On Tuesday, Paul my tuk driver/guide, took me to the Toul Sleng museum and The Killing Fields. Both were heavy but, so important to visit and understand the dark history of Cambodia.
I had not learned about this genocide in school and only heard of it very recently. I heard about it more as I told people of my plans to visit Cambodia. I came into the country pretty unaware of exactly what happened, why it happened and the role the US played in this actrocity.
In 1970 Marshal Lon Nol successfully overthrew the Prince who was then ruling Cambodia. Lon Nol was backed by the US. This was during the tail end of the Vietnam war, Cambodia’s very close neighbor, and during the war the US used Cambodia as a regroup station. In addition tp using Cambodia as a staging ground, the US bombed parts of Cambodia in effort to destroy suspected Viet Cong targets. These unjustified bombings, began to create a deep animosity of the West and it’s imperialist goals. Thus setting the stage for what would come next.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, initially allied himself with Lon Nol to leverage himself to be a player in the civil wars that follow Lon Nol’s rise to power. Once he was able, Pol Pot began to oppose Lon Nol , and backed by the Vietnamese staged a war against his government. The US, still supportive of Lon Nol and bitter towards Vietnam about the war the US had lost, again bombed Cambodia. It’s estimated the US dropped 1/2 tons of bombs on the country and killed 300,000 Cambodians. This obviously created even more hatred for the West and it’s imperialist way of life.
The bombings did more harm than good in terms of keeping Lon Nol in power and in April 17, 1975 Pol Pot and his regime officially took control of Cambodia. His dream, influenced and inspired by Communism and Maoist ideals, was to create a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. He used the the hatred of the US and what it had to done to the country to help gain support from the farmers and rural country dwellers for his cause. The reality of his dream was emptying out the cities and sending it’s citizens into labor camps where they were tortured, abused, starved and murdered.
Due to the Regimes hatred of the West and Communist/Maoist influences , Pol Pot set out to destroy all culture and education. Anyone who was educated, rich or perceived as an enemy of the cause was brutally murdered. Pol Pot and his regime also set out to destroy all cultures well... all schools , Pagodas and government property were turned into prisons or labor camps.
No one was safe during the four years of Khmer Rouge’s rule. They took the accused’s whole family into camps/prisons to torture and murder them in addition to the one accused. Even members of the Khmer Rouge were randomly accused of conspiring against the cause and being a CIA or KGB agent with no proof or reason for suspicion. Children, babies, elderly and the disabled were not exempt from this treatment and because they couldn’t endure hard labor, were tortured and killed too.
As the camps and prisons began to fill up, the regime created killing fields. They went out to the rural farms , trucked in prisoners to brutally kill them and dumped them into mass graves.
The US and Europe were aware of the genocide unfolding under the Khmer Rouged because Cambodian refugees had escaped and would share the horror taking place. However, the US was stil bitter about losing the Vietnam war and hesitant to get reinvoled in the area again. Europe did nothing either.
Finally, in 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Once the Vietnamese established power they exposed the extent of the horrors the Cambodian people had been enduring to the world. STILL, the world did nothing. It wasn’t until 2003 (2003!!!) that proceedings began to bring justice to the Khmer Rouge members. However, by that time most had died or fled to Thailand and couldn’t be found. In 1998 Pol Pot died under house arrest, never being convicted of the heinous crimes he inflicted upon the innocent people of Cambodia.
Rebuilding Cambodia has been difficult because little to no foreign aid has been given. Khmer Rouge also destroyed all societal infrastructure and killed all it’s educators, doctors, engineers and professionals. The destruction caused by Khmer Rouge is why there is still extreme poverty in Cambodia.
The Toul Sleng Museum was the former s-21 prison. Toul Sleng started as a school but, when Khmer Rouge took over they converted it into a prison for Khmer Rouge members accused of treason. Here they were either kept in brick cages, hardly big enough to allow someone to lay down, or chained to the floor with 30-40 other prisoners. They were brutally tortured to garner false confessions— the charged were 99% frivolous and unwarranted— and after the confession was given, they were executed.
It was heavy being there and walking the halls to where all this evil happened. The whole time I wandered the museum, all I could think was why. Millions of innocent people were killed for no reason. Why? Why do we do this to each other? The museum was tough but, visiting The Killing Fields were brutal. I held back tears the entire time. As I walk the grounds, I was over taken with the beauty of the location and to think of what happened there was unthinkable. How? I walked over a small bridge and to my left was what looked like miniature rolling hills. These “rolling hills” were actually groupings of mass graves where bodies of women, children and men were tossed as if they meant nothing. As I continued walking, I came upon the “killing tree”. Here children were beaten and brutally killed on the tree itself. It is truly devasting to process all the lives lost.
Visiting these sites and reading about the history behind them has left me wondering how to prevent such acts from happening again. How do we finally end the reign of hate and begin to evolve into loving each other more? How to get to a point where we value life above all else- power, money and the greediness of both. I don’t have any answers for these questions but, I think it’s important to ask them. It also made me acculately aware of our responsibility to each other. The US knew this happening and we did nothing. It’s maddening to think about the life’s that could have been saved if someone would have stepped in. I always take experiences like this and try to find areas in my life where I’m doing similar things- not literally of course! But, where am I oppressing myself and my truth? What am I witnessing and turning a blind eye when I can help? We are deep need to evolve past this pattern of hate and it starts on individual levels. How can we each commit to a more evolved, compassionate and loving way of life?
At the museum , there were many guest books where you could leave a message of grief for those poor souls who had died. I used the following statement, borrowed from a friend and yoga teacher back home, and I wanted to end with it here as well. Let this be a mantra for a new future...