The broken ideology
The Places We See
The last quarter of tourism in Cambodia, after the Wats, palaces and nature, is sadness. Whilst undoubtely macabre, there is a draw to the two major sites associated with the Khmer Rouge, namely Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek killing field. The curiosity, the history, the disbelief, the respect: whatever reasoning one permits one’s self to look, the result is standing at a location feeling quietly appalled.
Visiting each of the sites is respectively different. Tuol Sleng was an urban school before it was converted into a torture prison, and a rudimentary school building it remains. Adaptations were made to incorporate cramped cells and instruments of sadism, but the overall appearance continues to be one from a developing nation. The walls look weak, of crumbling bricks, but the portraits on the boards in the final room make it clear that this was a dreadful place from which people did not escape.
The Killing Fields, conversely, are in suburban and rural greenery, and could easily disappear beneath nature if not deliberately maintained. Choeung Ek is the most famous execution site, sitting just beyond Phnom Penh and marked with a stupa. That stupa contains five thousand skulls, but around it the land is almost casual and depressingly peaceful. Goats meander across the grass, where small wooden signs tapped into the earth reveal incongruous details: ‘MASS GRAVE OF 166 VICTIMS WITHOUT HEADS’; ‘KILLING TREE AGAINST WHICH EXECUTIONERS BEAT CHILDREN’.
Despite the conflicting environments of these locations – one synthetic and previously scholarly, one natural and becoming wild – they both feel desperate. The juxtaposition between witnessing it as a tourist years late and the outrageous cruelty at the time forces consideration. Brutal acts happened on these spots, yet life has moved on to the extent that visitors look, and ponder, and philosophise. And that makes it seem that not only is killing too easy, but so is objectifying and externalizing the skulls and graves. Both sites make present doubts as to whether a person is moral or not by being here.
The Plot of the Khmer Rouge
In terms of population percentage, the Cambodian genocide is surely one of the most effectively extreme in history. Across four years, 1975 to 1979, nearly a quarter of the nation’s population was put to death or left to die – in straight data, approximately two million of an eight million populous. The architect was leader Pol Pot, the nom de guerre of Saloth Sâr, who followed the path of several revolutionaries in cementing victory by swifting destroying swathes of society. Indeed, Pol Pot’s ally to the north, Mao Zedong, had instigated a constant stream of purges.
The purpose of the genocide was to reset the country as a self-sufficient agrarian communist society, an ideology promoted by Mao and also adapted in North Korean juche thinking. The process was to clear the cities and clear out of decadent, and the method was viscious. For the Khmer Rouge, the revolution was not to remould society, but to restart at Year Zero, which meant cleansing came first. It was a destruction that could have wiped out Pol Pot’s own family at an earlier time, for he – in line with many revolutionaries – had come from reasonable money: schooled in Paris, he was the deadly cliche of a well-educated student who fervently loathed privilege.
The targets of persecution were both general and precise. Such significant numbers of people were caught in the net that it is hard to argue the regime was discerning, but at the same time it specifically visciously went after particular groups, such as Cham Muslims and the Vietnamese. Religion and foreigners were both unwelcome influences in the Khmer Rouge vision, and both were slaughtered in vast numbers – one historian puts the Cham number at 50%. It was these killings that made the legal argument for genocide rather than civil war, although it appears the killings were catalysed by extreme revenge rather than ideological purity. Both Cham Muslim and Vietnamese groups had fought bloody battles of resistance.
As with China’s Cultural Revolution, which ran from 1966 to 1976, murder was only part of the campaign. Creating an agricultural communist utopia meant generating agriculture workers, by force, and so communes were established in the rural expanses for children and adults alike, breaking apart families. Similarly, the large percentage of the population that already worked in farming had to made to think appropriately. Simultaneously, re-education was imposed on all, with individualism and free thought the enemy of the revolution. Learning was allowed, but only the correct learning and after all other learning was annihilated. The horrors that happened in the fields and countryside are difficult for a tourist to see, or imagine, because holiday itineraries do not include countryside villages and crops.
Crime and Punishment
The Khmer Rouge were eventually toppled in July 1979 with the help of Vietnam, although the group continued in guerilla camps for nearly twenty further years. Finally, however, it fell. In 1998 Pol Pot died, either of heart failure or suicide, and was cremated on a pile of burning tyres. He had rarely been seen and not photographed in 18 years, but his death was one of the last motions of the defeated organisation, which was wiped out the same year.
Yet these were recent times, and there remain living souls connected by deed or name to the atrocities. Most infamous are the top brass that evaded justice for substantial amounts of time, and although the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) brought several to justice by 2018, punishments were deemed weak. Additionally, the trials of three defendants, Ao An, Yim Tith and Meas Muth, are caught in political complications.
Books have been written, and films made, to tell the stories of still living survivors. The 1984 film The Killing Fields is where most English-speakers go, but there are other cold, hard, first hand accounts. Some are from those that have emigrated, some took the stand at the genocide trials, recounting awful details, and some are occasionally tracked down by journalists. Of those journalists, Nate Thayer is perhaps the most renowned as he interviewed Pol Pot himself just before the dictator’s death. Ben Kiernan’s documentation on the treatment of Cham Muslims during the time is also extraordinary. Meanwhile, as well as verbal evidence, forensic work has been done on the remains of the victims.
Sentencing and compiling are important administrative recordings of the genocide. They also offer catharsis. However, two individuals exist that present a more morally grey area. As seen in global photographs at the time on his death, Pol Pot left a wife and a 12 year old daughter. The question of what happens to the descendants of dictators, provided they are allowed to live, is not necessarily an easy one to answer, and can create a perverse celebrity gossip. It is intriguing, although arguably unfair, to know that the sons of Idi Amin and Nicolae Ceaușescu got ordinary jobs as a DHL manager and nuclear physicist respectively or distant relatives of Hitler live on Long Island.
For Mea Son, Pol Pot’s second wife, her marriage to the leader’s chief aide, Tep Khunnal, only six months after he died offered family stability. Indeed, that wedding is less worthy of a raised eyebrow than the actions of Khunnal himself, who swapped being a communist dictator’s lieutenant – albeit a relative moderate – to embarking on a career in management lecturing and business investments. Yet it is the girl, by virtue of her youth, that is the Anastasia-style tabloid scoop. Reports say Sar Patchata studied English Literature, manages a rice factory, and is fond of using social media with her friends. She briefly captured international attention when she got married in 2014.
Lessons for a Part-time Student
The deaths, the trials, the fate of the survivors and the life of a girl with dubious parentage. These details, since researched, are akin to standing at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, because they are matters I do not truly understand. There is no escaping my status as a tourist, historically and geographically, when examining Cambodia. Being there, without the language, I passed through the country, next stop Bangkok. Few routes can be more touristy than that. Not being there, I rummage within my pictures and the internet, and regret my lack of a local contact.
Places of memorial and remembrance are sad. They are also confusing, because the temptation is to feel worthy by being there. There is a conflict between contemplating the atrocities and congratulating one’s self for that act. Moreover, there is the question regarding the extent a person is expected to know. Reading and research is good, but so is appreciating that I honestly have no idea of what people at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek and myriad other sites around the country experienced.
The day after attending these sites I flew to Siem Reap. Here I partook in the first quarter of Cambodia tourism, stopping at Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon Temple. It was what I had to do, and it would have been ridiculous to not. My education and respect for what occured in the late 1970s had grown, yet I had no notion if that was sufficient. And after I left others like me would also visit, and perhaps understand better. Meanwhile, the grass would keep on growing and the goats would continue to graze.