Jun 24, 2006
|BRIEF CAMBODIAN HISTORY RELATING TO KHMER ROUGE:
From 1969 Cambodia was sucked into the Vietnam conflict. The USA secretly began carpet-bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia and, shortly after the 1970 coup, American and South Vietnam troops invaded the country to root out Vietnamese communist forces. They failed, but the invasion did push Cambodian communists and their Vietnamese allies deep into the country's interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, ending only when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, 2 weeks before the fall of Saigon.
After taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge, under the leader Pol Pot, implemented one of the most radical, brutal revolutions the world has ever seen. It was 'Year Zero' and Cambodia was to be transformed into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.
During the next 4 years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, including the vast majority of the country's educated people, were relocated into the countryside, tortured to death or executed. Many more also died of mistreatment, malnutrition and disease. Almost 2 million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 as a direct result of the policies of the Khmer Rouge government.
At the end of 1978, Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, who fled to the jungles on both sides of the border of Thailand. In subsequent chaos, millions of Cambodians set off on foot to their places of origin to find out if family members had survived the apocalypse. Crops wilted in the fields and a severe famine swept across the country killing thousands more in 1979-80. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge maintained guerrilla war throughout the 1980's, armed and financed by China and Thailand against the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia today is a constitutional monarchy headed again by King Norodom Sihanouk. The Cambodian Peoples' Party (CPP) remains in control of the armed forces and forms the backbone of the government of the country.
Cambodia still hasn't recovered from the effects of the Khmer Rouge. It has a very high proportion of very poor people, who beg on the streets and send their children out to work rather than school.
PHNOM PENH sits at the confluence of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap Rivers, and it has become the capital of Cambodia since Angkor was abandoned to the jungle in the mid-15th-century. It wasn't the relaxed town-like city that I was expecting and we had some torrential rain. Visited the FCC for Happy Hour cocktails and got a little stuck there as the rain came through the roof and flooded the roads so we had to walk back water up to mid calf!
On some good advise we hired a tuk-tuk for $8 for the whole day, and he drove us to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Russian Market. A busy day full of some very heavy history which I will only touch on below:
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM:
"Tuol Sleng" (literally translates to a poisonous hill) is the location where the Democratic Kampuchea regime, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, set up a prison to detain individuals accused of opposing Angkor. Security Prison 21 (S-21) was formally a high Scholl and transformed into the prison in May 1976. S-21 covers an area of 600x400m and during the Khmer Rouge regime it was enclosed by 2 folds of corrugated iron sheets, all covered in a dense, electrified barbed wire, to prevent anyone from escaping the prison. Some of this can still be seen today as you enter the gate. The 4 school buildings were used as administration, interrogation and torture offices, employing 1,720 workers.
The victims in the prison were taken from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. They were different nationalities and included Vietnamese, Laotians, Thai, Indians, Pakistanis, British, Americans etc. and composed of workers as well as professionals. Moreover, whole families of the prisoners, including their newly born babies, were taken en masse to be exterminated. It is estimated over 12,500 (including 2000 children) were taken here and killed between 1976-79. Only 7 prisoners lived, having been shackled with chains fixed to the walls or floor.
Before the prisoners were placed in the cells they were photographed, and detailed biographies of their childhood up to the dates of their arrests were recorded. Lots of these photos are on display in the museum now, but finances are limiting what records can be sorted though or even preserved.
KILLING FIELDS OF CHOEUNG EK:
Between mid 1975 and December 1978, about 17,000 men, women and children (including 9 Westerners), detained and tortured at S-21 prison, were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek to be executed. Many were bludgeoned to death, to avoid wasting precious bullets. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were found bound and blindfolded, were exhumed from mass graves in 1980. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988. It was very strange being able to walk among the mass graves - but not overly much to actually see and I was surprised about the lack of information around.
ROYAL PALACE & SILVER PAGODA:
This is the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk and he was in residence when we looked around, having closed it earlier that day as it was the Queen's birthday.
The spectacular Silver Pagoda is named in honour of the 5000 silver tiles weighing 1Kg each that carpet the floor (not allowed cameras in there either). It is also known as Wat Preah Keo (Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha) due to the large Buddha made of baccaret crystal. In front of the dias stands a life-sized Buddha made of solid gold and decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats!!