The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum (S21)

I’ve really struggled to write this post.
My notepad is covered in crossed out sentences and I put off finishing writing this half way through because it’s upsetting. I find politics hard to write about and I want my blog to be a happy and light hearted place.
However I couldn’t really come to Cambodia and not mention the Killing Fields or the genocide that took place less than forty years ago killing around two million people and that I knew next to nothing about until a couple of weeks ago. As a history graduate that’s pretty embarrassing. But then at school as children we are taught a very narrow version of ‘world history’. It’s almost exclusively Kings and Queens, the Industrial Revolution (yawn) and World War One and Two. At uni I played it safe with my choice of modules and stuck to what I knew, choosing to focus on Elizabeth I, medieval religion and Joan of Arc. I can’t remember if Cambodian history was a module.. I do remember there was a course on World War Two which was over subscribed and I couldn’t get on to it. I guess my point is that we all know what happened in the Holocaust and rightly so and yet something similar has happened since then (less than ten years before I was born) and no one really seems to talk about it.

To summarise what happened very briefly the Khmer Rouge (the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia) won the Civil war in Cambodia in 1975. The movement was led by Saloth Sar who became known as Pol Pot, an intelligent man educated in Cambodia and France who believed that he could create a new world order for Cambodia, a year zero based on communist ideals. He called himself Brother Number One. He believed that agriculture was the cornerstone on which to build the nation so he started driving people out of the cities for manual labour. The regime isolated Cambodia from the rest of the world, banned religion, confiscated private property, closed hospitals, banks and schools in particular as the educated would have no place in the new culture based on agriculture. The regime was afraid that there were spies in their midst and anyone they suspected or who did not fit into their vision ended up being interrogated, tortured and killed. This amounted to a quarter of the population until the Vietnamese army came in to Cambodia and deposed the leaders (1979).
Pol Pot and the senior members of the movement escaped. Pol Pot was never brought to justice and died of natural causes in 1998 without contrition claiming be had a clear conscience and only a handful of his regime have answered for their crimes.

How it all came to pass is complicated involving civil war in Cambodia, with Chinese, Vietnamese and USA interference. Since we visited the Killing Fields I’ve thought about Pol Pot and his conspirators motivations because to me it makes Hitler’s seem almost straightforward. The obvious answer was that Pol Pot was pure evil but I also think he became obsessed with taking Communist ideals to the extreme and with Cambodia a victim of warring political factions, he ended up with too much power. As often happens
with power it corrupted and overtook reason and with that came extreme paranoia (it happened to many Kings of England). But how that led to two million deaths is still a bit beyond me.

Not to labour the point further but Hitler’s gas chambers were cold and calculating but efficient. The Khmer Rouge movement was sadistic – they threw babies against trees to crack their skulls, burnt people alive, they wanted people to suffer so they’d behead innocent men, women and children with palm leaves. Pol Pot was so paranoid that some of those who originally worked for the movement ended up meeting the same fate as the others. Everyone was working for the CIA or for the Russians and the regime prided itself that it was better to take down an innocent by mistake than let a potential enemy walk free. The torture led to many false confessions – among those a British man and his Kiwi friend (John Dewhirst and Kerry Hamill) who were on a sailing expedition heading to Thailand but ended up in Cambodian waters and were captured and tortured. They made up confessions including Hamill saying Colonel Sanders was his superior officer and friends and family names he cited as fellow CIA operatives. The confessions made no difference, it is believed that either John or Kerry was burned alive simply for sailing into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Walking around the Killing Fields is eerie. There’s cabinets of skulls reaching up multiple stories high with little coloured dots on the skulls as a key to what happened such as killed by an iron tool, an axe, ear cutting. There’s graves designated for women and children and one of the graves has the bones of 186 people, all beheaded. They’ve built wooden walkways over the ground because visitors complained that they were literally walking over bones of a dead body. There’s still more to excavate and plenty more bones and body parts are turning up- even as we walked around we found some teeth on the floor. It was just horrific and it was hard to know how to feel, was it ok to cry. Our guide was so chirpy as he showed us round (I guess he must be desensitised to the horror) that it felt inappropriate.

After the Killing Fields we went to S21, formerly a school before it was turned into a prison and torture centre. Now it’s a museum dedicated to remembering what happened. There’s rooms covered in photographs of those who worked for the movement and those who died. Many of them will never be identified. The audio guide tries to bring the unimaginable to life, with accounts from the few who survived and testimony from the subsequent trial (Kerry Hamill’s brother spoke at the trial and they play a snippet of his testimony as you walk through the museum). A couple of the survivors seem to be employed by the museum, one of them was present when we were there. I had no idea what to say to him, everything I could think of sounded trite and pointless so I just kept walking.

With approximately a quarter of the population obliterated in the 1970s it’s amazing that Cambodia has recovered to where it is today. I hadn’t really noticed it but the majority of the population young (the median age is 24, compared to 40 in the U.K.) as so many of the would be older generation died in the genocide. Very few people talk about it, it feels like there is still an undercurrent of fear, hardly surprising given that the Khmer Rouge movement seemed to exist in government until the late 1990s. When we arrived back at our hotel after visiting the staff were all smiles asking us how our day was as if we’d gone to the beach and therefore I was surprised to see our guide at Angkor Wat get very emotional talking about it. He told us he was born in 1979 and his father had been taken and imprisoned but was freed and returned after a year a changed man but alive. Generally they don’t teach it in schools or often talk about it at home because they don’t want to upset the children. To me it doesn’t feel like Cambodia is really healing but then so few members of the regime have been brought to justice and they do not believe they have done anything wrong. This week there was slow progress for the ECCC trial (a hybrid court of Cambodia and the UN) as Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan (the first leaders of murderous regime to be jailed) lost their appeal against conviction over deaths of two million Cambodians. But it’s a small victory given the numbers who died and with similar potential atrocities occurring in Myanmar and North Korea to name a couple it’s hard to believe as a world we’re learning from our mistakes and that the crimes committed in Cambodia will never happen again.

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