Learning from history – Cambodia part 2
I love learning about history. Almost any history, about any topic can be fascinating to me, depending on the point of view, how it is told, who is weaving the threads and how relevant it is to the present. Of course, that is what makes it a controversial topic and i am not sure whether it is possible to be completely subjective about it. After all history is meant to be written by the victors to begin with and from there it tends to be a bit of a hard slog to get to the real truth. If there is ever such a thing. And for a guy that likes nothing more than to get to the real truth of things, it will always capture my attention.
Ancient history was my thing, since primary school. Learning about the many different people that made up the early periods of the ‘known world’ and how they pushed and got pushed back to create the many different cultures and countries was always an exciting thing for me. It filled my head with stories and more than a few, if not most, were quite horrible and gruesome. I liked the idea that if we learnt from the past we might not make the same mistakes in the present and grew increasingly frustrated with how often this seemed to not be the case.
Modern history was very much the opposite until very recently. It was just not my thing, for some reason. I have a good friend who likes to say that when gunpowder was invented, it was all over. I find myself agreeing with that sentiment but i do not think that it is the complete reason for my disinterest. I tend to believe it is just too close to me in time for me to be detached from it and enjoy it, almost in an academic level. Cambodia was a combination of old and recent interests. And took something that was very much little more than a hobby for me and placed it squarely in reality.
Phnom Penh was a rather intense place. Not just because of what happened in the first few days but because it feels like living and breathing history. I know only the very first strata of its complex layers of history and so, that is all i can share with you. If you happen to be more knowledgeable in this area and you find mistakes with any of it, please feel free to correct me and i will make the appropriate updates.
This capital city was once considered the Jewel of Asia. I am not sure exactly who called it that but since it was an old french colony, i am sure imperial boasts and egos had something to do with its title. Regardless, you can tell what it might have been like during its 20th century heyday. There are still a few buildings from that era in really good condition, with many more in various states of either destruction or maintenance, depending on what the current owners have decided to do with them. The footpaths are wide and the streets are wider. All the major roads in the central cbd are paved or tared. They are also under an ubiquitous layer of dust that makes travelling without a face mask not really recommended.
The words that kept coming to our minds to describe the city was post apocalyptic. That is said with no real malice nor is any disrespect meant to the locals nor new friends we made there. It is also not really warranted, as i am sure it used to be much worse right after the many wars it went through and you would have to be blind not to see the reconstruction efforts in every corner of the city. Nevertheless, it was the feeling we had while we were there.
The city in its current state is a reminder of what the country suffered under the Khmer Rouge. After it fell to Pol Pot, using stories of bombardment by enemy forces, the city was forcefully evacuated into remote regions of the countryside, in about 4 days! To think of that massive city and imagine walking through it as a ghost town, is just insane. The same was done to every city in the country. During its attempt to create an agrarian society, according to their Marxist or Maoist or whatever twisted and insane philosophy they had, the Khmer Rouge regime killed a quarter of the Cambodian population. The so called Killing Fields are a testament to the atrocities committed during their reign. Not that the larger international community of neighbouring and other powerful countries are exempt from being included as culprits in the whole sordid thing but i will leave the details for you to research. I think it is well worth your time, as is a visit to those fields. We did not make it there but heard from many fellow travellers that the audio tours and overall experience is suitably solemn and well done.
Where we did go was to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was an old girls school that saw itself being changed into a torture and killing prison camp. It was used especially for particular interest prisoners, with one whole building dedicated to Khmer Rouge members who had been deemed renegades or a danger to the cause by a paranoid Pol Pot. There are descriptions of what they used to do to the prisoners to extract a confession. They are inhumane and soul destroying to think of, as most of these things are. It is also worth noting that those tortures were performed by people that knew that if they killed the prisoner in the process, they would end up on the torture table themselves. Each cell or room, contains both elements of the prison and the school, with the old chalk blackboards being particularly jarring and a weird reminder that the leaders of this genocidal regime were all tertiary educated.
There are pictures of the very few people they found still attached to the beds and benches where they were tortured to death, when the regime left in a hurry to escape the Vietnamese. Along with the Vietnamese came an old Khmer Rouge turn coat, that ended up becoming the Prime Minister Hun Sen.
And this is where it kind of gets interesting. See the Khmer people are a good natured, resilient and happy people. They are also not stupid. They don’t have to have a higher education to know they are still living under the Khmer Rouge, albeit in a different form (and lets not forget, it was this present form that the current Australian government basically ‘sold’ asylum seekers to – again the complicit nature of the international community). They know the government is corrupt and that anything in Cambodia is for sale, if you have the right amount of money. They know that those that speak too loudly against it still do disappear. But they also know that they are not being marched en masse out of cities and into the fields to die horrible deaths, be they slow or quick. So they get on with their day, do what they can within the system, push on and survive.
Not so for the younger generation. They were the ones that had to start too young to fend for themselves and their maimed and mentally damaged parents and family members. They were the ones being exploited by the sex slave, drug and beggar industries. They still are. They are also the ones getting education. And they are no longer satisfied with the status quo. They are getting louder and becoming leaders. They are unwilling to hide from the truth.
And those elections are being fought and the results are getting closer. There is a new generation coming through and the hopeful possibilities they bring with them for Cambodia are exciting to see develop.