The scars of a country brutally bled of almost two million people are still embedded in every aspect of Cambodia today. The roots of the problem reach back to the late 1950s, when Cambodia became a battlefield of the Vietnam Civil War between the communist in the North and the pro-western government of the South (backed by the USA). Caught in the midst of the war of two much larger powers, by 1975 Cambodia had lost an estimated 273,000 lives, many of them civilians.
When Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a military coup in 1970, the Khmer Rouge came to power. Driven by extreme communist ideals, the Khmer Rouge began to remodel society based on Maoist China, promising peace and self-sufficiency to a war torn country. Under Pol Pot – who changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea – the people were forced to work as labourers in collective farms; toiling the land in order to increase agricultural produce in order to create a classless, rural economy. Pol Pot aimed to create a society free of all social institutions such as religion, hospitals, banks and schools by killing anyone who worked in these sectors.
All academics and people working in professional fields, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and scientists, were senselessly murdered – all intellectuals were seen as a threat. Even those who wore glasses were killed for looking ‘intellectual’. City-dwellers were herded out of their homes and into the countryside, where adults and children alike were forced into brutal hard labour camps and factories. Temples were destroyed; anything relating to popular culture, like music and radio sets, were banned; money, modern technology, civil and human rights were abolished.
In the harsh conditions of the labour camps – where people were given minimal subsistence, slept in crowded communal areas and worked for impossibly long hours – many died of disease, starvation and overwork. In the torture prison of S-21, life was even more brutal. Once a high school, the site was converted into a secret prison where Pol Pot and his men carried out interrogation, torture and execution.
In 1978, Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, initiating 12 years of civil war. Powers of the West (America and the UK) continued to fuel the Khmer Rouge in opposition to the Communist Vietnam party. The West ensured that the brutal Khmer Rouge maintained their seat in the United Nations, as it was in the West’s favour to maintain this allegiance during the Cold War, uniting against the communist powers of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. This civil war stalled Cambodia’s resurrection for a further decade, but in 1989, Vietnam’s forces finally withdrew; the country’s name was restored and the peace building process could finally begin.
Visiting Cambodia today, it is apparent that the deep wounds coursing through the country are far from healed. The horrifying extent of mass genocide can be felt in a sobering visit to the S-21 torture centre (now Tuol Sleng Museum), where you can learn about the atrocities committed at the hands of a brutal regime. Photos of each alleged ‘traitor’ are hung on the walls; fear and supressed indignation resonate from the eyes of mothers holding their babies, beaten and crushed men, and scared, fragile children. Similarly, the harrowing Killing Fields Memorial, with its vast expanse of shallow mass graves, is a haunting expos of the ruthless brutalities carried out under the regime. Stories of babies being beaten against trees and heads slowly hacked off with the strong leaves of cactus-like plants, act as a sobering reminder of the sheer scale of the brutality: almost 2 million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime.
When I visited this deeply troubled country and began learning about its devastating past, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘why did no one do anything to help?’ And more specifically, ‘why did the “democratic” West continue to fund and back the murderous Khmer Rouge?’
The memories of an all too painful past are still present in the minds of Cambodians today. It was their grandparents, friends and distant relatives that were senselessly murdered; their lands that were stripped and destroyed; their country that was ruined. The treacherous regime of cruel brutality and paranoid genocide also left the country in economic ruin. Walking along dusty streets, you see naked, malnourished children playing by themselves in the dirt; stray and aggressive dogs run wild, and limbless victims of land mines lay immobile on the roadside. Speaking to the citizens in broken English, you sense a deeply rooted resentment towards Vietnam; a desperation for the chance to earn money from tourists and an indignant look of resentment as you enquire about the stories that are very real and still raw to them.
A country wrought with the memory of its tragic and not so distant past, the absolute poverty experienced by the majority of people in Cambodia today is harrowing. One of the world’s poorest nations, in Siem Reap, one third of the people live below the poverty line on a dismal 43 cent a day. Many people do not have access to health care or fresh, clean water. Whilst primary education is technically free, there are both official and unofficial costs (uniforms, transport to school, exam fees) that restrain children from attending. Human trafficking is rife, with children as young as five years old often being sold into the sex trafficking industry by desperate, ill or disabled parents who are unable to provide for them any longer. The stark and harrowing reality of a country left debilitated by the Khmer Rouge is distressing, and it is startling that many people in the West are blissfully unaware of Cambodia’s forgotten war.
Now a liberal democracy, Cambodia is undergoing a rebuilding effort. Progress remains slow, but with a growing tourism industry and political stability, Cambodia is a rising phoenix, resurrecting itself from the ashes of a torturous and destitute past.
Cover Photo by Balint Földesi
Author: Laura Bell is a travel writer and editor based in London with a passion for travel, food, and wellness. You can find her at www.lifebylaura.co.uk, where she blogs about her latest travel adventures and kitchen creations.