Visitors to Cambodia often find themselves wondering where all the old people are. With a third of its population under the age of 14, this is a country bursting at the seams with children. The elderly, on the other hand, are a tiny minority, for the horribly simple reason that getting old is rare in Cambodia: life expectancy is a mere 57 years. Further compounding the demographic skew is the fact that one generation ago, almost a quarter of the population was wiped out in one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century. Tens of thousands who would be grandparents now lie in unmarked graves in the countryside.
one generation ago, almost a quarter of the population was wiped out in one of the bloodiest genocides of the 20th century. Tens of thousands who would be grandparents now lie in unmarked graves in the countryside
But while the older generation has been decimated by poverty and violence, for Cambodia’s young the future is looking brighter. The economy is growing rapidly, tourism is booming and the US recently removed Cambodia from its trade blacklist, opening the way for foreign investment and making President Obama the most popular American here since Angelina Jolie. Dozens of NGOs have been established to aid and protect the vulnerable, particularly orphans, street kids and amputees. Steps are even being taken to make Cambodia’s notoriously lawless roads safer: drunk driving has been illegal for almost two years now, and motorcycle helmets are, at least in theory, compulsory.
Laying ghosts to rest
Yet in the midst of change Cambodia is also formally coming to terms with its past, and doing what it can to lay its ghosts to rest.
Much about modern day Cambodia, from its demographics to its sometimes bizarre cuisine, can be traced back to the horror that overtook the country on 17 April 1975, when the Maoist Khmer Rouge, led by former schoolteacher Pol Pot, seized power in a coup. It immediately embarked on a brutal campaign to return Cambodia to ‘Year Zero’ by destroying all traces of capitalism, modernity and foreign influence. The entire population of the capital Phnom Penh was forced out into the countryside to starve, while intellectuals and the politically suspect were rounded up and exterminated, along with their spouses and children. The term ‘intellectual’ was so broadly defined that it could include anybody who wore glasses; those deemed to have worked for the previous government included engineers, teachers and nurses. When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, ending the genocide as abruptly as it had begun, at least 1.7 million people were dead, the economy was destroyed and the entire country strewn with landmines.
Starting from scratch
In the 30 years since, Cambodians have struggled to rebuild their lives and their country from scratch. For some, this has meant creating monuments to the events that shattered their lives. One such is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, housed in a high school turned prison in the heart of Phnom Penh. Although the numbers are disputed, anywhere between 14,000 and 18,000 prisoners are believed to have passed through Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, in the space of four years. Only seven came out alive.
In 1980, those survivors helped establish a confronting permanent exhibition inside the prison, to ensure their story would never be forgotten. Visitors today are greeted by a board featuring the list of rules by which the prisoners lived (Rule 6: While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all). Exhibits include leg irons and human skulls, a table used for waterboarding prisoners and the large ceramic pots in which they were occasionally drowned. Several cells feature large photographs of the mutilated corpses found inside them when the prison was liberated, and paintings by survivor Vann Nath depicting scenes of torture hang in the very rooms where the torture took place.
These pathetic relics are deliberately left exposed in order to shock, and shock they do. In the killing fields, the brutality which tore through Cambodia just 30 years ago is laid absolutely bare
The road from Tuol Sleng
In the midst of so much gore it’s almost a relief to come across a room which contains nothing but photographs displayed on standing boards. The pictures on some boards are predominately of adults, while others feature mostly children and teens. Perhaps the cruellest shock of Tuol Sleng is realizing that the older group were the prisoners; the younger group their jailors and executioners. Uniformed and calm, the kids in the staff pictures gaze across the narrow room at their grown-up victims. The prisoners stare back with grief in their eyes, as though they can see the future.
For most of them, the road from Tuol Sleng led directly to Choeung Ek, a 15-minute drive from Phnom Penh. It is a deceptively pretty place, bathed in sunlight and lush with grass and trees. But Choeung Ek, once a picturesque Chinese graveyard, is now better known as a killing field, where thousands of men, women and children were beaten and hacked to death over the course of four years. The grassy depressions are mass graves, and on closer examination the dirt paths turn out to be littered with the bones, teeth and clothing of victims – visitors literally walk on the remains of the dead, which continue to rise to the surface with every heavy rain. Custodians sweep newly risen teeth into neat little piles and stack leg and arm bones against trees; a stupa at the centre of the site contains 5,000 human skulls. These pathetic relics are deliberately left exposed in order to shock, and shock they do. In the killing fields, the brutality which tore through Cambodia just 30 years ago is laid absolutely bare. Some visitors weep, while others fume helplessly; yet Choeung Ek remains peaceful, silent but for the sound of birdsong and the voices of kids cheerfully harassing tourists in the parking lot.
This monument to Aki Ra’s obsession – he even named one of his children Mine – has helped draw international attention to the devastating effects of landmines, and raised vitally important funds for de-mining efforts
A generation ago, the lives of those kids would have been far different. The Khmer Rouge relied heavily on child soldiers while in power and during the years of skirmishing that followed. Whether kidnapped or lured by the promise of food, children barely big enough to hold guns were convinced to kill strangers, relatives and, when it suited the Party, each other. The testimonies of several former child soldiers are on display at Tuol Sleng; some express remorse for their actions of 30 years ago, while others are adamant they did nothing wrong. But another former child soldier, Aki Ra, has made atonement his life’s work.
Kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge at the age of five, he does not know his real name or birthday. He became proficient at laying landmines while still a boy and estimates that he set several thousand during his time as a soldier. Wracked with remorse as an adult, he dedicated his life to finding and defusing landmines all over Cambodia; having decommissioned somewhere in the region of 10,000, he then established the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Siem Reap province, stocking it with his personal collection of decommissioned mines. The purpose of the museum is twofold: it educates visitors on the scourge of landmines and provides a home and school for children maimed by them. The displays are sobering – there are thought to be as many as six million landmines still unaccounted for in Cambodia, and they remain a leading cause of death and injury to this day. Many street musicians working in the cities are actually landmine victims, and it’s not unusual to see whole bands comprised of amputees, their prosthetic limbs unstrapped and propped up nearby. But this monument to Aki Ra’s obsession – he even named one of his children Mine – has helped draw international attention to the devastating effects of landmines, and raised vitally important funds for de-mining efforts. The stacks of decommissioned bombs, and the shrieks of kids in the schoolyard next door, testify to how much one determined person can achieve here.
Trials and tribulations
Thanks to the efforts of survivors, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years have been well documented. Yet incredibly, no one has ever been formally held accountable for the madness. Pol Pot died in his sleep in 1998, at least technically still a free man. Since then a number of former Khmer Rouge leaders have come out of hiding and been granted amnesty from prosecution – some have even gone on to occupy government positions. But in 2007, after years of legal and political wrangling, a series of high-profile arrests put an end to their seeming invulnerability.
At the time of writing the first ever trial of a senior Khmer Rouge official is being held in Phnom Penh. The former chief of Tuol Sleng prison, Kaing Guek Eav (aka Comrade Duch), is being tried for crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which were established in conjunction with the UN to prosecute surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Accused of authorising thousands of executions, Duch confessed in court on 30 March, stating: ‘I am responsible for the crimes committed at S-21, especially the torture and execution of the people there… May I be permitted to apologize, and to the survivors and families of the victims who had loved ones who died brutally at S-21, I would like you to forgive me.’
A Korean tour company is said to have purchased an entire village on the Tonlé Sap, so its customers could experience ‘the real Cambodia’ in greater comfort
Yet even in this open-and-shut case, a satisfactory verdict is far from certain. In the relatively short time the trial has been running, at least one prosecutor has resigned and in early July, the supposedly contrite Duch succeeded in having the testimony of a prosecution witness thrown out. The witness claimed to have been a child prisoner at Tuol Sleng during Duch’s tenure; ironically, Duch protested his innocence on the grounds that there were no children at Tuol Sleng, because he personally had them all killed.
But however overdue the trials are, they represent a step forward for a country which has long been reluctant to prosecute its former élites. They’re also a step forward for the UN, which infamously continued to acknowledge the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s Government into the 1990s. The expense and difficulty involved in holding the trials in Cambodia (as opposed to The Hague) have been enormous, but the desire for catharsis was too great to deny. Whatever the outcome, Duch has been forced to endure the ignominy of arrest and prosecution in the city he once lorded over, his crimes made a matter of public record. The public galleries are filled to capacity most days with civilians and former victims of the regime. Duch’s four co-accused – including former deputy Prime Minister Ieng Sary and ‘Brother Number Two’ Nuon Chea – must be watching the proceedings with unease.
Thirty years since the end of its national nightmare, Cambodia still faces a myriad of problems. Landmines continue to maim civilians on a daily basis, and 35 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day. The tourism boom has brought with it a rise in child sex tourism, which police and local NGOs are struggling to combat. It has also brought a flood of rapacious foreign investors – in one particularly bizarre deal, a Japanese corporation called JC Royal Co. purchased the rights to sell tickets to the Cheoung Ek killing field. Far away in Siem Reap province, a Korean tour company is said to have purchased an entire village on the Tonlé Sap, so its customers could experience ‘the real Cambodia’ in greater comfort.
But for all the work which remains to be done, the speed with which Cambodia has turned itself from a battlefield back into a nation is remarkable. Patriotism is very much in fashion these days, as is a wary kind of optimism. By facing its demons, the generation which survived the Khmer Rouge is building a better future.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.