(Note: This piece deals with an important and difficult moment in history.)
My first few days in Cambodia were unsettling but good for me. Like most tourists I came to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, four hundred acres of jungle, monkeys and temples. But I also wanted to see a country just two generations post genocide. How could such an atrocity have occurred?
I associate Cambodia with the Vietnam War, carpet bombing and the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge. The seventies were a nightmare for the Cambodian people and in 1975, shortly after America withdrew military aid, the Cambodian government surrendered to the Chinese backed Khmer Rouge regime. And when their tanks rolled into the nation’s capital the people of Phnom Penh ran into the streets cheering. The Khmer Rouge promised a government chosen by the people, not kings or politicians. But the celebration came to an abrupt halt when all the citizens were ordered to evacuate the city.
‘America is coming to bomb you,’ the new government declared.
In a panic, parents grabbed their children and what food they could carry and escaped into the rugged countryside. Hearts raced and nights crept but thundering B52’s were never heard and bombs never fell. The threat of attack was a lie, a ruse perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge to drive the people from their homes and strip them of their possessions and social status. Homeless and hungry, the displaced city dwellers were easily herded into work camps where their children were taken away and re-educated. They were trained to defy their mother and father and question their parents loyalty to the new regime.
All across the nation towns were purged of their citizens. And during the long marches through dangerous jungles and crippling heat the elderly and infirm fell further and further behind until they were never seen again. And young rebellious types were watched closely and dealt with harshly. If they failed to conform they too disappeared.
The Khmer Rouge was led by a politician named Pol Pot. A man who idolized Mao Zedong and dreamt of creating an isolated, self-sufficient Communist State of communal farms. A country that would let no one in and no one out, a nation similar to Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
Pol Pots’ disdain for city dwellers hinged on the fact they tended to be educated. He viewed a broad education, the study of science and even modern medicine as evil. He declared doctors, teachers, religious leaders, and journalists enemies of the state and throughout the country his troops rounded up the enemy and tortured them until they signed false confessions. Then when the streets were dark and the screams transmuted into hopeless whimpers, the mangled bodies were tossed into trucks like bloody cord wood and driven to the Killing Fields. To avert retaliation wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and extended family members were all tortured and killed. Between 1975 and 1979 it’s estimated that twenty-five percent of Cambodia’s population vanished, more than 2 million people.
Pol Pot also denigrated anyone associated with the prior administration and his regime killed as many of them as they could find. He viewed new elections as pointless. There was no one wiser or more qualified to lead than him. He was Cambodia’s supreme leader and no one alive dared to disagree.
Initially I thought the Killing Fields was one mass grave filled with the bodies of those who opposed the Khmer Rouge. In reality there were over 300 Killing Fields and almost 200 torture centers. Outside of Phnom Penh lies a Killing Field named Choeung Ek and an hour’s walk from my hostel lay the infamous torture center, S21 prison.
The Khmer Rouge like most dictatorships attempted to hide their appalling crimes. Even some residents of Phnom Penh didn’t know what was happening behind the tall concrete walls of the former high school. Inside classrooms where young minds were once nurtured, adults and children were caged, assaulted, electrocuted, burned, and worse. At night some were hung from the gallows by their broken limbs and dipped headfirst into vats of human waste until they nearly drown. But the goal at S21 was to torture and break, not kill. Still some died. Those who survived signed bogus confessions and after the rest of the city had fallen asleep, truck loads of broken men, women and children were driven from S21 to the Killing Fields at the edge of town.
The Killing Field outside Phnom Penh was billed as a meeting place for the Khmer Rouge Political Party and propaganda mixed with the sound of cheering crowds was blasted into the night sky from powerful speakers. Neighbors on adjoining farms thought it was a political rally. But in truth it was just a lot of noise to drown out the screams. To keep the killing cheap, machetes and garden tools were used in place of bullets. And per the warden’s testimony infants and small children were held by their ankles and swung through the air until their heads slammed into the Killing Tree. Tissue scrapings from the bark confirmed the warden’s testimony. Yet, despite the butchering and head crushing, some were still drawing breath as shovels of dirt fell upon their bloodied faces at the bottom of the mass graves.
A visit to S21 and the Killing Field is like walking through one of Hitler’s extermination camps but more disturbing because the killing was done by hand, one at a time. And it occurred just a few decades ago. After the visit I felt drained emotionally and physically. As I looked for a place to rest and collect my thoughts the words “How?” and “Why?” spun in my head.
Despite the unpleasantness, it was important to see the devastation and pain an unrestrained amoral leader can cause. Pol Pot illustrates how narcissists worsen with time and never see their actions as wrong. Their actions give them exactly what they desire. So how can they be wrong? Such people don’t change their behavior without intervention and in the mid 1970’s most countries wanted nothing to do with SE Asia.
Finally, in 1979 the Vietnamese Communist Army (the army America fought against in Vietnam) stepped in and freed the Cambodian people from Pol Pot and his henchmen. The Army’s hand was forced when Pol Pot started attacking Vietnamese border towns.
Visiting Phnom Penh caused me to reflect on how many evil leaders have come to power by legitimate means. And once in office they quelled discourse, eliminated opponents by any means, and destroyed the checks and balances of the country they commandeered. Their goal is always the same, unbridled power.
The recent rash of mysterious deaths and the silencing of journalists in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas is evidence that Pol Pot’s brand of evil still lingers. No one country can claim to be solely virtuous. Greed and the thirst for power has sullied all nations. That’s why it takes the whole world working together to keep evil in check.