Year Zero: A Country Haunted by a Dark Past

Please note: This blog post deals with upsetting themes, including human trafficking and genocide.  

“You can get package tours that take you to the Killing Fields in the morning and a shooting range in the afternoon. In poor taste if you ask me.”

Sebastian, an Australian who worked as a political consultant in the Cambodian parliament, took a drag on his cigarette. It was my last evening in Phnom Penh. I was sitting with a group of expats I’d only just met, drinking happy-hour cocktails on a cafe terrace overlooking the Independence Monument.

I agreed with Sebastian. It was inconceivable to me that anybody would want to enjoy a round of recreational shooting and take a guided walk around the mass graves of Choeung Ek in the space of a single day. It was just as inconceivable that such package tours would be permitted to exist, especially considering that the genocide took place as recently as the 1970s. As much as anything else, the fact that they do exist is probably a sad reflection on the foreign tourists who visit Cambodia. The market exists because there is a demand for it.

I’d seen the tours advertised on the chassis of some tuk tuks. The tuk tuk drivers of Phnom Penh, striving to stay competitive in an ever-evolving city, had proven to be acutely attuned to the wants of tourists, whether they were appealing to the combat fantasies of Xbox-playing adults with cushy desk jobs or the dope cravings of gap-year backpackers “finding themselves” in the East. A driver offered me hashish one evening as I was about to enter the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, evidently concluding from my appearance that I belonged to the latter demographic — the shaggy-haired narco-tourists.

Sebastian had been regaling us all with his insights into Cambodian life, speaking with that jaded tone that veteran expats like to affect when in the company of other foreigners. Dusk had given way to night and the Independence Monument, built to mark the end of French colonial rule in 1953, was illuminated with soft yellow lights. The boulevard below us buzzed with cars, motorcycles, and tuk tuks as a waitress deposited another round of lime coriander martinis on our table.

View from Foreign Correspondents Club, Phnom Penh
The view from the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. During the final days of the Khmer Rouge journalists filed reports from the FCC.

Sebastian had a magnetic personality. He was affable, sharp-witted, and a natural raconteur. He had a laddish sense of humour but he delivered it with the eloquence of a defence attorney and a touch of self-deprecation. In a group he was a carouser and a jester, but one-on-one he was reflective, intelligent, well-spoken, and sincere. If I remember correctly, he had come to Cambodia under the United Nations Development Programme. His German girlfriend had recently moved to Phnom Penh to join him.

Somehow we had come to be discussing Cambodia’s tourism industry, which had been experiencing a resurgence in recent years. The shooting ranges, where customers can fire fully automatic weapons and bazookas and hurl grenades, were a hit with thrill-seekers who wanted something different to the usual fixtures of the Southeast Asian tourist circuit. Cambodia had an edgy side that appealed to a certain kind of traveller, and the shooting ranges appeared to be cashing in on it. But there was a dark side too. Sex tourists were fuelling the country’s human trafficking problem — the streets of Phnom Penh were riddled with brothels disguised as karaoke bars and massage parlours even though prostitution was technically illegal.

The sex trade had taken over whole sections of the city. One of the expats at our table, an NGO worker, told us how she had been taking a tuk tuk through one of the red-light districts one evening when she witnessed an argument between two men escalate to the point that a gun was brandished. The red-light districts were, of course, frequented by the kind of people you’d expect: degenerate white men, usually middle-aged, with no scruples about buying sex from trafficked women and children. But white men were not the only customers.

“Khmer men are no better,” Sebastian said. “I avoid going out with my male Khmer colleagues outside office hours — they’re all incurable whoremongers.”

Once I had got over Sebastian’s use of the word “whoremonger” I reflected on what he was saying. He claimed that infidelity among men is rampant in the Khmer community (the Khmers being the largest ethnic group in Cambodia, accounting for over 95 percent of the population). It is common for married Khmer men to have mistresses and to frequent brothels, he said. Khmer women, meanwhile, are traditionally expected to keep themselves pure and to tolerate their philandering menfolk without complaint. An old Cambodian proverb states that “men are gold, women are cloth”, the implication being that a man’s sins can easily be washed away but a woman remains forever sullied by hers. In such a patriarchal society women are forced to suppress their emotions. But suppressed emotions inevitably break free sooner or later, sometimes violently. In the last few decades Cambodia has witnessed hundreds of acid attacks and a large percentage of these have been attributed to jealous wives and mistresses taking revenge on their love rivals.

Acid attacks; human trafficking; genocide. These topics were much too harrowing for a happy-hour conversation. But any discussion about modern Cambodia must eventually encompass these issues because they are, in a way, all part of a brutal legacy that continues to haunt Cambodian society to this day. Throughout much of the 20th Century the Cambodian people endured degradation and violence at the hands of both foreign and domestic powers. But the most extreme violence was wrought by the Cambodians upon themselves when the deranged atavistic vision of the Khmer Rouge culminated in mass murder and the wholesale loss of human dignity.

That morning I had visited Choeung Ek, the site of the most infamous of the Khmer Rouge death camps known collectively as the Killing Fields. It was the 18th of April, 2014, 39 years almost to the day since the streets of Phnom Penh fell deathly silent. But that morning I was woken up by a disorientating racket. Cambodian pop music blared through loudspeakers, followed by the amplified chanting of a monk.  A funeral was taking place in the street below.

Once I had got dressed and had my coffee I headed to the Jars of Clay Cafe, an establishment run by women from troubled backgrounds, including survivors of trafficking. Outside the cafe a prearranged motorcycle taxi was waiting for me. Choeung Ek was a half-hour drive away from the city. I rode pillion down a semi-paved road that led into the countryside. It was perhaps the same route that was used to transport prisoners — alleged traitors to the Khmer Rouge regime — from the S-21 interrogation centre to the killing field at Choeung Ek. A recently installed strip of tarmac ran down the middle of the road, wide enough for two lanes of traffic. Either side of the tarmac the road was nothing but raw potholed earth. The dirt lanes were too bumpy to endure for long stretches but tuk tuks, motos, and other light vehicles used them to overtake the lumbering trucks, mounting the tarmac strip via strategically placed bricks when they had got ahead.

The traffic crawled along, churning up clouds of dust. The dust and the humidity stiffened my hair and formed a layer of grime on the exposed parts of my skin. Grit flew into my eyes and made them water, but I neither dared shut them nor shield them with my hands for fear of falling off the moto. My driver was a madman, weaving through the densely packed traffic at high speed. But he sensed my discomfort and cheerily handed me a pair of aviators to keep the dust out of my eyes.

The road was straight and passed over flat terrain. The land was mostly uncultivated apart from the odd rice paddy. Solitary sugar palms were scattered sparsely across the landscape, each one a tall narrow trunk ending in an explosion of feathery fronds. Here and there lean cows chewed on the roadside foliage. It was on roads like this that the forced migration from Phnom Penh to rural communes took place in April 1975. The Khmer Rouge convinced the residents of the capital that they were being temporarily evacuated ahead of an American bombing raid. Many of them never returned.

The Khmer Rouge was a Maoist movement that came to power in Cambodia after an eight-year civil war. Its leader, Pol Pot, wished to reboot Cambodian society and take the country back to the glory days of the Angkor Empire when the Khmer people ruled a large chunk of Southeast Asia. To this end it implemented a number of disastrous social engineering policies designed to eliminate class distinctions and purge the country of foreign influences. The financial system was abolished, schools and factories were closed down, Western medicine was abandoned, private property was confiscated, families were split up, and religion was outlawed. Urban residents were evicted from their homes at gunpoint and the entire population was made to work in agricultural communes. Phnom Penh, a once thriving cosmopolitan city known as the “Pearl of Asia”, became a ghost town almost overnight, along with the provincial cities. 1975 was declared by the new regime to be Year Zero and all history before that date was deemed irrelevant.

The four years in which the Khmer Rouge was in power were marked by famine, disease, and incomprehensible savagery. Intellectuals, or anyone who looked a little bookish, were brutally murdered, as were religious followers, in particular Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims. A hideous new infrastructure emerged — a nationwide network of interrogation centres, death camps, and mass burial grounds, complete with administrative offices and a power supply. Under this reign of terror all forms of individualism were systematically crushed. Those not killed by the regime were robbed of their material possessions and, worse than that, their identity — family identity, cultural identity, professional identity, religious identity. They were reduced to mere machines building from scratch a new and terrifying civilization in the depths of the Cambodian jungle.

As I approached Choeung Ek the first thing I noticed was the top of the memorial stupa rising above the surrounding trees and buildings. As I got closer the monument’s grim contents became visible via acrylic glass panels — around 9,000 human skulls stacked neatly, some bearing the marks of a violent death. The stupa stood in the middle of a former orchard. Trees cast dappled shadows over the surface of the earth, which was pockmarked with a series of unnatural depressions. These depressions were arranged in tight rows, giving a wavy appearance to the ground. It took me a while to understand that I was looking at dozens of burial pits, now covered with grass.

A network of well-worn paths brought me closer to the pits. A number of them had been kept more or less as they were found, but many had been emptied, including one in which 166 decapitated bodies were discovered. Wooden canopies had been erected over these pits and visitors had left multicoloured wristbands and low-denomination banknotes as tributes to the dead. Sticks of incense smouldered in lotus-shaped holders nearby. According to the audio guide, the annual monsoon rains continued to bring human remains to the surface. A bilingual sign entreated visitors to be wary of stepping on any of these bones.

Mass grave at Choeung Ek
Tributes left at a mass grave at Choeung Ek.

Other signs indicated where buildings once stood. There had been an executioners’ office, a detention centre, a chemical storage room, and a tool shed. All built to streamline the business of mass murder. New detainees would be trucked into the camp at regular intervals; their names would be checked against a hit-list drawn up by senior Khmer Rouge figures; they would be incarcerated for 24 hours; and finally they would be bludgeoned to death with axes, shovels, machetes, or other makeshift weapons. DDT, an insecticide, was sprinkled over the corpses to cover up the stench of rotting flesh and to finish off anyone who somehow survived the execution.

The audio guide brought my attention to two specific trees in the former orchard. One, known as the Magic Tree, once held a loudspeaker which blared revolutionary songs to cover up the screams of those being executed. The audio-guide played a sample clip from one of these songs overlaid with the sound of a diesel generator: the sounds that victims would have heard while poised over an open grave waiting for the end to come. The nightmarish recording caught me off guard, somehow bringing to life the horror of the place in a more visceral way than the bones I’d seen or the eyewitness testimonies I’d heard. But the other tree, known as the Killing Tree, had an even more disturbing purpose. It was against the trunk of this tree that the heads of infants were dashed. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered whole families at a time, afraid that the children of its victims would seek revenge if allowed to grow up. They had a slogan: “To dig up the grass, one must remove even the roots”.

The madness that gripped Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Democratic Kampuchea as it was then known, only came to an end when Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1979. The Khmer Rouge retreated to the Thai border, leaving behind a network of some 20,000 mass graves. In the years that followed, the true scale of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge became apparent. More than a million people had died (possibly as many as 3 million) in the death camps or as a result of starvation or disease. A quarter of the country’s entire population had been wiped out. But the Western nations, particularly the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, France, and Germany, continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge government as legitimate long after it had been deposed. The group retained its seat at the United Nations until 1993. The thought of a Vietnam-controlled government in Cambodia was anathema to the leaders of these nations, so much so that they considered the Khmer Rouge’s bloodthirsty regime a lesser evil.

Catholic church at Bokor Mountain
This abandoned Catholic church was once used as cover by Khmer Rouge soldiers in a standoff with Vietnamese forces. The Vietnamese troops had occupied the nearby Black Palace, a former residence of King Sihanouk. The church is located in a now abandoned French colonial hill station atop Bokor Mountain.

To this day, the violence of the Khmer Rouge years has left an indelible mark on the collective psyche of the Cambodian people. Survivors struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and there is evidence to suggest that generations born after the events of 1975-79 have inherited symptoms of trauma from their parents. These symptoms include social withdrawal, domestic violence, addictive behaviour, anxiety, hostility, and so on. Parents who cope with trauma by becoming aloof pass on their aloofness to their kids; parents who become aggressive pass on their aggression; parents who become hyper-vigilant and mistrustful pass on those attributes; and so on. The Cambodian people have shown extraordinary resilience in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge killings, but these psychological wounds will take a long time to heal.

The mass killings in Cambodia brought a new word into the English language: “autogenocide”. Although the violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge is widely referred to simply as genocide, the word does not technically fit in this case. Unlike other mass killings in history, such as the extermination of Jews by the Third Reich, Armenians by the Ottoman government, Iraqi Kurds by Iraqi Arabs, and Tutsis by Hutus, the Khmer Rouge killings were predominantly carried out by Khmers against other Khmers. The word “autogenocide”, defined as the mass killing of a group by members of the same group, was used to describe this unprecedented event.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking that the horror of the Killing Fields was merely a domestic tragedy. It was an international tragedy for which the international community is at least partly culpable. The Khmer Rouge may have been a home-grown movement but it is unlikely that it would have come to rule Cambodia, at least not with such dangerous fanaticism, without the actions of certain foreign governments. The Chinese government, for instance, equipped the group with weapons during the civil war and continued to provide it with political and military support throughout its tyrannical reign. But before that, the United States helped create the conditions for a revolution in Cambodia by flouting the country’s neutrality during the Vietnam War. In 1965 President Johnson ordered covert air strikes against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who had set up bases in eastern Cambodia. These incursions were scaled up under the Nixon administration when American B-52s were ordered to carpet-bomb the Cambodian countryside over an increasingly wide area. Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped more explosives on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan throughout the entire Second World War (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The illegal bombings killed thousands of Cambodian civilians, radicalised the rural population, and pushed the country towards civil war.

So, despite how it looks on the surface, the Cambodian genocide didn’t happen in isolation. It was in many ways the product of rivalries between larger, wealthier states. And the trail of blood can be traced all the way back to the corridors of power on the other side of the world.

One of the US bombing campaigns was called Operation Freedom Deal, presumably in a bid to reduce the cognitive dissonance inherent in a democratic government violating the sovereignty of another country. And therein lies the problem. Those of us in the “free world” tend to forget or ignore the suffering caused by the ideological wars that our elected representatives wage in far-flung lands. We boast about our civil liberties and zealously guard them but turn a blind eye when our leaders set about depriving foreign populations of peace and basic human dignity. And when monsters like the Khmer Rouge and (more recently) ISIS emerge from the rubble we are shocked and appalled. We cannot fathom how human beings can be so cruel — we fail to connect the dots. We chalk it up to illiteracy and a general lack of civilisation. We demonise them and denounce their actions. We frantically attempt to protect ourselves from the fallout, tightening our borders, ramping up military spending, and ghettoising refugees. And we somehow maintain the fragile delusion that we are the torchbearers of progress and enlightenment warding off the darkness.

Nixon eventually resigned as president over a domestic scandal. But he was never held accountable for his war crimes in Indochina. Today the leaders of the world’s major military powers continue to pursue reckless and short-sighted foreign policies in poorer countries, seemingly with impunity. NATO meddling in the Middle East over the last few decades has further destabilised what was already a volatile region. A protracted US drone warfare campaign continues to terrorise civilians in Pakistan and other countries. Syria’s cities have been devastated by Russian airstrikes. And a major humanitarian crisis is brewing in Yemen as its neighbourhoods crumble under American and British bombs launched from Saudi-piloted aircraft. If the Killing Fields teach us anything, it is that violence always begets more violence. We ignore this fact at our peril.

After visiting Cheoung Ek, most tourists go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school which the Khmer Rouge used to torture its victims. The museum was close to where I was staying, but I had seen enough of death for one day. Instead, I found myself wandering along Mao Tse Toung Boulevard until I came across a pagoda. The entrance to the temple was uninviting, flanked by piles of putrid flyblown garbage — rotting food mixed with the shattered remains of discarded spirit houses, incense holders, and other religious paraphernalia. But the courtyards within its walls were peaceful and undisturbed by tourists. Outside the main building, a group of monks in saffron robes — two adults and two young boys — were lounging on concrete garden furniture in the shade of a large tree.  I observed them from a distance, aware that I was a stranger and an interloper. But they paid me no attention as they peered lazily into smartphone screens, looking up occasionally to exchange fragments of conversation. It was a surreal scene — the coming together of ancient and modern, old and young as if the clock had never been set back to Year Zero. The youngest boy was sent off to take out some garbage. He looked so carefree as he walked off between the lofty buildings and out of sight. Carefree but aware of the established hierarchy and his place within it.

Monk at Tuol Tom Poung Pagoda
A Monk at Tuol Tom Poung Pagoda, Phnom Penh.
Monks at Tuol Tom Poung Pagoda, Phnom Penh.
Monks conversing in the garden of Tuol Tom Poung Pagoda, Phnom Penh.

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7 thoughts on “Year Zero: A Country Haunted by a Dark Past

  1. What a compelling account of your trip. You flawlessly weave the history in with your personal experiences. Interesting how trauma gets passed down through generations. Who knows how long it will take for them to get over it. If they ever do. That photo of the abandoned Catholic church is particularly eerie. This was really excellent. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Words fail me in responding to your powerful post. It’s all too personal for me. I recall my own visits to Cambodia while living in Thailand between 2005-2008, and the gut-wrenching physical symptoms I experienced each time. I had read extensively about the role the US Government (my country!) had played in sowing social chaos across SE Asia during and after the American war on Vietnam and it literally made me sick. The US bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos (a country over which American pilots were instructed to empty any remaining bombs before returning to airbases in Thailand!) killed thousands of innocents and left behind destruction and a legacy of distrust among the affected tribal groups. Instead of learning from past mistakes, historical records show that the US govt went on to destabilize multiple governments leading to more civil wars in Central and South America as well as the Middle East. Thanks for refusing to let us forget these tragic events. My hope is that more Westerners (especially Americans) will choose to educate themselves about past foreign policy blunders and will pressure their governments to carefully consider the ramifications of such actions in the future. I highly recommend your blog to other readers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know that about Laos. Crazy! I certainly hope that Western governments learn from past mistakes, but I’m not optimistic. A similar thing is happening now in Yemen where the UK (my country) and the US are supplying the bombs that the Saudi air force is dropping indiscriminately on Yemeni cities. Thanks for recommending my blog. Your site also has great content and I’m looking forward to reading more.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic reporting. I like your style. I went once to Cambodia, in 2012. I loved the landscape, the rich red of the soil and the lush green on the vegetation, the deep blue skies. You’ve evidently learnt alot from your trip there. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

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