21 July 2008
Cambodia The Resilient
Due to bus routes (and the lack thereof) we had to pass through Phnom Penh to get to Angkor Wat. That meant taking in the country's modern history before stepping back 1000 years to the time of the mighty Cambodian Empire.
As I learned, Cambodia was - at one time - the world's largest empire, controlling nearly all of Southeast Asia and even up into southern China. Of course, by 1975, the story was very different. A man by the name of Pol Pot came to power under the communist Khmer Rouge party and from 1975 to 1979, he systematically killed more than two million Cambodians during one of the World's largest genocides. His target? Anyone educated, anyone handicapped physically or mentally (what use were they?), and anyone who wore glasses (because if you wore glasses then you had them because you needed help reading. In a truly communist state, no one needed to read, so clearly you needed to die).
College-educated himself (in France nonetheless), in just under four years he somehow managed to completely destroy the entire nation of Cambodia. By the time he was removed from power, the two million he killed her complemented by the more than 500,000 who died of starvation because of poor harvests. As all evil dictators seem to enjoy, Pol Pot was given asylum in Thailand and lived out the rest of his days in house arrest, passing away in 1998 with absolutely no justice ever served to the Cambodian people. Needless to say, this is a nation where healing recent wounds is of the utmost importance. Part of that healing means never forgetting what happened.
Tuol Sleng Prison does just that. Once a high school, under Pol Pot it became a detention, torture and death center right in the heart of the capitol city. Schools were used because they were no longer needed - people didn't need to be educated in a truly communist utopia. Political dissidents, educated people and the handicapped were brought to Tuol Sleng in numbers large and small. They were then tortured beyond reason until they gave the "correct" answer at which point, they were killed using some horrifically gruesome method. Several detention cells are still open and additional exhibits about the events that transpired at the center - as well as photos of every victim killed at there, are on display.
The second site we visited was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. While those who had information were brought to Tuol Sleng, the ones who just needed to die came directly here. They were offloaded in the dozens and marched out to a fresh patch of open pasture. The victims were then given shovels and told to dig a large hole. The guards would then have the victims kneel by the hole and proceed to beat them over the head with the shovels that had just been used by the victims to dig their own graves. Tens of thousands of bodies have been recovered at Tuol Sleng. There was, as might be expected, a certain chill hanging over the entire area.
Since the fall of Pol Pot nearly 30 years ago Phnom Penh has slowly come back to life and is considered by many (especially those who live there) to be the next big thing in Asia. We did our best to shake off the tragedy and enjoy the warm spirit of the incredibly resilient people as well, which meant shopping the market and, along with Graham and our new BFF Stacey, taking in the booming nightlife at a floating restaurant and bar called Pontoon, crutches and all. Don' act like you'e not impressed.