Saturday, December 17, 2005

Phnom Penh

No Jokes. No sarky comments. No amusing anecdotes. No self-righteous derision aimed at other Westerners. Not today.

For the bulk of this post, no first person either. I need the detachment and it’s easier if I describe my day as another person’s.

You get up reasonably early and go down the corridor for a shower. The cold water shakes off most of the mild hangover you have. You go to the guesthouse lounging area, which happens to be a platform littered with cushions and hammocks overhanging the waters of the Boeng Kak lake. It’s a bright sunny day so you opt to sit in a shaded area. You start to coffee up and exchange pleasantries with the other guests there. You share comments about last night’s drinking and the various plans for the day that each one has cooked up. You have your own plan for today and you arrange the modalities last night.

At the agreed time, your moto driver shows up. You shoot the shit with him and smoke a few cigarettes. You decide it’s time to go and walk over to where he has stashed his wheels. You hop on the back and hang on tight to the grip bars as he negotiates the narrow streets of the Backpacker Ghetto and enters Phnom Penh’s morning traffic. He darts around the trucks, bicycles and SUVs that share the road with you and pretty soon you are out of the town center heading South.

You start to glimpse paddy fields through the gaps in the shacks and houses of the roadside. After a while you are in the countryside on a dusty road and you are surprised at how small Pnohm Penh is compared to other South East Asian capitals. You idly watch the scenes of rural life around you, occasionally jolted back to more tangible concerns as your driver swerves off the road to avoid a truck and the massive dust cloud it generates.

After a while your driver takes a left and you arrive at your destination. You pay the entrance fee and walk through the gate. Other tourists are there milling around silently. In front of you is the pagoda-like building you had spotted from afar. You are in a quiet piece of countryside and you can see ponds, ditches and streams as well as the usual paddy fields. You also see holes.

You are at the Choeung Ek Genocide memorial. The Killing Fields. The holes are the excavated mass graves of the victims of this extermination camp, one amongst many across Cambodia. As you walk around you spot rags of cloth and bone fragments protruding from the dirt. At some of these holes a small pile of bones has been neatly stacked next to a wooden post telling you how many bodies were exhumated. There are a lot of these graves and you start to look down and dodge the pieces of cloth and bone. Something in you doesn’t want to walk on them.

You take in the sites and read the information boards and go to the Pagoda. It’s a white tower reminiscent of Thai architecture and is obviously new. You walk up to it, remove your sandals and go up the steps to the central part. What you see encased in glass is shelves. Each one is about the size of a double bed and they are stacked 2 feet apart up to the ceiling. You reckon there are at least a dozen. On these shelves are human skulls. Lots and lots of skulls. Over 8000, so you’ve been told. Etched on the glass is an indicator of the age of the victims. 15-20, 20-50 and 50 plus. In one corner without etching are very small skulls. Children were murdered here too. A lot of these grim relics are in pieces. You are not sure if this is due to time or whether it is a result of the way they were killed. You suspect the latter as the Khmer Rouge saved bullets by killing their victims with axes, knives, cattle yokes and other agricultural tools.

You walk out and find your driver. He has been here before with other tourists and asks you if you are alright. You lie and tell him you are OK. He hangs around you silently until you tell him you want to go. He waits a few miles before becoming chatty again. You get back to Phnom Penh, twist around a few side streets and arrive to your second destination, even though by now you’re not so keen to go.

You pay the entrance fee and walk into the yard of what was once a school. The sun is really beating down now and you move beneath a palm tree so that you can be in the shade as you look around. There are 3 buildings surrounding the courtyard, all 3 stories high, and the layout is similar to a lot of the schools you’ve seen in South East Asia. There are chin-up bars, flower pots and benches on the edges of the courtyard and you find it hard to reconcile what you’ve heard of the place and what you see.

You are at the Tuol Sleng Museum. This place was once known as S-21 which stood for Security Prison 21. Here was the torture centre that was often the last place a victim saw before being sent to Choueng Ek. In here the Khmer Rouge tortured their victims in order to extract confessions of guilt from the people they intended to kill. The Cambodians sent here were made to suffer unbelievable horrors so that they could provide the rationale for their own murder. Of the 17 000 people estimated to have arrived here only 7 survived. It is one of these screwed up places where madness becomes methodical.

Before you enter the buildings you see a billboard with a translation of the rules of the camp. Amongst gems of commie bullshit there is the viciously stupid. “You will not cry out when receiving lashes or electric shocks. If you cry out you will receive 10 lashes or 5 electric shocks”. You enter the buildings and start to look around. You see the torture instruments, the shackles, the cells, the ammunition boxes used as latrines. You see paintings describing what happened. You see the piles of paper where the confessions of the torture victims are recorded. It’s nasty but you managed to remain reasonably detached. Then you enter the 3rd building and you see photos. Lots of photos.

The torturers took mug shots of most of their victims. You look into hundreds of pairs of eyes. You see young people, old people, women, children. You see mothers holding their babies for the photographers. At one point you find a panel covered with the photos of infants. Every last one of these pictures is the photograph of someone now dead. All of them were murdered. In another room you see the pictures of some victims after they were killed alongside the mugshots. These were special prisoners whom the guards thought they should have get proof of how thorough they were.

The final set of pictures you see are in an exhibition showing you the perpetrators. there are several posters, each comprising, one photo of the person as a Khmer Rouge, their biographical details and position occupied, a small paragraph of their thoughts on what they had done and a photo of them now, mostly at work or doing the mundane things of everyday life. These were the spearchuckers of Pol Pot’s gang of murderers. They kept the records, wielded the axes, pulled the triggers or administered the beatings. You read the blurbs and feel loathing towards them and some pity. You wonder what choice they had. The Khmer Rouge was a self-cannibalistic entity and killed over 200, 000 of its own. When these guys claim it was obey or die, they are telling the truth. You feel conflicted.

The most frightening photo you see is the group photo for the staff at S-21. You wish they would look monstrous and harsh but they are not. What you see is a bunch of young men, some of them teenagers, all smiling and proud to pose. You have seen the instruments they used and, in some photos, the results. You struggle to understand how this bunch of smiling kids, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, could be the ones pulling out fingernails, whipping people and many other horrors in order to give the killers at Choueng Ek the knowledge that they were executing self-confessed enemies of the revolution. You need a cigarette.

You walk out and decide you want to sit by the Mekong. You want to see boats, idlers, kids swimming, old guys fishing and other signs of contented life. You alternate wide avenues and narrow alleys as you move slowly North-East. It’s not that close but you could do with a stroll. You get to the river and you start to ponder what you’ve seen. As you do this you look around, not really taking in anything but just out of habit. You become aware that what you have been looking at for a while is flags.

The Cambodians have put up loads of flags of different nations in front of the main departure dock on the Mekong. It’s something you’ve seen all over the world but this time it catches your attention. You start to search your memory for a picture of what the world was like in 1975. You think about the way this country was let down. You think of what is happening nowadays. You start to feel angry.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh after a long civil war. They declared that they were at year Zero and that Cambodia would now be an agrarian commune, The killings started immediately as anyone linked to the former regime and members of the educated classes were singled out as incapable of being part of this fucked up little scheme. Their families were often killed with them. The rest of the population was dispersed into the countryside and put to work in the fields. Unsurprisingly, this plan did not bring the expected abundance of food and starvation started to kill Cambodians in their thousands.

The regime then started to kill its own and other people seemingly at random or using whatever ditzy criteria they had. They reasoned that if things were not doing great it must be because of traitors. Therefore traitors must be found and killed. The murders continued. The final death toll is estimated at between 1 and 3 million people. The smart money is on the latter figure.

So what did the world do whilst this was happening? Basically; fuck all. A few mumblings and threats but essentially the international community stood around twiddling their dicks while Pol Pot and his buddies committed an act of self-genocide. The UN even recognized them as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The salvation of the Cambodian people came from, of all things, the Vietnamese army.

Yep, the newest addition to the ‘’Empire of Evil” of the nasty Red Menace were the only ones to get their act together and do what was needed. They invaded and trounced the Khmer Rouge, taking Phnom Penh (by then a ghost town) in January 1979. To add insult to injury, the UN and ASEAN actually got huffy with the Viets and the puppet government they installed. The Chinese government gave military aid to the Khmer Rouge’s little guerrilla and the World Food programme even chipped in a few million dollars worth of aid to this charming lot. The US went along, probably as they wanted to see someone give the Vietnamese soldiers the beating that they themselves had been incapable of administering.

With this in mind you would like to believe that the mistakes of the past are unfortunately the only way we will learn to progress. However you know better and that is when you get angry. The pathetic absence of response to the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrate that indecision and ineptitude are still the two pillars of international governance. Conscience was briefly soothed when NATO allowed its Air Force to tell the Serbian forces that Kosovo was a massacre too far but that was an exception rather than the rule.

Worse are the parallels to recent events. In 1975, the United States had just reached the final conclusion of their disastrous foray in Vietnam by having to evac its staff from the roof of their Embassy during the fall of Saigon. This was the pathetic end of a misguided clusterfuck spawned by idiotic “domino” theories of geo-politics and characterized by a complete absence of any long term strategy or realistic assessment of the opposition. No one wanted to get involved in another Far East shooting gallery plus the Chinese were hinting that they were supportive of Pol Pot’s crowd.

Fast forward to the last couple of years and you get the international community doing little about Darfur. The West decided to hand over the ball to that organization renowned for its competence: the African Union. This legendary bunch then proved that they were up to the job by sending troops into the area but saddling them with the same kind of rules of engagement that made the UN presence on Bosnia such a triumph. The African Union has followed the UN method of doing things to a tee and ensured that all steps were taken to prevent some local commander on the ground getting hasty and actually saving some lives.

At the same time we have another clusterfuck going on, also spawned by stupid domino theories, also distinguishable by unbelievably inept leadership at the political level, wishful thinking as to the opposition and no real idea of how to get out, or stay in for that matter. So no one wants to get involve in a Muslim shooting gallery plus the Chinese are hinting that they are very friendly with the Sudanese government.

Plus Ça Change…

So you think about this and you get angry. You wonder what the fuck is it going to take for humanity to get a grip? You wonder if one day you will look at political leaders and have at least an inkling of respect towards them. You doubt it.

You start to wonder what happened to the truly vicious fucks who committed the Genocide in Cambodia. Who’s done time or swung from a rope? You have some notion that Pol Pot was tried and put in jail but you are unsure of the details. You wonder up the banks of the Mekong to an internet café you’d spotted yesterday. You start to google stuff. What you get is a lot of vague information about a tribunal being set up but there are complications. You find out that in 1997 Pol Pot was tried by some half-baked revolutionary court and sentenced to a life of house arrest for treason. .

Pol Pot died a year after. For killing millions of his countrymen, the fat bastard’s punishment was to spend a year in his house before popping his clogs.

As far as I can see, no other leader of the Khmer Rouge has yet been to trial.

No Jokes. Not today.



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