Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Heavy History

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We will always remember the victims

This morning started inauspiciously, with us having surrendered our clothes to the staff last night, we didn’t have anything to wear. We both donned towels, casually tossed our respective prides under nearby motor vehicles and walked out onto the street.

Within a block of our hostel, we encountered a men’s clothing store! We ducked in, and Evan bought the one pair of pants large enough for him (33 is the largest size they carry, and they only had one) and an amazing, loud, fashionable shirt. $21 later, we walked down the street searching for a place to outfit me. Two or so blocks passed, and we found a boutique which had a great dress for just $23. So we look like people again!

Our next stop was breakfast, which included dumplings and soup. In the soup were some delicious little green things, which our server informed us were called ka chai, and which, he said, are used also for frying eggs and making cakes. We discovered later that these are called, in English, “Chinese Chives”.

We thought our next stop was the royal palace, but it turns out that my strappy dress is too revealing for them to let me in. Fine. We steeled ourselves and decided to dive right into Cambodia’s dark recent past.

In the mid-1970s, Cambodia was suffocating under French colonial rule and looking to do something about it. Vietnam during this time had just thrown off the yoke of colonialism (also the French) and was building a new revolution for communism. It was veritably popular to be moving towards “New Democracy”, and whispers of revolution were flying in the USSR, Spain, France, China, and elsewhere.

Cambodia wanted a piece. It had never been an especially educated society; many of the skilled workers and merchants who kept the country running came from Vietnam and China, and socialism’s emphasis on the worker and equality jived with Cambodian ethics. The Khmer people wanted to lead a good, simple, equal life.

During this time, some of Cambodia’s (ironically) educated thinkers began to dabble with the ideas of communism. Some of them had spent time abroad in France, where they got a taste of communist parties and ideas, and spent some time in Yugoslavia during their European studies. This group was called Democratic Kampuchea (DK) or the Khmer Rouge, where Khmer is the name for the people of Cambodia (built, notably, on customs and ethics, rather than skin color or blood) and Rouge (red) is the color of Communism.

As Vietnam’s war was winding up, the US got wind of the Khmer Rouge and the internal struggles they were causing in Cambodia. They dropped something like 500,000 tons of bombs on this little country, but this didn’t unseat the revolution. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and declared themselves the rulers of Cambodia. Their nightmare rule continued until January 7, 1979.

Life under the Khmer Rouge called for drastic changes in population distribution and function of the Cambodian society. All people were expected to be workers, growing rice. No one was to live in cities, so they were all evacuated. The evacuees, if they didn’t die of starvation en route, were sent to their “ancestral villages” to work in the fields. Schools were closed. Temples were closed. Lacking explosives and other such devices, the Khmer Rouge left these structures intact but shut, or sometimes transformed them into prisons, workhouses, or storage facilities.

One school that was transformed was called Tuol Sleng, or S-21; it was formerly high school in Phnom Penh. Multiple layers of barbed wire fencing were erected around its borders. Barbed wire was placed in a fishnet pattern along all the walkways on floors above the first one—these walkways had windows and the Khmer Rouge didn’t want anyone to be able to take the easy path of jumping. S-21 became the most famous and horrifying detention center run by the Khmer Rouge. In order to eradicate all the soft people, those who were educated or had not grown up working in the fields, the DK rounded them all up and put them into prisons. They extracted confessions from them, recorded dutifully by their agents, via protracted torture. The victims either died during the course of the torture, or else where shipped, post-confession, to the killing fields to be dealt with.

Of the 20,000 people who passed through S-21, 7 were foreigners from Australia, the US, Europe, etc. Many were women and children. The DK had a saying that when you wanted to get rid of grass, you had to also get rid of the roots: they were careful always to eradicate the entire family of a person accused of being against the party, as that way no one would remain to take revenge later in life.

The records don’t seem to be consistent with each other, but the most popular number people know for how many lived through S-21 is 7. Just 7 people made it. Their stories are all posted on the walls in the Tuol Sleng Museum, and describe how they had some sort of special skill (painting, etc.) which recommended them to the party, and how there was no escape but rather they happened to have not been killed by the time the Khmer Rouge fled as Phnom Penh was liberated in 1979.

In the S-21 museum, many displays show the photographs of all the victims “processed” by the prison. The DK were very careful about keeping records, and they carefully cataloged every person who went through. More displays show their “confessions”, ranging from “I stole rice from the party” to “I work for the CIA/KGB.” Yet more displays show the instruments of torture used to extract these confessions, and the skulls, bones, and clothes of those murdered.

Tuol Seng was a difficult place to visit. I am ashamed to say I had no idea about Cambodia’s recent past before we started this trip; somehow these lessons aren’t taught in American schools. There are still 4 active cases in the courts working to convict the higher-ups of the Khmer Rouge for their war crimes and crimes against humanity during the mid-to-late 1970s, though as far as I understand these kinds of cases never go anywhere. Many of the DK middle-men are now happily re-employed in the new government, though they are following a significantly more benign lead these days. There is still a gap in the Cambodian education from those 4 years when reeducation was practiced. Again, the numbers aren’t in agreement, but anywhere from 1.5 million to 3+ million of the 7-8 million Cambodian people during that time were killed. Around a quarter of the population, slain within 4 years. I can’t believe they don’t teach this in school back home.

The rest of our day was spent pondering history and walking around. We bought a shawl to cover my shoulders, then tried again to enter the palace, but were again turned away. We decided to stop through the Cambodian National Museum instead, which contains gorgeous art from all periods in Cambodia. It’s definitely worth a visit.

We decided to try socializing in the hostel’s bar upstairs, but it was rather depressing. Half of everyone was on their laptops, and the other half were sleeping or cuddling. There is no large communal area here, just a bunch of small tables totally separate from each other which do not encourage inter-group socialization. We downed our crappy local beers (in this case, Angkor) and headed down to get our laundry. We had a tiff with the desk-woman, who had told us yesterday that laundry was $1/kilo and told us today that it was $1.50. This resolved itself with a visit from the manager, who showed us the books to confirm that everyone else had been charged $1.50/kilo and there had been some misunderstanding. At any rate, we are no longer angry and we have clean clothes.

Hopefully our Malarone dreams don’t containn much from today’s pondering…