Learning From The Cambodian Genocide | Phnom Penh | SE Asia #015

The 1970s. Voyager I showed us the first glimpses of Jupiter’s rings. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. Video tapes and VHS were first being released. People were watching Jaws and listening to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Silly Love Songs, and Bohemian Rhapsody. But in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge were committing genocide and most of the world had no idea.

Between 1975 and 1979, a group called the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, came into power and evacuated all the major cities, forcing most of the population to labour on farms in the name of Communism, and anyone they thought was threatening the revolution were put in prison or killed. 

It doesn’t seem real, more like something out of a Young Adult dystopian novel. A dictatorship calling simply themselves ‘The Organization’ with a faceless leader that is rarely seen in public, trying to restore the world to ‘Year 0’? It’s way too farfetched to be real. 

That disbelief continued as we visited the school-turned-prison/torture place, Security Prison 21, or simply S-21. No doubt, it was absolutely horrifying, but as Adam mentioned, he didn’t have the same knowledge and understanding of it as he did when visiting Dachau in Germany. As Canadians, we learned about that in school, and even had grandparents who fought in the Second World War. Not to mention, we’ve been exposed to mainstream movies, TV shows, and novels all about the awful things that happened in Europe. We can’t name a single movie or book based on the Cambodian genocide.

But that disconnect changed after visiting, Choeung Ek, just one of hundreds of Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge murdered and buried two million people during their time in power, about one quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. 

On the surface, the area was beautiful with palm trees around and a serene lake. When we first arrived, we did notice a few little pieces of garbage or rags littered about. But as we started the audio tour we realized these weren’t garbage or rags, but bones, teeth, and old clothes that were being slowly uncovered as the ground shifted and moved over time and with the help of rain. After all, these graves are only forty years old. 

And that’s when it became very real. Being in a place like that, you couldn’t help but empathize, mourn, feel a little guilty for not knowing more, even with a bunch of other tourists quietly listening to their audioguides. The last stop of the tour in the Killing Fields was at a stupa where we paid our respects to hundreds of the bones that had been excavated were being held, including hundreds of skulls. And looking into these, we were distinctly aware that they weren’t theatre props or weren’t in a museum for a scientific purpose. These were people with stories and feelings and families and now they were here. 

So what at first seemed absolutely farfetched became the most tangible thing. And even though it is hard to imagine something like this happening where we’re from, we did start to see some parallels between the Khmer Rouge and other situations closer to us, like the leader manipulating a population of young, poor, disenfranchised men to help him come into power and ordering the execution of people who crossed him. It was a sad state of affairs in the world, back then and now.

As the audioguide said at the end of the tour, “Genocide happened before this, and unfortunately it will happen again. Learn from us.” 


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