To say Phnom Penh traffic is crazed and its drivers are suicidal would be an understatement of enormous proportions. In this city of two and a half million people, most of them are on scooters, in tuk-tuks, atop cargo-ladened trucks, or driving shiny new cars. To transit from Point A to Point B is to make critical decisions, to understand Cambodian logic and philosophy, to be willing to map your Route C with courage, and a trust in Buddha. All of which cannot guarantee safe passage.
I have seen the shortest route between two points to be the one in the opposite lanes against opposing traffic, or completing a u-turn in front of oncoming trucks, or maneuvering at 90 degree angles to reach an intersection, or squeezing into any spot large enough to fit your scooter. Everyone seems to know the rules but me. I do accept that stop signs are ignored and four way stops are meant for whoever is biggest going first, all others to follow. Pedestrians have a rule about crossing streets: do it most anywhere but cross at a steady pace and never show fear. Drivers, polite and hornless, just aim around the foot traffic. Amazingly, I saw no dented cars, no accidents, no sound of frantic brakes. Indeed, these Cambodians should become driving instructors around the world.
Today was a day of shattering brutality and stunning courage. On 17 April 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmers Rouges entered Phnom Penh triumphant “liberators.” The celebratory scene belied the horror to follow. In 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of rule, Cambodia was devastated on an unimaginable level. Indiscriminate murder by a man named Saloth Sâr who snuck in under the radar, changed his name like underwear and eventually was called Pol Pot. His rule of thumb: it was better to go too far than not far enough.
Close to 2 million people of Cambodia’s seven million died of either starvation or overwork – and masses were brutally executed. Cambodian King Sihanouk, a bit of a self-serving nut, was right about one thing: had the US the sense to force the French hand on colonialism in Southeast Asia, the people would have won independence and not given a serious thought to Communism. As it was, the situation was perfect for rebellion, war, and continued historic distrust for one another in the region. Sihanouk, using violence and murder to win his interests, irrational and irritable if he did not get his way, met his match with the Communists who could not win power legally so did it thru violence. Both sides fought fire with fire by playing off the Vietnamese, Chinese, Russians, and U.S.A.
The reality of the jungle was you were Communist or you were dead. Villages joined the Viet Minh or were razed. Khmers Rouges’ practice was either you are one of us or ‘them’ and they slaughtered the them. King Sihanouk had a string of strange bedfellows depending on who would support his restoration to the throne, including the Khmer Rouge. All sides were out for their own interests and to prevent a pro-American Cambodia. Soldiers were trained and armed by Việt Nam, Russia, U.S.A. or China.
It was feudal villages versus tanks – city dwellers versus a savage curtailment of opposition.
Worse still, Americans in the first half of the 1970s began B-52 bombings for Viet Cong and Khmers Rouges. But it was the villagers caught up in the blast. The US dropped more bombs on Indochina than used by all participants in all of WWII; bombing of Cambodia was three times the total tonage dropped on Japan, atom bombs included. This on a country the size of Missouri. Millions of villagers fled to cities, up to 2 million to Phnom Penh (all of which were later considered untrustworthy and traitors by the Communist leaders).
It became a war between maniacs – Pol Pot versus Lon Nol the King’s replacement, Khmers versus Vietnamese, with everyone in between as cannon fodder. The colored line of sand which Nol drew around Phnom Penh for protection did not save the city. Nol was paid one million dollars to leave – he flew to Hawaii before the city fell, leaving 2 1/2 million people to face their fates. By April Kissinger threw in the towel, flew a choice few out and left the survivors, those who had not starved to death as yet, thus ending the US adventure in Cambodia. (Saigon fell just two weeks later.)
Our stops today will trace the horror visited on Phnom Penh after Pol Pot’s arrival.
Pol Pot immediately relocated the entire population of the city to the countryside, and thinking it was temporary, they took few possessions. With no support along the way, over 20,000 died. Politicians, officers and officials were shot and buried along the road and fields to the airport, a site now known as The Killing Fields. We pay a sobering visit to the museum, its excavated holes that were mass graves, bone fragments along our path, and the monument to the thousands killed here.
Ignorance and extreme youth, being trained to destroy all things Western, told it represented absolute evil, became a recipe for excess. An example is Toul Sleng Prison, our next stop. Once a school but converted into one of many security prisons, the inmates of the infamous S-21 witnessed nonstop torture. Not accepting any responsibility for failures of policy, Pol Pot placed blame on spies, CIA and Vietnamese influence. Purges cleared out one leadership to be replaced by another. Failure was seen as sabotage and meant death. Terrorism bred terror. Friendship with Pol Pot did not save anyone. Like Stalin, like Hitler, Pol Pot cut off his nose in spite of his face, destroying the very leaders and support needed to maintain his government and win the war.
Unlike any other Communist state, Khmer Rouge Cambodia was a total slave state with no markets, no wages, no freedoms, no choices of where to live or how to work, no foraging for food, no choice of what to wear, no colors but black, no choosing who to marry or when to have children. These policies from a man who was so secretive that even his family was unaware he was the leader. The masses believed a mysterious Angkar was the government. It was not until 27 Sept 1977 that Pol announced that Angkar was indeed the Communist party, a speech that lasted five hours.
Our hotel location is along the Mekong River front with a lively fish market just outside. The commercial activity, lively traffic, street venders, and joggers along the quay belie what was in store for Phnom Penh by 1977. Vietnamese and Cambodians were at each other’s throats. China and US supported Cambodia while Russia supported Việt Nam. Lao sided with Việt Nam. Thailand, under new leadership and not a friend of Cambodia, eventually agreed limited support. Vietnamese were training former Khmer rebels to overthrow Pol Pot. By New Years 1979 the Vietnamese forces easily entered Cambodia and approached Phnom Penh. The Chinese evacuated the King and on 7 January, Pol Pot left the city, including the sick, to fend for itself. Many of his own ministers were not even told he had left. Others were expendable. Typically, Pol Pot never told anyone what was going on or how to prepare. One minister did take the time to order Duch at S-21 to kill all the prisoners, which he did.
However, in spite of killing the living evidence, history is well documented as the Khmer Rouge kept good records and they fled so quickly, archives were abandoned. One woman left behind perfectly described the scene, “Band of cretins!”
I have a respite from the mayhem when I visit the National Museum and its Angkor artifacts. Most pieces have been removed from temple sites “for safe keeping.” There is a continued effort to retrieve pieces that left the country during and after the war. The black and white photographs remind me of the beautiful temples I have already visited.
After a wonderful lunch at the NGO Friends, we are taken to the Royal Palace to tour the golden temples and grounds of the resident King, Sihanouk’s eldest son. The ornate yellow temples, throne hall, pavilions, and private residence of the King are of typical Khmer architecture decorated with Buddhist symbols and gods. Within the complex are the ornate stupas of past Kings, including that of Sihanouk, whom the people hold in high honor. Also in the complex is the Silver Pagoda with its emerald Buddha and 5329 silver floor tiles. The temple is filled with priceless treasures.
Knowing the King would rather be elsewhere enjoying his previous career as a classical dancer, I view the high walls and iron gates more as his prison than a sumptuous palace. The King remains a token image, his cooperation expected by the existing government led by Hun Sen a former Khmer Rouge leader who fled to Việt Nam to plan his military coup.
Pol Pot’s efforts to temper his revolution, allowing people to forage for food, to marry, to use money, to eat as a family, it was too little too late. Considering Pol’s buddies, Kim il Sung and Ceausescu, his failure to communicate comes as no surprise. Even Chinese leaders warned Pol that fewer people “needed to be killed.”
Perhaps no one knew that at the same time Pol opened Angkor Wat to tourism, he also ordered the purge of tens of thousands described as ‘Vietnamese minds in Khmer bodies.’ Purges continued against those cadres, soldiers, and villagers thought to be too moderate against the Vietnamese. If he couldn’t trust them, smash them. And a paranoid leader did not trust anyone. An estimated 100,000 to quarter million were bludgeoned to death. Pol announced ‘one against 30,’ meaning each Khmer is to kill 30 Vietnamese – more than enough to kill 50 million, the entire population of Việt Nam at that time. Perhaps that is why I read the headline that two of Pol’s state leaders are going on trial today for genocide.
Was Pol the lesser of evils? One would not think so. However, the royals were refused political asylum in the US, so Sihanouk returned to China where once again he was forced to align with Pol Pot, whom he hated. While Pol hid out by the Thai border, the Chinese army was pounding the Vietnamese border in the north. Russians remained silent. At first, the Vietnamese were a welcome change yet by October over a half million people voted with their feet and crossed the border onto Thailand. The UN continued to back Pol. Russia invaded Afghanistan resulting in renewed efforts by China and the US to back Khmer Rouge.
Pol, with China’s blessings, formed a coalition government with Sihanouk as head of state in 1982, dissolved his Communist party, abolished the black peasant garb, and recruited young people based on their skills and education. Offenders were reeducate rather than beaten to death. If Pol shocked his nation with his brutality during his first reign, he must have bowled them over with this new approach.
Pol, like all despots, never accepted responsibility for the 1.5+ million deaths under his rule, nor apologized for his harsh policies. Nor did Sihanouk, whose huge statue dominates a roundabout in the middle of Phnom Penh.
Conflict continued into 1989. Neither US nor China rushed to end fighting as the longer it went on, the weaker the Vietnamese and the larger drain on Russia. The US encouraged China to support Pol Pot while hiding its own support to this “abomination.” Our Secretary of State was instrumental in persuading others to vote allowing Khmer Rouge to keep its UN seat. Sihanouk was furious “all you Americans had to do was to let Pol Pot die,” in 1979, yet American support brought him back to kill and kill. But the US aim was to make Việt Nam bleed and weaken Russia. Khmers Rouges were unacceptable but an opportunity.
Then the Cold War ended. In 1989 most Viet troops withdrew from Cambodia, the Berlin Wall fell, relations between all concerned began to thaw. US saw no further reason to support Khmer Rouge. The US pulled away from the coalition party and began sending humanitarian aid to Phnom Penh. Pol lost support from all sides, forcing his hand to not only let the peace talks progress but to win village support. An agreement was reached in 1991 and shortly after “the King has returned” was heard as Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh.
The King immediately joined forces with Hun Sen, the pro-Vietnamese former Khmer Rouge officer. Both denounced their old pal Pol. Pol met his match in ruthlessness in Hun Sen. Neither disarmed. What resulted were massacres of Vietnamese settlers and a struggle for power while a helpless UN looked on. The King left in disgust in 1993. Following elections, his party won a majority but Sen would not honor the results. So Sihanouk suggested a coalition shared between Sen and Sihanouk’s eldest son.
The military unsuccessfully tried to dislodge Pol’s troops from the Thai border region. Pol spent his time with his family, living comfortably in his mountain lair and dreaming of a return to power. He remained ruthless to enemies, influential to followers. Deserters joined forces with the royals against Sen. An agreement with moderate Khmers Rouges was reached but the Prince made the mistake of announcing that Pol Pot and his immediate cronies would be exiled. Things did not go as planned.
The final blow came when Pol ordered the murder of his second in command and his 13 family members. He tried to flee with his family and hundreds of thousands of dollars but was arrested along the Thai border. Sen staged a military coup executing many of the opposition and the Prince fled to exile in 1997. Again! The UN was fed up.
Pol was denounced by the new leadership of Khmer Rouge, but amid great respect. His commanders were executed. Pol, while under house arrest, died in his sleep in 1998, unrepentant.
This is the Cambodia of today. Lively, industrious, a country of survivors. Our guide Try is kind, thoughtful and humorous as he tells of the horror of the Khmer Rouge. He should know as he lived through it. His mother, an exile from Communist China, was a wise and crafty woman who managed to survive, as did all eight of her children. They, as did countless others, did what they had to do to survive.
The Hun Sen government is as corrupt as all the others have been and the US continues to send aid, most of which goes into the politicians’ pockets. Genocide trials for former Khmer Rouge leaders adds a smoke screen for the crimes of the present leaders. Hun Sen says he will continue in office until age 74 – twelve years in the future. The destruction of Cambodia continues.
Tomorrow, I sail to Việt Nam. I’ve been told the driving is worse. I shall see.