Everybody knows of Angkor Watt. It was the ancient capitol of the Khmer people. Sophisticated, cultured and successful they spread across most of the South East Asian mainland by the 13th Century. As the empire declined the capitol was moved from Angkor Wat to Phnom Penh where the great Cambodian arteries of the Tone Sap and the Mekong rivers meet. It is one of the worlds great river junctions. From here the Khmer people could use the rivers to get to the old capitol of Siem Reap, to Laos and above all to the South China Sea and trade. There were some periods where Siem Reap became the capital again for short periods, but with the arrival of the French in the 1860”s and becoming part of the “Protectorate” of French Indochina, Phnom Penh became the permanent capitol City of what is now known as Cambodia. It is a Buddhist country and until comparatively recently every Cambodian,including the King, would spend a year as a trainee Buddhist monk. This would have had a profound affect on the culture of the country. French colonialists at the start of the 20 Century were reported as saying that you could nor organise the Cambodians into an effective fighting force because of the inherent resistance a Buddhist culture has to killing. It is at the meeting of the rivers, the Cambodian Capitol, Phnom Penh that we stopped to break the 12 hour journey fro Saigon to Angkor Wat into manageable sections.
Phnom Penh is a fabulous City; it has energy and style. Evening brings groups of people to the riverside to take part in communal Zumba sessions. Others use the outdoor Gym equipment as part of their twilight fitness regime. There are cafe’s and bars everywhere and people are having fun. Any Europeans reading this may be thinking that it sounds a bit noisy and intimidating. Let me assure you it is not. There is noise and loud music in places but it all seems in balance. It is a very family friendly and in our limited stay we did not see anything that was aggressive. We were warned by Moto drivers to watch out for bag snatchers but those types of risks exist in western cities as well. Phnom Penh is fabulous . We also went to a charity project that helps street young people get a established in the catering sector and had one of the best meals we have ever had. Wonderful.
The sounds and excitement of the city have stayed in my mind as has the experience of walking around its streets, eyes on stalks, just lapping it all up. i will always have a soft spot for Phnom Penh and will go back for longer if I ever get the chance.
There are other things in Phnom Penh though. These are things that invoke disbelief and denial. They are the things you don’t want to admit one person could do to another. Torture and Genocide. Everyone knows that this was not the first case of genocide in the world, it is not even the most recent. Its inhuman we say. The evidence though suggests that it is a worryingly recurring human activity. An overused phrase but iI know but this really is your worst nightmare. There are things in Phnom Penh that eat at your soul. You are a different person when you leave.
Cambodia finally got Independence from France in 1954 which was followed by a period of some stability. This ended in 1969/1970 with a military coup and intermittent American carpet bombing of Cambodia. The bombing caused many to move away from the countryside into the cities. In addition a series Coups affected the country. After the inevitable power struggles the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot gained power in 1975. The story is inevitably complicated but the gist of it seems to be as follows:
The Khmer Rouge believed that the ills of the country were the result of the intellectuals, the professional classes, the teachers and so on. The salvation of the Country was with the manual laborers, the farmers etc. Basically if you has soft hands you were in trouble. If you had soft hands and wore glasses you were i deep trouble. Just for the sake of clarity that was not a joke. Someone that needed glasses could probably read and would therefore be dangerous. You don’t need glasses to work in the fields.
When Pol Pots forces took Phnom Penh they cleared the city. Actually they cleared al the cities and moved the population to the countryside.They did it in three days and thousands died.
Everyone was meant to work on the land and make Cambodia self sufficient. Quota’’s were set for production. People from the cities were not trained and did not know how to farm. Most of what was produced was sold to buy weapons. People starved. The cities were empty and decaying, the infrastructure collapsed. The West recognised the Khmer Rouge as the government of the country. I think they even had a seat at the United Nations. It was a suspicious regime. If you were accused of anything, or if anyone was suspicious of you you were detained. Pol Pot said that it was better to execute an innocent person than to accidentally let a traitor go free. The official line was that if you executed someone you should kill their whole family including the children because you don’t want the risk of anyone coming after you for revenge. After three and a half years a estimated 3,000,000 people were dead; one in four of the population. Imagine the impact on your town, your workplace, your family.
It was not just a case of execution either. Suspects were tortured until they confessed. As they were never told what they were accused of they often confessed to the wrong thing. The torture continued until they confessed to the correct crime. I wont go into the detail of the treatment but the Khmer Rouge had learned well from the French and used many of their reported techniques. The scale and the executions that followed were of course significantly different. Having confessed to their crimes the Cambodian victims were driven to one of the many killing fields across the country and beaten to death with whatever farm implement, stick or hammer that happened to be available, after all bullets were expensive. The true scale of the genocide became clear when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, deposed Pol Pot and installed a new regime. People moved back to the cities and began the Herculean task of rebuilding the infrastructure. As far as I know only one person was tried for war crimes and that was the person in charge of the Prison in Phnom Penn, a man know as “Dutch”.
Pol Pot eventually died when under house arrest in 1998when he was in his 70’s.
The Killing field just outside of Phnom Penh at Choeung Ek had been made into a memorial for all the victims. You are asked to be respectful as you go around it and not stand on any of the bone fragments that come to the surface after it rains.
There seems a pattern here. A country, or collection of tribal communities, are invaded and colonised by another country. Soldiers flood in, resources flood out. Eventually there is a successful revolt followed by some sort of independence process. Things are OK for a bit as people pull together and try to establish their own ways of doing things after having been so rudely interrupted for 100 years or more. There is a power vacuum, the ruling class has gone, what replaces it?. Tensions build up, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. Often other countries get involved in order to foster their own interests. Eventually there is some sort of coup and the government is overthrown. Sometimes its benign dictatorship sometimes its genocide. Thats how it goes; Everybody knows