This morning, our guide picked us up for our first full day in Cambodia. We are in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, located on the banks of the Tonle, Mekong and Bassac Rivers. With a population of 1.5 million, it is the most populated city in Cambodia and is the center of Cambodian politics, it’s heritage and industry. There are remnants of French influence everywhere, with French colonial style buildings that still remain scattered throughout the city. The streets on the banks of the Tonle River are lined with Tuc Tucs (the motorcycle carts for people transport), small shops, restaurants and bars. The river is active with transport boats, sightseeing long boats and floating markets.
Cambodia is a beautiful country with kind, gentle people. It is hard to believe the way the people here have forgiven and moved on from the Vietnam War, the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Communist Regime and years of Civil War and unrest. The Khmer Rouge’s regime, and the actions of it’s cruel, monster leader, Pol Pot, resulted in the torture, murder or death from disease and starvation of 2.7 million Cambodian men, women and children over the period 1975 until 1979.
The Royal Palace
We started with a visit to the Royal Palace, a complex of buildings which serves as the current residence of the King of Cambodia. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied this palace since it was built in the late 1860s, except for the years during the terror and reign of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation which followed. On the South side of the Royal Palace complex is the Silver Pagoda, so named because the floors are made of silver. The building contains some of the most beautiful Buddha’s that I have seen on this trip. Many were adorned with jewels and large diamonds and gold leaf.
The National Museum
We next stopped at the National Museum of Cambodia, which houses one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world, including sculptures, ceramics and bronzes. The museum takes you through the entire history of Cambodia, represented by the collection as you move from room to room.
The Killing Fields – The Terrifying Reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
No one is prepared to see The Killing Fields in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, a radical communist group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, murdered more than 1.7 million men, women and children and fellow members of their own party. Another estimated 1.3 million Cambodians died from starvation and disease
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, people who lived in the cities were forced to move to the countryside. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. The Khmer Rouge was an agriculture-based movement and it’s leader, Pol Pot was deeply influenced by General Mao from China and Stalin from Russia, all cruel dictators in their own right. Their goal was to turn Cambodia into an agriculture –based, classless society.
To accomplish this, the Khmer Rouge removed all signs of the Cambodian city lifestyle, including money, land ownership, and jobs other than collective farming. Normal schooling was abolished. All religion was banned. There were no hospitals. The people were forced to wear drab uniforms and remove all signs of foreign cultural influences. They attempted to remove all signs of Cambodian and Khmer culture.
They forced people to marry and produce children so that they could take the infants away to raise them to believe in the Regime. They took children away from their parents to brain wash them into thinking their only parent is the government. They turned children into government machines, looking for traitors and some children even reported their own parents.
Alleged threats to the party were tortured and murdered. They forced people to work the farmland, and to be totally dependent on the government for food and water. Cambodians, particularly those from the cities, were labeled bad people, in need of reformation of their non-agricultural lifestyle. The city people were forced to work hard labor on the farms as the new regime’s method to “reform” their class- based societal behavior. Many were tortured and killed. People were killed for having eye glasses or being professors/educators or doctors and lawyers. They were killed if a child pointed at them and said they were not loyal to the government. They were killed for looking at someone the wrong way. Many starved to death or died from diseases created by poor nutrition, the lack of medical care and horrific living conditions.
You might ask, where were the other countries, like the United States when this was happening? Why didn’t someone stop Pol Pot? Here is some context. If the Vietnam War had not happened, then it is unlikely that the Khmer Rouge would have come to power. Over two million Viet Kong communists crossed the border of Vietnam into Cambodia to hide from the United States and the Allies and to use the portion of the North Vietnamese supply trail, named the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The United States bombed Cambodia and they were inadvertently brought into the war. The bombing sparked resentment by the Communist factions all over Cambodia, including Pol Pot and his group in the Cambodian countryside. The Communists insisted that the current Cambodian President Lon Nol, gave President Nixon permission to bomb Cambodia to help fight the rising number of Communists in the country, which was a direct threat to the Cambodian President. As a result, all the Communists in Cambodia, despite differences in ideology, joined together to fight against Lon Nol.
The Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. However, over 90% of U.S troops had already exited Vietnam by the end of 1973, leaving a small group of personnel. Despite President Nixon’s promises to support South Vietnam with bombing if the North threatened Saigon, he was not able to make good on that promise as he was in the midst of the Watergate Scandal and his impeachment in 1974. There was absolutely no support from the people in the U.S to reenter Southeast Asia to help the South Vietnamese or the Cambodian people. The exit of the U.S from the region cleared the way for the Khmer Rouge, who many believe had the support of Communist China backing his takeover of Cambodia. It is unclear whether people outside of the country understood or knew that the executions were happening or the extent of the terror that the people in Cambodia were feeling.
In 1979, the Vietnamese, with the support of Russia came here and expelled Pol Pot and his regime. The Vietnamese had many run ins and battles at its borders with Cambodia and Pol Pot over the years prior to this. Fighting between the new Vietnamese government and the Khmer Rouge and other parties opposed to the current government raged for another 10 years. Many Cambodians fled to refuge camps over this time as the Vietnamese-backed government required children to learn Vietnamese and Russian – no English, and the situation was very unstable. In 1989, the Vietnamese left Cambodia, under the terms of a Peace Accord, and with the help of the United Nations, Cambodia began the process of electing a new government, under a framework of a constitutional monarchy, led by a prime minister as head of the government. The King was brought back as the head of state. Their first election was in 1993.
We visited the extermination camp of Choeung Ek, where over 20,000 men, women and children were tortured, murdered and poisoned in shallow mass graves. This place is only a portion of what has been named the Killing Fields, the mass graves of people killed during the Khmer Rouge regime are located all over Cambodia. The remains of 8,985 people were exhumed in 1989 from this area and the rest remain buried there. The hope is that they may now rest undisturbed. There are mass burials sites where they found over 400 naked women and children buried together. There is a tree where it is believed soldiers beat babies heads against to kill them and throw them into the pits. There is another burial site where they found hundreds of headless corpses left in a shallow, heartless grave.
The exhumed bones are part of a memorial stupa. Inside the Buddhist Stupa, there are 17 levels of acrylic glass covered shelves. The clothing found with or near the exhumed bodies are on the first level. Over 5,000 skulls are displayed on levels 2 through 9, and the fat bones exhumed are displayed on the top levels. The skulls are marked by sex, age, and method of death. All of the victory had head traumas suffered by blunt blows to the head. Many had additional signs of torture. Everyone that was thrown in the pits had poison sprayed over them to make sure they were dead. This is a display that will probably haunt me forever, but like the German Holocaust, we must SEE, so that we can try to have a better future. Genocide continues to happen all over the world as power tries to discriminate based on religion, race, creed or tribe. Only by continuing to educate ourselves can we remain free.
We are on to Seim Reap, Cambodia where will visit some of the most amazing temples in the world at Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire from three 9th to the 15th centuries. Talk to you tomorrow.