights. The Cambodian Peoples Party has been in power since 1979, and many current government officials had senior positions in the Khmer Rouge (1973-1979). No wonder, that only a few former leaders in the Khmer Rouge have been prosecuted for their crimes.
4) Many International NGOs in Phnom Penh have fancy offices, and drive new model Land cruisers, whereas local many local NGOs (mostly in rural areas) are broke, and don’t even have the cash for an office, let along a car.
5) During the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979) all land records were destroyed. After the war, people moved into ‘new’ homes. Now, in 2014, big companies (with the support of the government) are forcibly removing people from their homes and land – using the excuse that the current tenant does not have a land record.
6) Black Tourism. Who would have imagined that sites of indescribable horror during the era of the Khmer Rouge, are now huge tourist attractions and a huge source of income. It is also disappointing to learn that the Cambodian government has leased the Cheung Ek killing field to a Japanese company to manage for a profit (Seth Mydans/International Herald Tribune,  Published: November 6, 2005).
7) Landmines and UXOs still kill and injure many people each year, and a public education program on the dangers is helping the numbers go down. Unfortunately, the lack of swimming lessons is a significant source of death, with over 2000 children drowned a year (approximately 6 children each day) (http://swimsafe.org/drowning/drowning-data/).

SHSA2947
A crude, home-made artificial leg to replace a leg blown off from stepping on a anti-personnel mine.

8) In Cambodia there is a very wide gap between the very, very rich and the poor. It is hard to watch people diving in sewer ponds for plastic bottles that are worth 3 cents.
9) The lack of garbage pick-up and recycling. Unfortunately, there is garbage everywhere; on city streets, in parks, on rural roads, in farmers fields and in rivers.
10) I call them the ‘Ghosts of Cambodia’; the people that did the head bashing, finger nail pulling, and other forms of torture during the era of the Khmer Rouge. Where are they now ? – could they be the person making coffee at local shop, or the tuktuk driver now making money driving tourists to the killing fields or to Tuol Sleng ’S-21’ the notorious  secret prison where nearly 20,000 people where tortured ?.

Angkor – One of the Architectural Wonders of the World

Angkor is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries. During this time, a series of state capitals and temples were built by successive Kings, abandoning the previous capital in favour of a new location with its state temple.  Each new state temple was larger and more grandiose that its predecessor. Some Kings also built large irrigation systems and water reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers.

The history of city of Angor can be traced back to the rein of the Khmer Hindu monarch King Jayavarman II, who chose the location for the royal court. Half a century later his son, Yashovarman, established Yashodapura (later called Angkor), the permanent capital of the Khmer Empire until the 15th century. A Khmer rebellion resulted in the 1431 sacking of Angkor by Ayutthaya, causing its population to migrate south to Longvek.

The ruins of ancient Angkor are near modern-day Siem Reap city, in Siem Reap Province, and the area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and is one of the most important archaeological sites in Angkor.

 

SHSA1984

 

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Angkor Thom  is a 3km2 walled and moated royal city and was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII.

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Bayon Temple is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple, and was the last state temple to be built at Angkor. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon shrine is dedicated to the Buddha. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified by later Hindu and Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences.

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Architecturally, Ta Prohm Temple is similar to other Jayavarman VII temples. It was built about mid-12th century to early 13th century (1186) and is dedicated to his mother.

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East Mebon and Pre Rup are often referred to as the Twin Temples. Similar in style, they were built by King Rajendravarman, but have some interesting contrasts. They are earlier Angkor temples, or rather temple mountains, and Hindu in style (dedicated to Shiva) with a crowning quincunx of towers (similar to the pattern of dots on a number 5 dice).
Of all the temples in Angkor, Pre Rup and East Mebon are among the most architecturally and appealing temples. Both temples are constructed with brick, laterite and sandstone – reflect warm red hues in the early morning or from late afternoon to sunset.

 

East Mebon

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Pre Rup

 

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Banteay Srei

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Final – I hope you like the photos. Given more time, I would have gone to some of the more remote and less main-stream temples. With a family and being a teacher for the kids for the next 7 months – there is not enough time to visit all the temples, or enough time to dedicate to photography. That said, traveling with the family for 10 months is a pretty awesome experience.