10 MO ago

Cambodia: Past and Present in Phnom Penh

Its 86 degrees in December, and I’m looking out onto the low city streets from my 9th floor luxury apartment building. Across the street, a rooftop bar plays top 40 hits, while groups drink gin and tonics looking out onto the hot orange sky. Not really what I envisioned when I heard Phnom Penh, Cambodia was part of our itinerary this year.

In the afternoons, blue and red flags flap lazily in the dusty breeze. Among the brightly colored low buildings, golden temples spiral upwards into the horizon. Down below, tuktuks weave and roll through the sparser-than-Hanoi-but-still-kinda-stressful traffic, and monks in bright orange walk under umbrellas, stopping to collect donations, or do their laundry. I’m sitting comfortably in an air conditioned room, finishing an avocado toast and mulling over my brunch options: western cafes are aplenty in Phnom Penh.

Monks stop for laundry on a modern street in Cambodia

When first considering our itinerary on Remote Year, there were a few locations that gave me pause. From Serbia (Whose recent history includes the Balkan conflicts and the former Yugoslavia) to Cambodia, and even Vietnam (my #1 bucket list country for a few years now), when I spoke to friends, family and clients back home, they would ask “why are you going there?” .

A hazy rainy day looking out over Phnom Penh

Besides indulging in the cheap accommodations, strong wifi and social impact tourism, shouldn’t we, as travelers, become advocates for educating others? To compare and contrast between places we’ve experienced? Isn’t it our human responsibility to learn from the past and use our voices so that we stop history from repeating itself?

The modernity and current life in Phnom Penh I’m still experiencing, but I’d like to talk about the past in this post.

As someone who has the privilege of entering a country (safely and with many “homes” to return to, may I add) learning of recent history, international politics, global power’s influence, development and conflicts… we’re not doing a very good job of it right now.

Aleppo is burning. The US is turning a blind eye, and I’m living in a city rebuilt after being ravaged by war, in a country formerly decimated by the very nationalism thats on the rise in the US and Britain. Brexit and Trump are modern day choices that hearken back to fascist regimes, and innocent people are still being decimated over war games.

We’re not evolving.

After visiting the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) genocide museum, (a former high school turned into a torture prison for the Khmer Rouge), we sit in groups of strangers under the mango trees.

My head is between my knees, and I’m trying not to throw up.

Posters of tortured victims are in isolated chambers that you can view at your leisure. Birds are singing merrily. All along the walls of the prison, mug shots of Cambodians and international intellectuals alike stare out onto the silent tour groups.

The interior courtyard of the S-21 prison, Phnom Penh. The concrete buildings house torture chambers and prison cells.

I’m grateful for the silence, because its giving us time to find our voices.

These. Are. People.

Youk Chhang is in his ambiguously late 50’s, wearing a white dress shirt, and has our rapt attention. 35 sweaty travelers are leaning forward at the edge of our seats: French, Haitian, American, Turkish, British, Irish and beyond, we’ve all come together to learn a little bit more about the genocide in Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. After all, we’re living in a modern city, enjoying wifi and margaritas. Our individual hardships are varied, but before us stands a refugee, a survivor of torture, a US citizen who has come back to Cambodia to make a difference. Someone who is my Dad’s age.

Youk Chhang, refugee and director of DC-Cam

Last Wednesday, we had the opportunity to hear Youk Chhang speak. A refugee and survivor of the Cambodian genocide, not to mention a Yale graduate who consults for his new hometown of Dallas, Texas, is now an Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), founder of the Sleuk Rith Institute and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s torture and imprisonment. Chhang is eloquent and articulate, focused on justice and reconciliation.

And yet he wasn’t always:

“I came to this world not for humanity, but for revenge.” Chhang admits, and begins his chronicle with the words:

Every human being wants justice.

He weaves his narrative of imprisonment and terror. Of uncles killed, pregnant sisters who are ripped open in hospitals in order to find stolen food, of family members stoned in front of communities…and of forgiveness. 

Captured and sent to an adult prison, Chhang and others were tortured. He was only released when an older inmate begged a guard to consider his youth. The older inmate was killed, but Chhang was released. (If you happen to visit the Killing Fields, you can hear his retelling on the audio tour during numbers 128 and 129.)

Because of past colonization from the French, Cambodia was distrustful of outside influences: Ruled by a king focused on developing international ties to Cambodia, Marshall Lon Nol, an American sympathizer, staged a coup to replace Prince Sihanouk as head of state. The communist movement emerged as a counterbalance to both, a resistance, a return to “true Cambodian ideals” and as a response to Vietnam troops occupying Cambodia. 

The Cold War waging to the northeast was in full swing: A struggle against the spread of communism, the United States feared takeover of southeast Asia. When the US bombed Cambodia in the 70’s as a response to this fear (supposedly to cut out Vietnamese supply lines and to destroy North Vietnam’s “inevitable takeover” of Cambodia) it only created confusion and distrust in the Cambodian people.

“When you choose neutrality, you’re hit by both sides” Chhang remarks.

Previously a neutral country, (a position juggled precariously by the young Prince Sihanouk throughout the 1950’s). the unsuspecting local populations, those living in rural areas and farms, didn’t have an explanation for the vicious attacks. Looking for a leader who would protect their families and interests, they were more susceptible to to the Khmer Rouge ideology. The suggestions of retaliation, of unity and nationalistic rhetoric became more inviting as the Khmer Rouge faced off in civil war against Lon Nol. 

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge (Officially the “Communist Party of Kampuchea”, or the CPK) took over Phnom Penh to cheers and welcoming celebrations, as fierce nationalism bred and insecurities ran high.

A once thriving culture, broadly opening its ideals to include and collaborate, to celebrate foreign musical styles and the 70’s “hippie” culture of San Francisco, a country on the cusp of creating original influence itself, was suddenly choked out of existence.

“If you want to eliminate past ideals, you have to eliminate the artists, because the artists are close to the people”.

“When two big elephants fight, who suffers? Its the grass that takes the hit”.  – Quotes from the documentaryDon’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll“*Note: Wonderful film

This became the problem that led to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. Nationality leads to narrow mindedness, and inferiority breeds hate. But, instead of manifesting as something along the lines of Hitler’s nationalism, where a minority group could be targeted and blamed, the Cambodians were all one people.

Having no others to exclude, they started to kill each other. The Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals, artists. Those who wore glasses and had soft hands.

Those who lived in cities. 

Because Cambodian culture is based on family, isolation became a normal torture device of the Khmer Rouge. The CPK (the Khmer Rouge) took people from their homes and families, dividing them from their brothers and sisters to create confusion and to stop collusion efforts.

Forcing approximately two million people from Phnom Penh and surrounding cities into the countryside, thousands died during evacuations. The rest were forced to farm under brutal agricultural practices, always expected to show devotion to the Khmer Rouge, or they would be killed. Many more were taken to prisons and disposed of dumped into in mass graves, while during the night nationalistic songs were played over loudspeakers in order to masks the screams of the victims.

The “Killing Tree” of the killing fields. A super emotion-filled visit, including the thousands of bracelets left behind in memory and tribute.

“To dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots” a famous Khmer Rouge slogan justifying the mass killings of children and infants in over 200 prisons country-wide.

What many fail to weigh correctly is the fact that every conflict has a ripple effect: War and bombings lead to retaliation and resentment, which breeds more war, more conflict.

Armament of resistance fighters by global powers lead to future conflicts, not always controlled by the power who gave out weapons in the first place (just take a look at the middle east). When aggressors leave without proper reconciliation, post-conflict countries are left to fill the void, usually with nationalistic tendencies and affinity to those who display strong prowess and opposition to whatever attacking country has just withdrawn. In order to change this cycle, we have to educate, to keep conversations current.

As George Santayana once said:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Well, history is repeating itself, and we’re not listening.

Chhang elaborates. “People tend to bury the past and move on. This affected the entire population of Southeast Asia.

Change’s vision is to create a peace and reconciliation university in Southeast Asia where anyone can study. But first, he’s met his goal to educate all Cambodian high schoolers on the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Chhang and his team finished a modern history textbook in 2009, the same year the Cambodian government accepted recent history as a requirement for all high school students.

Yet, 10 million Cambodians have no knowledge of their country’s history at all. They’re already out of high school, working and living in Phnom Penh and beyond, with no context for why Cambodia is the way it is.

Unfortunately we’re seeing this everywhere – the anti-intellectual movement is still going strong in the United States, and Brexit and Trump are examples.

So, what next?

Yet,” Chhang goes on “You can’t [physically] fight an ideology.”

“Only shared experiences and education can change closed minds.”