Jeff's Mid-Life Crisis goes Round the World (RTW)
About Me (1)
HONG KONG (2)
* ST. ANDREWS
* FROM TRAVELER TO TOURIST?
* HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO PHUKET
* PHNOM PENH
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #2
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #1
* CHANGES IN LATITUDE CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
* VANG VIENE
* LUANG PRABANG #2
* LUANG PRABANG #1
February 02, 2005
Once again I'm taking the liberty of writing a blog entry out of the chronological order of my travels. This entry is a general one about Cambodia, it's recent history and some discussion and pictures of some atrocities perpetrated in the late 1970's by the Khmer Rouge. I'm writing this out of order so that I can be sure to record my thoughts and feeling while they are fresh in my mind.
I've been in Cambodia for over a week and in the capital of Phnom Penh for a few days. I've read alot about this country both before my visit and during my visit and the thoughts and opinions expressed here are based on what I've seen, heard and read and likely only scratch the surface of the psyche and recent history of the Cambodian people. I am by no mean an expert and some of what I write is opinion rather than fact and any moral outrage I may profess is based on my opinions of what I have seen and what's been presented to me.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE IS SUGGESTED on this entry, particularly the last section of this blog entry that deals with the descriptions and photographs of the genocide and killing fields of the 1975-1979 period. Some of the pictures are heart breaking and are quite graphic.
Cambodia is just emerging from over 30 years of war, civil war, and repressive regimes. Most of what the western world knows about Cambodia is the media representations of war, atrocities, poverty, refugees and tragedy. Unfortunately for the people of this country these representations as fact have defined their lives for a long time and continue to be a driving force in a country trying to come to grips with its past and grow and prosper as a stable nation in the future. Whether they can do so is heavily dependent on a government that while currently stable has shown a propensity in the past to screw up the positive things happening here and erode economic gains and prosperity.
Cambodia is a poor country by any measurement. Per capital income is approximately $260/year (compared to Vietnam at $300/year). Foreign aid makes up over 50% of the countries budget meaning that even its current, barely functioning government, infrastructure and marginal social services would not exist without the support an goodwill of other countries (it would be scary to see what this country would be like if somehow foreign aid was drastically reduced). Tourism is the biggest industry and it has only been safe to travel in Cambodia for the last 7-8 years.
The population is approximately 14 million with 50% of its people under 16 years of age. Let me repeat that: 50% of the population is under 16 years old. Think of what that means for this country in the very near future as all these adults attempt to work and support a family in a society and economy that cannot currently support a much smaller number of adults. What this will likely mean is a greater imigration to urban areas which today hold about 15% of the population. Having only spent a few days in Phnom Penh I can see that an influx of population will lead to an even greater number of homeless and street people and there are already a large number here.
Some other facts: For every 100 females there are 93 males - a testament to the wars of the past (but cool for the Cambodian guys looking for chicks). Infant mortality is 73 out of 1,000 births and 1 out of every 10 child dies before their 5th birthday. Poverty, malnutrition and disease are common and the biggest killer of children is diarrhoea and that is a sad, sad fact. Life expectancy of the average Cambodian is 55 years old (versus I think about 75 in the U.S.).
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand on its west, Laos on the north and Vietnam on the east. Despite being surrounded by historically strong countries (Thailand and Vietnam), the small-sized Cambodia has managed to retain its Khmer identity and cultural traditions. Modern day Cambodia is the successor state of the mighty Khmer empire which during the Angkor period (9th - 14th centuries) was the cultural heartland of Southeast Asia (more on this in a future blog entry).
Now the country is showing up on the tourist trail as a destination for tourists and travelers alike. The increasing number of tourists will inevitablty change the culture and well-being of many Cambodians because not only will tourists bring money that will fuel growth in infrastructure, taxes and jobs it also leads to more corruption in an already corrupt government. Tourism also greatly expands vice and its attendant evils and from what I've seen so far the lack of effective governmental and societal control has allowed this dark side of tourism to flourish (again this will be a topic of a future blog entry).
Cambodia has so much going for it. A peaceful, stable government with well regulated controls will allow the country to take further advantage of a wealth of resources including the incredible temples of Angkor, the natural beauty of the countryside, a vast coastline with many empty and magnificent beaches reminicent of Thailand 40 years ago, many National Parks and the incredible Mekong River.
Cambodia is a beautiful yet still troubled nation.
Some details of the recent history of the nation give clues to why the country is its current state.
The French ruled Cambodia as a colony from 1864 - 1953, similar to its colonial rule of neighboring Laos and Vietnam. Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1953 under King Sihanouk who was on the throne starting in 1941 at the age of 19 and through many coups and abdications finally gave up the kingship to his son in late 2004. This long running monarch was present or in exile while all the tragedies and bad things happened to this country during this time. I am not saying he is to blame because I simply do not know enough about what was really going on here during this time period but this King is the one constant throughout and must bear some of the burden of responsibility.
The were many military and civilian coups and civil wars between 1953 and 1975 and the history is very interesting but too detailed to be included here. From 1975-1979 the country was under the repressive dictatorship of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (more on that later).
From 1979 until 1989 Cambodia was a puppet regime of Vietnam after they overthrew the Khmer Rouge (see my January 30th blog entry on Vietnam). After the Vietnamese pulled out the country was administered by the United Nations which appeared to do an surprisingly adequate job of pulling disparate factions together (despite civil war and the still-present Khmer Rouge as both a guerrilla faction AND a party to the elections) leading to general elections in 1993 and the establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia under a Constitutional Monarchy form of government with none other than King Sihanouk as its titular leader.
The period of 1993 through 1997 was of gradual reform and growing knowledge and documentation of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. There was a military coup in 1997 but since then there has been relative peace and growing popularity as Cambodia became an active part of the community of nations in both Asia and the world.
A continuing effect and problem from the years of wars and civil wars is the presence of unexploded ordinance in the country (UXO) and millions of land mines that were placed all over the country and still remain active.
There are warnings in all the guidebooks and the countryside saying "Do not stray from well-marked paths under any circumstances". This is due to the presence of UXO and landmines. Much of the UXO is leftover from the American bombing of Cambodia as the U.S. military attempted to dislodge the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies from the bases and supply routes in Cambodia.
Land mines are another huge problem here. It is estimated that between 4-6 million mines were planted by the Americans, Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Army. Many of these are still in place waiting to explode. It is a sad testament to mankinds ingenuity to develop and deploy such a hideous device like the many types of landmines invented and placed in service.
These pictures were taken at the Land Mine Museum outside of Siem Reap. This very rough musuem created and run by an incredible man (and his staff) by the name of Aki Ra. Aki Ra is the foremost landmine disabler in Cambodia and is often at the museum when he isn't in the field or helping children affected by the landmines. The museum is dedicated to teaching about landmines and their attendant affects on Cambodians, continuing the process of finding landmines and best of all, providing a home and education for children disfigured by landmines and/or for children who have lost their parents to landmine disasters.
There are currently numerous international groups and individual Cambodians working on mine clearance in Cambodia. Some of you may recall the late Princess Diana of Great Britian and her quest to bring the facts of minefields and their attendant human damage to the forefront of international attention in the West. She did a great job publicizing this issue while she was alive and it led to an international treaty to ban land mines.
In 1997 more than 100 countries (including Cambodia) signed a treaty banning the production, stockpiling, sale and use of landmines under any circumstances. Some important nations in landmine production including the UK, Italy and France signed the treaty. However the world's major producers of landmines - China, Russia and the U.S. have refused to sign the treaty and I think that is appalling that my government won't sign and adhere to this document.
A few more facts on landmines in Cambodia: Over 40,000 Cambodians have lost a limb to a landmine. That's 1 out of every 275 people that are amputees! This number is growing still by 40-50 per month.
THE KHMER ROUGE
As mentioned above the Khmer Rouge regime under the leadership of Pol Pot controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979. This regime was heavily supported by the Chinese government and attempted one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. They wanted to transform the country into a Maoist-peasant dominated agrarian cooperative where all society's structures including family and village life would not exist and life would be dominated by the needs of the cooperative and the needs of the people would be secondary. As a kinda stupid aside - for all those Star Trek fans this sounds like the Borg.
Immediately upon assuming power the Khmer Rouge ordered everyone in urban areas (including children, the sick and the elderly) to the countryside to work in slave labor type camps for 12-15 hours each day. Any disagreement or disobedience meant instant death.
The Khmer Rouge systematically arrested, tortured and/or killed anyone they could find in Cambodia who was educated, had a moderate viewpoint, was in a previous leadership position or whom they just did not like.
The exact death total are unknown and the subject of some debate. There are Killing Fields found (and probably still to be found) throughout the country that are just pits full of bodies of the people executed under the policies of the regime. Most were bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets. The best and most accurate estimate of deaths by the Khmer Rouge is around 2 million people (out of a population at the time of 10-11 million). 2 million Cambodians (1 out of 5) were killed under official government policy from 1975-1979. This is genocide.
What's amazing to me is that this happened without any international interference. Of course recent history is rife with examples of genocide happening without international deterence either knowingly or unknowingly (depending on the particular instance and any conspiracy theories you prescribe to). Examples include the Holocaust in Germany during WWII and various Pogroms in the Soviet Union targeting Jews, Gypsies and other minorities deemed unworthy. Other even more recent acts of genocide have occured in Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia. The International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague seems to be more active in investigating and prosecuting war criminals recently and tha is a good sign that there may be accountability for actions even if they are deemed official goverment policy.
I don't know what countries knew what was happening in Cambodia during this period although the Chinese certainly knew. After the Vietnam War the international community and particulaly the United States virtually ignored this region, fatigued as it were with the last 20 years of war and conflict. It was the right time for the idiots and psychotics of the evil Khmer Rouge to take control and unfortunately they were able to perpetuate their atrocities without international interference until the Vietnamese overthrew their government. Quite ironic!
In Phnom Penh there is a museum designed to preserve the Cambodian Genocide History in order for all of mankind to learn about the atrocities of the past so that they are not repeated. It is called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and is located in a former Khmer Rouge prison called Tuol Sleng, or more commonly S-21. It was here that the Khmer Rouge systematically arrested, tortured and killed over 13,000 men women and children during their reign. In fact they killed every prisoner brought to this place was murdered with the exception of 7 individuals who were rescued when the Vietnamese army overtook the city.
Many of the bodies of people killed here were dumped in a Killing Field 15 km outside of the city.
The Khmer Rouge kept detailed and extensive records of the activities in S-21 (much like the Nazis) that included the photographs, biographies and deaths of everyone in the prison. Included with the photographs are many of the prisoners after they were executed. Many of the people killed were children placed in the prison when their mothers were arrested.
This place is heart-wrenching and difficult to go through. It is graphic and to the point. It is a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
The following pictures include faces of some who were killed here. They also include pictures of mass graves and other difficult to view scenes. There are pictures of artists renditions of torture.
I am not being ghoulish publishing these pictures or telling this history. It affected me strongly and I want to keep these thought in my mind as I go forward with life and I want to give details to any of my readers who desire to learn more about one of the worlds greatest recent man-made tragedies.
There were some paintings and pictures that I would not even take a photo of, much less publish in my blog as they were too disturbing and are the cause of nightmares.
The following pictures are of people who were executed in S-21:
The following pictures are very disturbing and are of photographic evidence taken at various Killing Fields across Cambodia.
The following pictures are the most disturbing of all as they depict acts of torture in S-21:
Thank you for reading this and I hope this entry disturbed you to read and view as much as it disturbed me to write. I look forward to your comments and thoughts.
Posted by Jeff on February 2, 2005 03:26 AM
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