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Tragedy Tour Cambodia
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  1. #1
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    Nov 2005
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    Tragedy Tour Cambodia


    This week, 30 years ago, the Khmer Rouge nightmare ended; here the writer looks at how Pol Pot's legacy has left its mark on tourism in Cambodia

    By: Story and photos ANDREW BOND

    I kept looking at the old man's hands to see if they had calluses on them. This was one of the peasant hallmarks by which the Khmer Rouge decided if you were to be executed or spared to join their great agrarian experiment.

    In today's Cambodia however, those with the calloused hands are still disenfranchised peasants, while many who were the killers are now government officials driving around in their SUVs and tending to their lucrative tourism concessions. And the peasants who own motorbikes find it lucrative to ferry tourists around. Anyone who has visited Cambodia in recent years will attest to this, echoed in the constant mantra: "Tuk-tuk, moto, ganja, boom boom, lady Vietnam".
    It was exactly 30 years ago this week that Vietnam invaded the so-called Democratic Kampuchea and put the Khmers out of their misery. Since then a whole new generation of Cambodians have been born, enough to recoup the loss of approximately 1.5 million of their countrymen who were murdered or starved and worked to death in one of the most devastating genocidal events in history.
    The survivors and their offspring certainly have a collective memory of the brutal 44 months under the Khmer Rouge, but it's now hidden behind a welcoming tourist smile.

    Toul Sleng prison has been left much as it was in 1979.

    For sure, the tragedy is firmly on the tour itineraries, from the infamous Toul Sleng Museum and Killing Fields in Phnom Penh to the Landmine Museum and rehabilitation programmes in Siem Reap. Angkor might be the big attraction in this poor but plucky country, but it is the Pol Pot regime which is the big story of Cambodia. And it's difficult to visit the country and not learn at least something about the sad recent history of this once dominant kingdom.
    It's possible to jet into Siem Reap for the weekend, stay in one of its plush new boutique guesthouses and be whisked around Angkor in a moto tuk-tuk without confronting the horror. But as I toured this magnificent World Heritage site I couldn't help looking into the eyes of anyone over 40 years old and imagine what sort of memories they were unable to discard.
    I'd read some of the numerous books that have tried to fathom the tragedy. At each site you're confronted by persistent kids with their excellent English, hawking photocopied books with titles like Brother Number 1 and The Lost Executioner. I asked one cheery girl what the books were about, she couldn't tell me, but she did know a little about the man usually on the front cover and assured me it was a bestseller.

    Kids at Angkor Wat selling books about the Khmer Rouge era.

    This was one of the many ironies that emerged afterwards, for many Khmers didn't even know who Pol Pot was at the time. He was a reclusive figure, whom few Westerners recall meeting. During the Pol Pot era, the parents and grandparents of this little girl knew only that they were working for Angkhar (the organisation). Nowadays their children are free to make a living after school selling dollar-items to the well heeled tourists, but under Angkhar's supervision all children over five were separated from their parents and put to work.
    The tourist dollar now feeds the families living nearby, but three decades ago families were reduced to a cup of rice a day, served communally and often as a gruel, while 90 per cent of what they had harvested during their 15-hour work days was sold to China in exchange for weapons and irrigation technology.
    Even foraging was banned. And if the Khmer Rouge decided you were unpatriotic in anyway, a suspected "Vietnamese spy" perhaps, the whole family was executed. Such was their paranoia in the end that they followed a policy of "ripping the problem out by the roots". In his exhaustive study, The Pol Pot Regime, historian Ben Kiernan documents countless first hand accounts of the hardships these people experienced, which few outside of Cambodia were aware of at the time. He also puts the whole horror in sharp perspective. The construction of Angkor Thom may have been an unprecedented feat, but the total and utter enslavement of a nation was an even greater achievement, he points out.

    Petrified mugshots of inmates at the museum.

    The murder of innocent children is particularly galling, and it explains the countless images of youngsters on display at the Toul Sleng Prison Museum in Phnom Penh. It's a pity they haven't created a similar one in Siem Reap for all the Angkor tourists to see. In fact killing fields and detention centres were located all over the country but the one in the capital, also known as S-21, has become the showcase of the tragedy.
    This particular prison, located in a former school, was where all the suspected "spies" were sent for torture and questioning. Many of them were Khmer Rouge cadres and their families who had made petty mistakes, or been fingered in a orgy of neurotic suspicion and "whistle blowing" as the leaders' paranoia increased in 1977 and 1978. Of the 17,000 or more who passed through, only a handful survived, none of them among the 11 foreigners imprisoned here. One of the lucky ones was Van Nath, destined for death but put to work with his art skills. After liberation he recreated some of the scenes from memory and he features in the award-winning
    documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.
    In the movie he confronts a former prison warder, asking him to confirm if the gory scenes were accurate. It's shown twice daily to a full room of tourists, and sets a grim tone before wandering the classrooms-turned-torture chambers. Most striking however is the endless rows of petrified mug shots, children included. After months of detention, torture, and pages of forced self criticism and coerced confession, they were trucked out to a nondescript paddy out of town and bludgeoned with bamboo poles.
    The Killing Fields are the other big tourist stop on Phnom Penh, not nearly as photogenic as the Royal Palace or National Museum, but far more memorable with its tower that now houses scores of excavated skulls. Among the visitors is a steady stream of "truth and reconciliation" style tours for ordinary Cambodians. This programme is one of the few successes of the stalled genocide trial which finally got underway in November 2007 after years of wrangling and obfustication, when Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch) the former chief warder, finally became the first to go on trial. Meantime organisations such as the Cambodia Genocide Group (CGG) have made themselves useful by making sure it is not just camera-toting foreign tourists who get to learn more about these "lost years".

    Many of Phnom Penh’s SUVs are driven by former Khmer Rouge cadres.

    Back at the museum business is brisk for the many moto drivers, freelancing tour guides and hawkers who benefit from the tourism. The standout figure among them is an mistakable middle aged man with a ghastly face covered in burn scars. He was evasive when I tried to elicit some of his background but was happy to let me photograph him for a dollar. He was there on each of the three occasions I visited, and doing well out of it.
    Phnom Penh itself is now a bustling city under construction, with perhaps the highest number of SUVs per capita of any city in the world. Signs of NGO assistance are everywhere, and you can get a sense of what a charming place it once was, with its Napoleonic-style street plan, tree-lined boulevards and French colonial mansions.
    But the first foreign journalists to enter the city in 1979, Yugoslavians, encountered a near ghost town. As part of their great agrarian experiment the Khmer Rouge emptied it of its two million residents immediately after the Lon Nol government fell in April 1975. And it was these city dwellers that suffered the most under Pol Pot, labelled "New People" and treated as second class citizens, with fewer privileges in the countryside villages to which they were evacuated.

    A sombre monument at the Killing Fields.

    Roles have reversed once more, as the city residents appear far more prosperous than some of the villages you encounter travelling between here and Siem Reap. And clearly tourism has benefited many, from those selling imported Thai handicrafts at the Russian Market, to the "happy pizza" cooks at the bohemian lakeside guesthouses.
    One omnipresent characteristic among them is the friendly Khmer smile, a similar tourism selling point to Thailand. And meeting these people, whether in the tourism industry or beyond, it's difficult to imagine just how these same people a generation before could be so brutal to one another.
    The Cambodia that tourists experience is changing rapidly, for better or worse. But they had to wait 20 years for a tourism industry. Quite unbelievably the UN continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate "government in exile" of Cambodia throughout the 1980s, and they lingered on for a further 18 years, re-arming and regrouping in the northwest provinces with complicit support from China, the US and Thailand.
    Only with Pol Pot's death in 1998 and mass defections did peace and stability return to the countryside and open the way for tourism. There's a stark contrast between the one million tourists who visited Cambodia in 2007, and the handful of European communist observers who were permitted entry in 1977.
    Evidently the country is much better off for it; tourism accounting for as much as a quarter of the country's GDP. With 50 per cent of the population under 21, and a poverty rate at 35 per cent (compared to a near 100 per cent in the early eighties), the country has never had it so good.
    But Pol Pot will certainly be turning in his grave seeing how dependent his Khmers are now on the tourist dollar. In a sense however, he left behind a tragic legacy that is empowering many. My moto driver did have calluses on his hands, they were possibly from riding a motorbike all day as he ferried me and countless others from S21 to the Killing Fields. Back then, that was a journey that no one survived.

    Bangkok Post

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Yangon, Myanmar
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    Re: Tragedy Tour Cambodia

    > It's a pity they haven't created a similar one in Siem Reap for all the Angkor tourists to see.

    is it insensitive of me if I never ever have or want to set foot in war cemeteries, bone museums, concentration camps and the like? I know what all people have to know from the history books. if someone wants to tell me a story, I will listen. but I don't want to see.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
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    Re: Tragedy Tour Cambodia

    Everything in life started somehow, somewhere, through our imagination.
    The more we focus and dwell on something, that will materialize someday.
    if we keep thinking of unhappy memories, bad thoughts, are we not giving it energy to materialize someday in the future.
    we are what we think, so the saying goes.
    so why not channel our thought energies on more positive things for the future?
    the past is dust, let's unlearn the past and imagine what we want to be for the future.
    Imagination is more important than knowledge. One person thinks may not do much but what if 10,000 people think of the same thought?

    The seed will one day become a tree.
    The seed-thought that we plant today, may someday become a reality-jungle.
    The terrorists brain-trained children from young to hate until they are numb enough to kill themselves with other people when they grow up.
    Please understand the power of your thought.

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