Tag Archives: phnom penh

Rotary World Peace Fellows Field Study in Cambodia

[NOTE:  This is a very long post, as I try to make sense of all the things we learnt during this field study.  It may also contain some inaccuracies in parts, particularly around dates, and also no doubt there are important omissions.  I was overwhelmed with so much new information and often so caught up in the very personal and emotional stories of the people we met that I forgot to take notes!]

Before starting this part of our course, I knew a little about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields.  However, after a lecture from Emma Leslie from the Cambodian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and ten days in and around Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, I have a new depth of understanding of the very important context to these dark few years in Cambodian history.

The three year Khmer Rouge period was a massive eruption of violence against the structural violence that had been oppressing the lower classes for so long.  It came to a head in the pressure cooker environment created by the cold war dynamics around and influencing Cambodia.  China, Russia and the US had a significant impact on the conditions leading to the Khmer Rouge genocide.  Australia and Britain also contributed to the death and injury by training the Khmer Rouge in the use of land mines (currently one of the main causes of death and injury in the country).

Cambodia, like many South East Asian countries, began as a culture based in animism.  Hinduism then arrived with the Brahman system, along with its hierarchical caste system.  This form of structural violence forms an important part of understanding what led to the Khmer Rouge period in the country.

In around the 13th Century, King Jayavarman VII introduced Buddhism and decided everyone should be equal and that he didn’t need to be a God King any more.  The upper castes became very angry about this and there were religious wars between Hindus and Buddhists.  In the 14-17th Centuries, conflict in the area moved from religious to ethnic wars.  In the 14th and 15th centuries, Siam (now Thailand) conquered and sacked Angkor a number of times, eventually leading the Khmers to abandon their capital.  In the 17th-19th centuries, the Khmer Kingdom lost a great deal of territory to Siam and also the Vietnamese.

The Khmer Empire used to stretch right across Thailand to India and also into Vietnam.  The Champa Empire (predominantly Muslim) also existed in between Cambodia and Vietnam.  The Cham fought with both Cambodia and Vietnam and eventually the empire more or less disappeared completely.  Emma explained that the disappearance of the Champa Empire is also important in the Khmer mindset, as there is a strong acknowledgement that a people can simply cease to exist.  This prospect of potentially ceasing to exist seems like a real threat to Cambodians, especially given its demographics: it’s a reasonably large country with a population of only 13-16 million.  In comparison, its neighbouring countries include Thailand (with a population of 64 million) and Vietnam (with a population of 70 million).

In 1864 France had colonized southern Vietnam and also forced the Khmer King to sign a treaty making Cambodia a French protectorate.  In 1884 it became a French colony.  The Khmer people were mostly happy to be protected by the French (and still believe today that having foreigners around keeps them safe and under the world’s eyes).  Cambodia never really had a moment of liberation from colonization: the King quietly signed an agreement with the French in 1953.

In 1955 King Sihanouk abdicated the throne to form a political party, which subsequently won all seats in parliament.  In the next election in 1958 he won 99% of the popular vote, but under his increasingly authoritarian rule, all opponents were persecuted.  The Cambodian communists (who Sihanouk labeled the “Khmer Rouges”) began to form an underground resistance movement in the countryside.

In 1963, America’s involvement intensified in the wars of Vietnam and Laos.  While Sihanouk was of the non-aligned movement, staying neutral in the international context, he became increasingly worried about the surrounding wars engulfing Cambodia, so he cut off American Aid and diplomatic relations with the United States.

In the late 1960s, Vietnamese Communists installed sanctuaries for their troops along the Cambodian side of the border.  Sihanouk, worried about the increasing Vietnamese presence, resumed diplomatic relations with America.  However, under pressure from North Vietnam, he allowed them to pass supply lines through Cambodia.  When America discovered this, they indiscriminately carpet bombed Cambodia’s eastern side (the statistics tell a horrifying story – the Americans dropped more bombs on Cambodia during this time than all the bombs dropped in WWII in total).

In 1970, Sihanouk left the country for “health” reasons, leaving Lon Nol, the Prime Minister, in charge.  Lon Nol led a coup (supported by America) and Sihanouk was deposed.  Sihanouk then formed an alliance with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, dedicated to defeating the Lon Nol government.

In the 1970s the Vietnamese moved further into Cambodia to avoid a battle with the American forces. By then, Sihanouk’s Khmer Rouge communist forces occupied half of Cambodia’s territory.  They aimed to push out the Vietnamese.  Lon Nol kept failing in attempts to do so.

In 1972 Lon Nol named himself President, prime minister, defense minister, and marshal of the armed forces.  He eliminated all opposition.

In mid-1973 the Americans withdrew from Cambodia, leaving Lon Nol to face the Khmer Rouge.  The Khmer Rouge continued to take over almost all of Cambodia, except Phnom Penh and a few other towns still controlled by Lon Nol’s army.  Lon Nol fled to the United States.

Rural Cambodians supported the Khmer Rouge who told them that they would fight Americans and capitalism.   In the wake of the historical decline of the Khmer empire, the Khmer Rouge also gained support by telling the people of Cambodia that they would rebuild the country and take back the lost land.

On 17 April 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, and the city erupted into a huge celebration.  Soon afterwards the Khmer Rouge told the residents that they should flee because America was going to bomb the city. Almost all the residents of Phnom Penh fled, and the city was like a ghost town within a few days.  However, there was no plan to bomb Phnom Penh.  In fact, clearing the city was the first step in the Khmer Rouge plan for an agrarian revolution.

(As an aside, not only did America not bomb Phnom Penh, but from 1975 until 1991, it supported the fact that Cambodia was represented by the Khmer Rouge in the UN, despite the fact that everyone knew about the atrocities being committed in that country.  It appears that the Khmer Rouge was the lesser of two evils than Vietnam, America’s main concern at the time.)

The names of the Khmer Rouge leaders were kept secret for years after they took over the country.  Power was in the hands of a nameless “organization”.  Nobody knew that Pol Pot (real name Saloth Sar) was the leader of the Khmer Rouge.  (Even Saloth Sar’s brother and sister didn’t know.  They were both in the US during this period.  When they later found out that Pol Pot was their brother, they came back to Cambodia and worked tirelessly to repent the bad family karma.)  Saloth Sar was one of the Khmer elite who had studied in France.  He learnt about the French Revolution – peasants bringing down a king by violence – and was inspired by this.   The newly invented Pol Pot saw himself as the personification of Stalin and Mao.  He even had an artist paint a portrait of him that made him look like both of those men:

After taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge’s plan of ultra-communist social engineering began in force.  Their strategy included breaking down the family unit – they separate families to ensure loyalty was only to the regime.  They abolished money, and prohibited all private property, Western medicine, education, and religious practice.  Ironically, given that Pol Pot himself was an educated elite, the Khmer Rouge’s plan required the extermination of all educated elites. Pol Pot called back all Cambodians overseas, particularly students studying abroad, telling them that they were needed to rebuild Cambodia.  However, when they arrived back in the country they were collected from the airport and immediately taken to the killing fields where they were murdered.

We visited one of the killing fields.  There is a large memorial stupa that contains the bones of many of the people who were killed there.

Inside the stupa

The area around the stupa is a mass grave where thousands of people were killed and buried.  As we walked around the area you could see bones and pieces of clothing still sticking out of the ground.  Although the area was excavated and the bones collected and sorted, every rainy season more bones and clothes reveal themselves.  The dead don’t want to be forgotten.

The mass graves of one of the killing fields

Anyone who was identified as educated or elite was killed, including anyone who spoke other languages, wore glasses, was a teacher or any other kind of educated professional.  In total, about 2,500,000 people were killed (one-third of the population of Cambodia).  Many were taken to prisons such as Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison where they were tortured in order to extract detailed confessions of a variety of ‘offences’.

Looking out the gates of Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum

Tuol Sleng prison used to be a school

In one of the torture rooms

Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng

The Khmer Rouge were very thorough in recording details of the torture and the confessions.  When we visited Tuol Sleng, we met one of the seven people who survived being imprisoned in Tuol Sleng. We asked him how he had managed to survive.  He said that because he was able to fix typewriters and machinery, the Khmer Rouge had found him useful and spared him death.

Those who survived were forced to perform physical labour under extreme conditions.  All 13-19 year old youth (boys and girls) were used for big infrastructure projects (e.g. building dams: the youth had to dig 1 cubic metre of dirt a day each, in return for 2 bowls of rice porridge).  The only problem is that since all the engineers and construction professionals had been killed, the projects were not properly planned and most of the work done on infrastructure during these three years went to waste.  Over 1,000,000 million people also died of starvation.  Although the majority of the Cambodian population was engaged in growing rice, people died from starvation because all the rice was being exported to China, in return for weapons (theoretically to assist the Khmer Rouge fight Vietnam).

In 1979 the Vietnamese army captured Phnom Penh and Pol Pot and his government fled to the Thai border.  Vietnam installed a puppet government and changed the name of the country to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.  Hun Sen (former leader of the Khmer Rouge, Eastern Division) becomes the new Prime Minister, and calls his party the Cambodia Peoples Party.

Bizarrely, the Khmer Rouge still represented Cambodia in the UN during this time, even though Vietnam was in power, because nobody wanted Vietnam involved.  The cold war dynamics come into play again here.  In effect, Cambodia was a pawn in the cold war between China and Russia.  China was backing the Khmer Rouge (a similar form of communism) and Russia was backing Vietnam.  The US began funding the Khmer Rouge to fight Vietnam.  The Australian and the British trained them in landmine use.

In 1989 Vietnam withdrew.  In 1990 the Supreme National Council was formed, which united the pro-Vietnamese government of Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge.  In 1991 the Paris Agreement was signed, purportedly to stop all fighting and to create a new political environment.  UN troops arrive to implement the agreement.  A coalition government is formed between the four parties, however the agreement quickly unravels and political violence escalates.  In 1993 the Royalists win the election, despite political violence and intimidation by Hun Sen’s ex-Communist Peoples Party.  Hun Sen refuses to accept the result and is appointed as a joint prime minister.  (While to Westerners, the concept of joint prime ministers seems bizarre, Cambodian people point out that in Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap river flows two ways, there is no problem with having two prime ministers!  Also, by this time, the Cambodian people were exhausted and didn’t have the energy to stand up to corruption or for their rights.)

Hun Sen subsequently became very active as a co-prime minister and stablised the country, including negotiating amnesty for Khmer Rouge who joined the new military.  In the 1998 election, Hun Sen wins a landslide victory, and has been in power ever since.

In 1998 Bill Clinton announced that he would put Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on trial in an international court against war crimes.  Many countries opposed this, largely because such a trial would reveal the extent to which they had supported the Khmer Rouge (especially the US, Australia, China, UK).  Two days after this announcement, a US journalist visited Pol Pot to do an exclusive interview.  He brought with him Pol Pot’s heart medication as requested.  The next day, Pol Pot was dead, and was speedily cremated by the Thai.  There are rumors of a conspiracy: that Pol Pot was killed to avoid the Khmer Rouge trials having to go ahead.

In 1997 Cambodia requested United Nations assistance in organizing a court to try the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge.  In early 2006 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were formally established.  The government of Cambodia insisted that, for the sake of the Cambodian people, the trial must be held in Cambodia using Cambodian staff and judges together with foreign personnel. Cambodia invited international participation due to the weakness of the Cambodian legal system and the international nature of the crimes, and to help in meeting international standards of justice.

The ECCC is only hearing the trial of five of the main surviving senior Khmer Rouge officials.  Tens of thousands of mid- and low-level Khmer Rouge officers have been granted amnesty by defecting to the government.  Many of the best-known perpetrators were either killed or fled the country between 1979 and 1984 (mostly to Thai refugee camps, from which they were resettled to Canada, France and Australia – apparently there is a large community of them living in Perth, Australia).  Others simply reverted back to everyday life in Cambodia.  One man we spoke with told the story of a woman whose husband was arrested and killed by the Khmer Rouge.  In 1979, the Khmer Rouge officer who arrested her husband returned to her village to live and work as a tuk tuk driver.  He has driven past her house a few times a day for the past thirty years.  This must be a common situation for many older Cambodians.  We kept asking people how the victims of the Khmer Rouge could live side by side with the perpetrators of so much violence against them and their families.  The typical response was that Cambodian people are Buddhist, and so they believe that those perpetrators will get their bad karma sooner or later.

A more complicated explanation was provided to us by the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, who demonstrated that the distinction between perpetrator and victim was not at all clear: many of the perpetrators were victims of fear and abuse by those higher in the chain of command, and had little choice other than to comply with orders, or risk torture and death to them and their families.  He contrasted the situation with Germany, in which you could fairly easily classify people as either Nazis or Jews.  In Cambodia, there was no such clear distinction.  He explained that many people had to cheat, lie, steal and point the finger at others simply in order to survive.  He said in such desperate times, a survival instinct kicks in, and sometimes saving one life (your own or others) can only happen by destroying another.  He told a story about how, years after he was tortured by the Khmer Rouge, he came face to face with his torturer.  He approached him and asked “do you remember me?” but the man did not remember him at all.  Later, he also came across a man who had, at great risk to himself, gone out of his way to provide him with food when he was starving.  That man did not remember him either.  He was struck by the fact that neither of the two people who had had such an impact on him personally, remembered him at all.

Just two weeks before we visited the ECCC, the Court handed down its judgment in the first case, against the man known as Duch (the head of S-21 prison).  He cooperated and confessed fully to his involvement in the Khmer Rouge atrocities.  He was given a sentence of 30 years imprisonment (which many believe to be manifestly inadequate).  His lawyers have filed an appeal against the sentence.  The second case, against the other four senior leaders, is still being investigated.

After visiting the ECCC, we met with Theary Seng, the author of “Daughter of the Killing Fields” and the founding director of CIVICUS.  In her opinion, one of the strengths of the ECCC was that it involved the victims.  Victims could register a civil action to be heard in conjunction with the criminal proceedings.  These people then had a personal interest in following the progress of the Court hearings.  However, she pointed out that for many people, the ECCC process was very theoretical and disconnected from the public who don’t have faith in the justice system and are not educated.  Although the judgment in the Duch case was widely disseminated, most Cambodians cannot read, and even those who can are unlikely to have access to the internet, or be able to read through the 400 pages of the judgment.  Accordingly, she was skeptical about the ability of the court to produce reconciliation, justice or peace, despite the fact that the peoples’ expectations had been raised by publicity about the court.  She was, however, optimistic that the court might be useful in jump-starting the legal system in Cambodia.

Theary Seng also pointed out that there were 9 million people now in the Cambodian population who were born after the Khmer Rouge.  In 2010, 70% of the population of Cambodia is under 30, and so did not experience the direct impact of the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

CIVICUS is engaged in a country-wide public education campaign, conducted by community forums and radio broadcasts, to teach people about their history and their rights, and to empower them to spread this learning to others in their community.  She calls this work the “informal truth and reconciliation commission”.

We visited a number of organizations working in the area of Human Rights, including the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, the Khmer Institute for Democracy and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  These organizations, particularly the local Cambodian ones, are fighting an uphill battle.  The local staff are at significant personal risk, and a number had recently been imprisoned for criticizing the government (the crime of “disinformation” is frequently used to silence any political opposition).  People have been placed under pressure to stop any political activity and there have even been some mysterious deaths.  However, in recent times there has been less political intimidation, and certain kinds of human rights violations are decreasing.  The current major concern expressed by all organizations was the issue of land-grabbing.  As all records of ownership were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, there has been a painstaking process implemented by which people can demonstrate ownership of their land.  However, those with money and power can bypass these procedures and also the government has been granting large areas of land to international companies in return for financial support for development.  The judiciary and conflict resolution mechanisms in the country are weak and corrupt, so there is generally no recourse for people whose rights have been violated.

Development in the country has been phenomenal in the last 15 years.  There are sealed roads throughout the country, an enormous amount of infrastructure, and in Siem Reap particularly, a multitude of luxury hotels.  In both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap there are areas of obvious wealth – large houses and expensive cars.  However, as Theary Seng pointed out, in all the places where there is obvious wealth, most Cambodians don’t feel comfortable.

Much of the development is funded by China and Korea, and in return they share in the spoils of tourism and trade.  Even Angkor Wat is now effectively ‘owned’ by foreigners.  The current government sold the rights to the site to a foreign investor (some people told us it was Vietnamese, others said Korean).  Importantly though, none of the fees taken from visitors to enter the site go to the Cambodian people.

The NGOs in Cambodia, working in the areas of human rights advocacy, are being blamed by the government for inciting unrest in the provinces.  The government has recently introduced draft legislation to further curtail the activities of NGOs.  The legislation includes prohibitions on NGOs being engaged in political activity, public disorder or instability, but there is no clear definition of what those terms cover.  Also, there is a new criminal code due next year that extends the already problematic crime of “disinformation”, including making it an offence to criticize a court decision.

Recently in Cambodia, people have been prosecuted and jailed for the crime of disinformation for publishing:

  • an article on corruption in Cambodia
  • a statement that the Mekong River dolphins were at risk of extinction
  • an opinion that the new lighting system at Angkor Wat may damage it

While Cambodia seems quite stable and developed on the surface, the conflict has scarred the country very deeply.  There is also the major difficulty that the current government is a product of that conflict.  Major issues are now simmering very close to the calm surface.

We also visited NGOs working to stop violence against women, those promoting labour rights, and those working on environmental, health and other development issues.  These organizations are doing wonderful work and gave us some hope and positive perspectives.  Our meetings with local villagers also gave us all an enduring love for Cambodian people.  They seemed to be consistently resilient, welcoming and optimistic about the future.

It seems that Cambodia is at a cross roads and we all hope that the chosen path will be one filled with positive developments and not one back towards violent conflict.  There are many good people working towards a positive future for all Cambodians, and we wish them strength and motivation to continue their good work.


Cambodia – Phnom Penh

On the day we arrived in Phnom Penh we visited the Royal Palace (where the royal family was kept under house arrest during the Khmer Rouge period).

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Palace statues

We also visited the Russian Markets, where the local stall holders tried excruciatingly hard to get us to buy something, anything, everything…!

Market bargaining is exhausting!

You can buy the most extraordinary things at the Cambodian markets.

Breast soap!

We travelled around Phnom Penh in the local tuk tuks, often squeezing six people into a single one.  We were even involved in a tuk tuk traffic accident, when our tuk tuk and another tuk tuk tried to pass by one another in a narrow street and the side wheels collided.  I think the other tuk tuk was worse off, but our driver didn’t stop, and just drove madly on!

Squishy tuk tuk ride

Another squishy tuk tuk ride!

One evening Vicky, Joanne and I sat on a balcony down by the river and watched the world go by.

Joanne and Vicky

Interesting traffic on the main street!

We decided to go to see the shadow puppet show that had been recommended by an expat living in Phnom Penh.  We showed a TukTuk driver the name of the arts centre where it was being held and he nodded and drove off.  After driving around for a while he admitted that he had no idea where it was.  We stopped and he was looking at his tourist map, when a man on a bicycle stopped to help.  The man on the bicycle didn’t speak English, but mimed a puppet show for us and we laughed and said yes, that was where we wanted to go.  He gave the tuktuk driver some instructions and off we went again.

Trying to figure out where the puppet show was

After a little while, the tuktuk driver pulled up at a roadside food stall and asked the stall holder if he could borrow her phone.  He then called the arts centre (our little booklet had a phone number) and they explained how to get there.

Calling for directions

Off we went again, and eventually we arrived at the arts centre a few minutes before the show was to start.  We looked at the display of the leather shadow puppets and Joanne started to laugh.  It turns out that she had imagined that the leather shadow puppets were something like a cross between these things:

Joanne's shadow puppet

Leather finger puppets

Here’s what they actually looked like:

Shadow puppets and dancers