Bruce McPhie has just commenced his 197th trip as an Intrepid group leader. His experience is remarkable, his care of his travellers is second to none, and his compassion and respect for the people of Indochina is immediately obvious. Bruce’s recent return to Cambodia prompted this frank and thought-provoking blog…
“Cambodia is a fascinating country to visit, with a long and turbulent history, friendly people, and delicious food. It has a striking natural beauty, with the mighty Mekong River, the unique Tonle Sap Lake, and a landscape of sugar palms, white cattle and green rice fields among rural villages where time seems to have stood still. Against this stunning backdrop are the encouraging signs of progress and development out of poverty that is most evident in the major cities.
I have just returned to Viet Nam, after leading another tour group to Cambodia. This was my first tour to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in five years, so it was most satisfying to see the positive changes taking place in the country, as well as to catch up again with some familiar faces and places.
The world may know something about the amazing grandeur of the Khmer Empire from the 9th-13th centuries, when a number of kings and numberless labourers built the legendary Angkor Wat and dozens of other mind-blowing temples and public works. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the impressive temple ruins near Siem Reap attract tourists from near and far.
The world may also know something of the darker side of more recent Cambodian history, especially the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot from 1975-1979, when around 2 million people, some 1/5 of the country’s entire population, met an untimely and tragic death. The UN Human Rights Commission in 1979 described the genocidal crimes of the Khmer Rouge as “the worst to have occurred anywhere in the world since Nazism.” But then did nothing.
Most people may know the film The Killing Fields. But few seem to know, or remember, that most of the world has Cambodian blood on its hands – for most of the world, at one time or another, supported the Khmer Rouge. Of course, they would prefer you not to know, or remember, that shameful and incriminating truth.
We should know of these things, and never forget the past, as this is the key to understanding the present and the future. So a visit to Cambodia is incomplete without visiting Tuol Sleng, the infamous S-21 prison, now a Genocide Museum, in the capital city Phnom Penh. Here, a former high school, once a place of dignity and learning, became a gruesome political prison and torture centre of the Khmer Rouge regime, one of many throughout the country.
Ironically, many of the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge were themselves former school teachers, including Duch, director of S-21, who graduated top of mathematics class at his university and became a teacher and vice-principal in the 1960s. After 1997, and under a new name, he was recruited by the American Refugee Committee to work inside a refugee camp in Thailand, and became a born-again Christian. He has since confessed to his crimes against humanity, and is on trial at the ongoing Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal.
Then, for a sobering reflection, and to pay respects to the memory of the dead, you should make the short journey out of Phnom Penh to Cheung Ek, the best-known of the many ‘Killing Fields’. Here, more than 15,000 prisoners from S-21, including children, were sent to their brutal deaths.
But we should also know that those complicit in genocidal war crimes in Cambodia go way beyond just Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime – although they will certainly not be standing before the Cambodian War Crimes Tribunal to answer for their crimes. They include war criminal Henry Kissinger, architect of the massive US bombing of the Cambodian countryside, including with chemicals.
During 1973 alone, US B-52 bombers from Guam and Thailand dropped nearly twice as many tons of bombs on rural Cambodia as the United States dropped on Japan in World War II. This utterly devastated and brutalized the country, and was a potent factor in bringing the Khmer Rouge to power. But Kissinger won’t be in the dock, as he is now advising the Barack Obama Administration on ‘national security’.
The world soon knew about Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields’ under Pol Pot, but did nothing. Along with the millions of Cambodians who died, many thousands of Vietnamese were also innocent victims of Pol Pot’s purges, both in Cambodia and in cross-border massacres inside Viet Nam.
In 1979, the Vietnamese Army helped overthrow Pol Pot, thus ending the ‘Killing Fields’ regime – requested by and with the assistance of Cambodians. The rest of the world, with few exceptions, falsely accused Viet Nam of “invading” Cambodia, and then directly or indirectly supported the armed guerrilla resistance led by the Khmer Rouge. The killing continued for many more years, prolonged by much of the world, but led primarily by the governments of the United States of America, both Republican (Ronald Reagan) and Democrat (Jimmy Carter).
The new Cambodian government, desperately trying to rebuild all that Pol Pot and war had destroyed, suffered an international economic embargo, with almost the only aid coming in from Viet Nam, the USSR and few others. Even the United Nations denied development assistance. The UN has withheld development aid from only one third world country: Cambodia.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge even retained Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations, and continued a terror war against the new Cambodian government for another two decades. The Khmer Rouge was effectively aided and assisted in this by many governments, often secretly, including the US, China, Britain, ASEAN, Thailand, Singapore, Germany, and Australia. The UN “peace process” in 1990 was an expensive but futile exercise in legitimizing the Khmer Rouge as an equal in the political process – no mention of the G-word (genocide) was allowed. Pol Pot was free to continue the killing, protected by Thailand and the US, until his reported death in 1998.
Not everyone will know these ugly truths because they are often sanitized out of public consciousness and polite conversation, although they are well-documented in numerous reputable history books. Regrettably, the twin evils of historical amnesia and deliberate misinformation still cloud this tragic chapter in Cambodian history. Even the casual tourist visiting Cambodia today, is unlikely to be told these embarrassing truths.
Evils justified by the realpolitik of the Cold War continue now in the bogus ‘War on Terror’. Until war crimes of the past are properly acknowledged, how can we ever hope to end war crimes of the present and the future?
While in Cambodia, I bought another excellent book to add to my extensive library on Indochina. This one is called Getting Away With Genocide? – Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, by Tom Fawthrop & Helen Jarvis [Pluto, London, 2004]. As the book makes shockingly clear, it is not only Justice that is elusive….it is also Truth.”