Horror and Hope in Cambodia

Horror and Hope in Cambodia
Credit: Jay Lin

What you need to know

Jay Lin shares a travelogue of revulsion and hope in Kingdom of Cambodia.

While I was in Phnom Penh, an Amnesty International Coordinator recommended that I visit the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields, sites where the Khmer Rouge committed unimaginable atrocities akin to the gulags of Russia or the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. During the Khmer Rouge reign between 1975-79, it is estimated that up to 3 million people — 25 percent of the population — died. 20,000 of them perished in the most gruesome ways within the S21 facility and the surrounding Killing Fields.

The experience walking through S21 was harrowing enough, and I unequivocally said no to the tuk tuk driver who eagerly asked me if I wanted to visit of the Killing Fields after I walked out of S21 in a thoroughly depressed state. At S21, I purchased an audio self-guided tour of the former school compound converted into three floors of torture chambers, holding cells and execution beds. Absolutely horrific. The floor tiles beneath the “killing” beds in the interrogation rooms were stained blood-dark, even some 40 years later. Each splotch shudder prompted shuddering contemplation of what ruthless cruelties were repeatedly enacted.

Each interrogation room had a large framed picture of a victim chained to that specific bed. Each victim had suffered brutal torture before succumbing to death: bludgeoned heads, sliced up corpses, mutilated and shocked with electricity beyond recognition. The bigger rooms had thousands of photographs of the deceased who were brought into S21 for interrogation and then killed. The first batch held a placard with their names and date of registration to S21; there were so many coming into S21 later that the guards simply identified these prisoners using numbers clipped to their shirts. There were pictures of men, women, couples, families, children, foreigners … Some were sitting upright, some had already been disfigured, mutilated and killed with placards carelessly thrown on top of them before the photos were taken. There were thousands of other photos destroyed by the staff of S21 before they fled and the Khmer Rouge came crumbling down. It is a gut-wrenching experience to witness humans inflicting such nihilistic destruction onto others.

Credit: Jay Lin
The S21 facility, also known as Tuol Sleng, was just one of many extermination centers used by the Khmer Rouge

As hard as it was to see, I recommend this experience to all.

After this tour, I can better understand the implications that this war and this genocide have had on the Cambodian people. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped upwards of 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the amount it had dropped during WWII by almost a million tons. Then the Khmer Rouge came to power and upwards of three million people died. The country was thoroughly traumatized after the war; essentially all intellectuals and trained professionals were obliterated, and many people fled their country to be refugees in the U.S., Australia, Thailand, and elsewhere.

Fast forward to 2017. The current government is ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the Prime Minister is Hun Sen, who has served as in the role since 1985 (when he was 32) and is still holding on to power. In fact, the Cambodian Supreme Court recently issued a ruling shutting down the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) entirely. Thirteen prominent CNRP leaders were jailed. All party members were removed from their elected positions and these seats were reallocated to members of the CPP.

Some theorize that this extreme measure by the CPP was due to fear of losing its grip on power in the upcoming 2018 elections. From the various Cambodians and foreigners residing in Cambodia with whom I spoke, I heard of worrying trends of wealth aggregating to very few elites, of Chinese money dominating many aspects of the Cambodian economy, and of how the Cambodian Government kowtows to China in return for its support. I can only pray that the path towards greater prosperity, liberty and happiness for the people of Cambodia won’t be hampered by these worrisome economic and geopolitical realities.

I do see many positive signs, though. I met many filmmakers, both local and foreign, collaborating to make films and crowdfunding from the global online community as well as from the Khmer diaspora. I met artists – Cambodian, Cambodian-American and foreign – heading to Cambodia to contribute to its burgeoning cultural, educational and artistic movements, such as a dance troupe combining modern with traditional Cambodian dance styles, or those creating massive installation arts, or establishing English-learning schools for rural kids. I see the youth of this country wanting to connect with the rest of the world. I see the French Institute, Goethe Institute and countless other governmental and non-governmental agencies coming in to provide the financial resources and venues for these artists and organizations to amplify their voice and showcase their artworks.

Cambodia, with a young population of 16 million, is booming, but even the capital Phnom Penh manages to retain a laid-back feel. Scaffolding surrounds many new commercial and residential buildings, ready to be unveiled and form part of the rapidly changing urban landscape. I am sure the next time I return, modernity will have embraced even more of the country, but I sincerely hope that the city and its people will retain their easy-going charm.

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TNL Editor: David Green