Thursday, 12 February 2015

Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields

Written by us both, the bits in black are me (Brian), the green bits are history (skip if you want) the purple bits at the end are Jackie and there are some further historical links on the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the history of Vietnam at the end.
Phnom Penh:
Phnom Penh by night. The Kings statue and, behind, Independence monument
This is a difficult entry as our few days here in the capital of Cambodia have been an emotional roller coaster ride. Phnom Penh is an impressive, clean, modern city full of very friendly people and interesting historical, modern and architecturally pleasing buildings, monuments and sculptures, yet with a dark recent history.

The upcoming modernity
We came here with few expectations, but we are leaving with fond memories of a likeable, self-confident, city that can stand aside its big SE Asian cousins of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Saigon, with ease and equality. It seems to be developing and succeeding despite being ignored by the world and being left to its genocidal fate, the deplorable Khmer Rouge still being recognised as the legitimate government in exile until as late as 1991, some 12 years after Vietnam had liberated the country, stopped the genocide and alerted the largely deaf world to Pol Pots grisly deeds.

The art deco railway station, built by the French in 1930's. The last passenger train ran in 2009 and then the system was shut down due to lack of maintenance. It is in the process of being renewed, some lines are open, but only for freight traffic. Chinese investment should lead to a new line to China maybe this year and a reopening of trains direct to Bangkok
The Vietnam-Cambodia friendship monument. Royal Palace in the distance
Cambodians seem to have moved on, huge investment from China and Japan are gradually having an effect on the country, particularly here, but they do not shrink away from the past either and the full details of the horrors of Pol Pots regime are here to be seen in emotionally draining visits to the S21 prison in the city and the Killing Fields just outside.

Wat Phnom

The Killing Fields:
Our tuk-tuk ride through Phnom Penh traffic
On our first day here we hired a very friendly tuk-tuk driver with a reasonable grasp of English to drive us 14km SW of the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, only one of many mass execution areas throughout the country that, together with deaths from overwork and starvation from forced labour in the fields wiped out between 1.7 and 3 million people (depending on whose estimate you use, 1.7 million is considered far too low and most seem to be in the 2.2 to 2.5 million ) out of a population of less than 8 million in less than 4 years.

The memorial stupa at the killing Fields. Close up of this further down
Around this place mass murder took place...
The people brought here mainly came from the S21 Tuol Sleng prison (our second visit), where it is estimated 20,000 people were tortured in the most brutal way. They were brought here in trucks of about thirty at a time, blindfolded and in the middle of the night, forced out of the truck, made to stand aside pre-prepared trenches and then bludgeoned to death with hammers, spears, anything sharp or had their throats cut using sharp serrated palm stalks. Precious bullets were not used. The last sounds they would have heard were loud diesel generators to provide lighting and loud rousing music from loudspeakers hung from a tree. 
The audio commentary we heard played some of this music along with a generator noise in front of the tree from which the loudspeakers were hung, but even closing our eyes it was impossible to imagine what it must have been like and perhaps it was better that our minds didn't allow it.

The victims were not only men, but also women and children, mainly so no-one would survive who would tell. In one mass grave excavated over 100 women were found, most of them naked after being raped, but the most harrowing thing was a tree alongside where bone and flesh remains were found on the trunk indicating that children and babies were held by the feet and swung to smash their heads, after which they were tossed into the pit.

Everywhere the ground showed evidence of the pits and cloth and bone fragments can be seen partially buried, surfacing as the weather conditions vary. In the centre of the site is a huge memorial stupa containing the skulls and bones of several thousand victims, many skulls with holes caused by hammer, axe and spears. Notices asked us to remove shoes and hats and keep quiet on entering as a sign of respect, but being asked to be quiet was not necessary as the sight left everyone utterly speechless if not in tears!

Palm leaf stalks used to slit throats

S21 Tuol Sleng prison:

A mass grave of 400
Reunited with our tuk-tuk driver, he drove us back into town and dropped us off at the former prison, now the genocide museum, where we paid him off and sent him on his way, being only a 20 minute walk back to our fabulous 'One Up Banana' hotel.

Before the Khmer Rouge the complex used to be the Tuol Svay Prey High School, comprising four three storey buildings arranged in a ‘U’ shape, with various outer buildings (now gone). On 17th April 1975 the Lon Nol administration collapsed and the Americans airlifted the remaining US citizens plus some Cambodians to safety, as the Khmer Rouge descended on the city. Within three days of taking power they had emptied the city of its 2 million inhabitants, along with all other cities in Cambodia, forcing the population into the countryside to work in the fields.

Mass burial sites
Bits of exposed clothing and bones
Any intellectuals were executed and, often these were selected by looking at their hands to see if they were soft like a non-manual worker, or whether they wore glasses. Children were encouraged to turn in family members, all families were separated and put to work in different areas and ‘suspect’ people were sent to one of the many prisons around the country. People sent to S21 were subjected to barbaric torture, teeth pulled out, fingernails pulled out, bones broken, forced to eat excrement, and many other unmentionable deeds.

Victims clothing and, on the top, bones
More clothing plus a tooth
The purpose was to get an admission of guilt, either being a member of the CIA (most had never heard of it) or spies of some other enemy country, or some other deed that justified their execution. When the country was liberated by the Vietnamese on 7th January 1979, forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat to remote areas near the Thai border, they found only seven prisoners still alive and 14 mutilated dead in some of the torture cells. These 14 are now buried in the grounds and some of the 7 survivors are still around to tell their story, two of whom we saw on the day we visited. There were a number of guides showing groups round and we joined one for part of the tour who, as a young boy was one who was separated from his family and sent to work in the fields.

A notice between remnants of clothing requesting people not to step on bones
A mass grave of over 100 mainly naked women
After seeing many harrowing photographs, prisons and torture weapons we felt utterly emotionally drained, retreating back to our hotel to recover. We added further emotion the next day by going to see a screening of the film The Killing Fields, being shown in a tiny cinema above a bar near the river in the city centre. A pleasant little place with chairs and long mats with cushions, into which we could take drinks and there was a resident cat which came to sit by Jackie for the duration, giving her some comfort. I’d never seen the film and coming on top of the visits we had made left us both pretty quiet over an otherwise very nice meal with a chatty restaurateur who also shows the film and seem quite pragmatic about it.

The killing tree, where babies and young children met their deaths
So why did it happen? You may want to skip this bit  (in green) depending on your interest and go onto the next heading.

The Khmer Rouge had its origins in the struggle against French Colonisation, but it gained a foothold in the east of the country during the Vietnam War as it overflowed into Cambodia and US bombers started a relentless campaign to try to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail which ran through the east of the country. Aided by the Viet Minh, Pol Pot, who had been educated in Paris, was appointed CPK’s party secretary and began a guerrilla campaign against the Lon Nol government (who had come to power in a coup in 1970 – see below). From January to August 1973 the Lon Nol government with USA backing dropped half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia killing as many as 300,000 people. 

From this tree loudspeakers were hung and loud music played to drown out the sounds of the murders
Closer to the memorial stupa, showing the skulls
Many who resented the killings or had lost family members joined the Khmer Rouge which, by 1973 controlled about 85% of the country. With US assistance the Lon Nol government continued the fighting and it was not until 17th April 1975 that Phnom Penh fell after the US finally evacuated the city though a series of helicopter airlifts while under fire, leaving the government to fend for itself.

Backed and inspired by the Chinese communist movement of Mao Zedong, Pol Pot’s dream was to create a communist utopia where everyone was equal, held no property or education and were looked after and were totally reliant on the state. All schools and banks were closed, all property confiscated, the borders were sealed and mined, the cities emptied, religion was banned, everyone was set to work on the land and Pol Pot declared it ‘Year Zero’. To cleanse the next generation to only remember and believe in the pure communism under the Khmer Rouge he saw it necessary to separate all children from the corrupting influences of their parents and he believed they would find happiness through hard work and devotion to ‘Angkar Padevat’, who was to be their ‘mother and father’. Everyone was deprived of their basic rights and they were not allowed to go outside their cooperative. The regime would not allow anyone to gather and hold discussions, if three people gathered and talked, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested or executed.

Inside the stupa
Showing the various methods of execution
Forced to work up to 12 hours per day and receiving two meals of very weak rice and water many people starved to death or were simply worked to death. It is estimated that up to 50% of the total deaths were by these means.

Following many cross border incursions into Vietnam, they finally lost patience with the Khmer Rouge and invaded the country during 1978, eventually liberating the country on 7th January 1979 and forcing Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge into remote hills in the NW near Thailand, where they continued their government in exile.

The S21 Genocide Museum and the graves of the final 14 victims
Incredibly the UN continued to recognise the validity of the Khmer Rouge and they retained a seat on the UN council. The Vietnamese were considered an occupying force and the UN refused to recognise the new PRK government (Peoples Republic of Kampuchea) elected by the people, the US and its allies not just isolating the PRK government but actually helping the Khmer Rouge to regroup and rearm. Vietnam, for its efforts were also invaded in the far north by China in retaliation for overthrowing the Khmer Rouge who they had backed.

One of the former classrooms used as a torture cell...
Stories of the Genocide fell largely on deaf ears, Pol Pot had entertained diplomats from Sweden on a number of occasions and, of course shown them some institutions that looked extremely successful, who went back to the UN to report on what a good job the Khmer Rouge were doing in the country. We also heard some stories that visitors were occasionally allowed to visit Angkor Wat near Siem Reap under close guidance, who saw only the best in the country. If it came to believing Vietnam, who had beaten the USA in the Vietnam War and retaken south Vietnam from the US backed government or Sweden, it was no contest!

And a photograph of what the Vietnamese found. There were many photos like these!
Map of Cambodia showing the 300 or so killing Fields
It was not until 1991 that a peace agreement was signed in Paris and a UN transitional authority shared power with various factions that things began to settle down. The Khmer Rouge however continued in existence until 1999 when most of its members had either defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or had died. Pol Pot himself was never brought to justice, he died in the north of the country in 1998 in his 70’s with his second wife and a number of grandchildren around him.

In 1993, the monarchy is restored, Sihanouk becomes king again, the country is re-named the Kingdom of Cambodia and the government-in-exile loses its seat at the UN.

Former gym equipment used to torture prisoners
In fact the story of King Sihanouk is interesting in itself, so here, dear reader, is a very brief overview:

1941: Prince Norodom Sihanouk becomes king and the country is occupied by the Japanese

1953: Cambodia wins its independence from France. Under King Sihanouk, it becomes the Kingdom of Cambodia.

1955 - Sihanouk abdicates to pursue a political career. His father becomes king and Sihanouk becomes prime minister.

1960 - Sihanouk's father dies. Sihanouk becomes head of state.

1965 - Sihanouk breaks off relations with the US and allows North Vietnamese guerrillas to set up bases in Cambodia in pursuance of their campaign against the US-backed government in South Vietnam.

Our guide, former labour slave talks about the Khmer Rouge takeover
1970 - Prime Minister Lon Nol overthrows Sihanouk (who was in Beijing on a state visit) in coup and proclaims the Khmer Republic. Sihanouk - in exile in China - forms a guerrilla movement.

1975 - Lon Nol is overthrown as the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot occupy Phnom Penh. Sihanouk briefly becomes head of state, the country is re-named Kampuchea.

1976 - The country is re-named Democratic Kampuchea. Sihanouk resigns, Khieu Samphan becomes head of state, Pol Pot is prime minister.

One of the blocks. Barbed wire was used to close the balconies to prevent prisoners from jumping to their death. Several prisoners did this in preference to being tortured
Mr. Chum Mey, one of the seven survivors of the S21 camp
1981 - The pro-Vietnamese Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party wins parliamentary elections. The international community refuses to recognise the new government. The government-in-exile, which includes the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk, retains its seat at the United Nations.

1991 - A peace agreement is signed in Paris. A UN transitional authority shares power temporarily with representatives of the various factions in Cambodia. Sihanouk becomes head of state.

1993 - The monarchy is restored, Sihanouk becomes king again. The country is re-named the Kingdom of Cambodia. The government-in-exile loses its seat at the UN.

Pol Pot (left) with his henchmen (more photos at the end)
1996 - Deputy leader of Khmer Rouge Leng Sary forms a new party and is granted amnesty by Sihanouk.

2004 - King Sihanouk abdicates and is succeeded by his son Norodom Sihamoni.

2012 October - Former king, Norodom Sihanouk, dies of a heart attack at 89

Not a bad record, King twice, prime minister once, head of state three times, head of guerrilla movement, head of government-in-exile and father of the new king!

The Royal Palace: 
The Royal Palace and gardens
This was a set of very impressive buildings (and one not so, hidden behind one of those awnings that looks like a building) some of which we were allowed in, though not the inhabited bits! The most impressive was the Silver Pagoda, so named because of the 5000 silver floor tiles weighing in at 1kg each. Most of these were covered by rugs to prevent damage, which we could understand, sadly the exposed bits weren’t really walked on so were tarnished! 
Preah Tineang temple in the Royal Palace gardens
There were some amazing statues – the life sized golden Buddha weighing 90kg decorated with 6000+ diamonds from small to HUGE. Behind a very flimsy padlock, but I guess you aren’t going to be able to run off while clutching a life size 90kg statue! The other statue of note was the Emerald Buddha actually made of Baccarat Crystal. The real/original Emerald Buddha (which is actually made of jade!) now lives in Bangkok in the golden palace so we would have seen it on our first trip 8 or so years ago. After various wars etc it has also lived in Luang Prabang and Vientienne, where we have seen its previous homes! Travelled more than we have! 

We had lunch at "The daughters of Cambodia"a shop/workshop/cafe where they support girls (and boys) who have been trafficked to the sex trade - apparently sometimes it's 'milk money' - I had you, now support me, or your sister needs a wedding so we have to sell you!
Lovely caramel frappe, cheese and ham baguette and brownie, but almost at western prices, but all in a good cause. Got emotional reading the history on the wall, don't think I could have coped with watching the film there too!

The Silver Pagoda (left) No photos inside - not allowed!
A very unusual flower growing on a tree in the Royal Palace
Today has been chilling (in preparation for going to the seaside?!) gentle amble this morning followed by blog writing, a quick trip out to a cat cafĂ© (found one Robyn!) which was quite strange, I think it was OK $5 to get in which included a drink, food was available but it mainly seemed to be a hair and beauty salon on the lower two floors, so all a bit strange! You had to wash your hands and change your shoes to go in and they seemed happy! 

No idea what the tree is, but not seen one before
In the cat cafe
Anyway, a dozen ish cats/kittens and five ish small dogs, they have lots of places to go hide and an interesting high level run, but they were very cute and friendly even before the boy gave us a little bag of treats each, it was amazing how many crunchies you can get in a tiny bag! We had taken our books assuming we could sit and snuggle, but the chairs weren't really conducive to that so we just played and cuddled a bit! Ideal for me, and don’t let B tell you he didn’t enjoy it! and they did seem OK, I just wonder how long it will last as we'd walked that road a number of times before and not noticed it, even with my special cat sense!

If we’d spent longer there, and walked a bit further, the blog entry may not have been so long, so perhaps we shouldn’t have chilled so much!

Just for the record, thank-you for your concern Helen, I finally got a pizza, 2 1/2 weeks, one country and one capital city later!

Other historical stuff on SE Asia you may be interested in:

The battle of Dien Bien Phu:. 
Blog entry:
Historical account of the battle:

A history of Vietnam: 

Jackie in the cat cafe
Don't know why they didn't call it a cat and dog cafe!

HRH King Norodom Sihamoni, King of Cambodia

The very splendid National Assembly building

Back at the S21 prison, classrooms have been knocked through and individual cells built...

The space allotted to one prisoner
A photo (poor quality) showing the Khmer Rouge leaders who are, at last, on trial

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you had an amazing time in PP. We only stayed overnight and whilst saw the palace and went to the FCC, we never got a full sense of the place. We didnt go to the Killing Fields as a bit "war weary" after seeing all the things in Vietnam but can see that it must have been a very sobering and strange experience - it demonstrates sadly "mans' inhumanity to man!"