The darker side of travel…How my first trip to Cambodia started to change my world view.
Of all the life-changing experiences people warned me about when I started out traveling, nothing could prepare me for coming face to face with Cambodia’s brutal past. At 18 I had planned my first real adventure, a jaunt to SE Asia, around a trip to Angkor Wat, knowing little else about the country, except for a vague idea of civil war, mostly learnt from a Dead Kennedys’ song. After brushing up on my history from the back pages of Lonely Planet, I decided to delve a little deeper, and what I found continues to haunt me. Even today, the horrors of the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields define the trip far more than the architectural wonder that I set out to see…
For those of you who don’t know, the Khmer Rouge, a totalitarian communist party, tried to create a completely agrarian society in Cambodia, removing all institutions and slaughtering the educated, the ethnic minorities and anyone else who got in their way, even ethnically purging within their own ranks. They wanted to create ‘Year Zero’, wiping out all human progress and getting back to basics. Sound familiar?
Estimates as to the number of deaths in this bloody period vary between a third and a fifth of the population, as some calculations take into account those who died of starvation or other indirectly linked causes. Displacement was another factor, as the majority of the population was forced to leave their homes in the cities and move ‘back’ to live off the land, often dying on the journey before the backbreaking work even began.
I learnt about this whilst wondering the eerie corridors of a state school come concentration camp. Primitive red-brick dividing walls had been erected in classrooms , where blood stains dotting the floor brought the plaques describing their torture techniques to life. You could almost smell the decaying bodies in the Phnom Penh heat. A big sign in the playground badly translated the prison rules for tourists with almost comical statements like ‘don’t be fool for you are chap who dare to thwart the revolution’ and more sobering warnings like ‘when getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.’ The corridors, which should have displayed children’s finger paintings instead showed mugshots of everyone who had ‘passed through’ these walls. I can’t put into words the feeling of standing in a room, knowing that hundreds, or even thousands of people have died in that very spot. It’s like the opposite of the feeling of serenity that you sense in a holy place. And it was about to get much worse.
The Killing Fields was where the regime would take less important undesirables, when they didn’t need to waste energy on electrocution and such luxuries. Mass graves were dug for those too old or weak to work, and a large tree was used as a beating post for children, to save money on bullets. Fragments of clothes and bones lay scattered around the mass graves , while a family worked in a rice field on the other side of the barbed wire fence. The ‘main attraction’ was the glass tower erected to display all of the skulls that were recovered from the graves, where Western tourists would pose for a photo with a suitably grim expression . Holiday in Cambodia indeed.
What really struck me about this whole business wasn’t just the obvious brutality and plain insanity of the regime, but the fact that was highlighted in many of the museums that I visited, that the world stood by and let this happen. In school we learn about the Holocaust in what seems like brutal detail in order to ensure, or so we are told, that it never happens again. And yet thirty years down the line, Pol Pot was out-Hitlering Hitler and the world sat back and watched. Not only did they sit back and let it happen, but the West actually facilitated and even prolonged the chaos, continuing to support the perpetrators of one of histories most efficient genocides, even after their defeat by the Vietnamese in 1978.
The Khmer Rouge’s recruiting success is largely attributed to the illegal bombing of the neutral country by US presidents Kissinger and Nixon, which killed around half a million Cambodian peasants. Sound familiar? John Pilger spells it out: ‘the bombing was a catalyst for the rise of a small sectarian group, […] whose combination of Maoism and medievalism had no popular base.’ Their primitive ideology would have even given ISIS a run for their money, preferring to see their subjects die of common ailments rather than rely on modern medicine.
So it may come as a surprise (or it may not…) to hear that our dear own Maggie Thatcher publicly supported the regime, and privately funded it because she calculated its tactical use against Vietnam. In 1983, when Pol Pot had officially been ousted she actually sent the SAS to help train the Khmer rouge in the art of laying landmines, a legacy that still terrorises a country where 1 in every 250 people can thank Maggie for relieving them of a limb. She also campaigned for her old mate Pol to retain his seat in the UN. She might as well have invited Hitler over for tea and sympathy after Auschwitz got shut down.
Although the Khmer Rouge and ISIS are fundamentally and ideologically different, the way these tragedies have played out are frighteningly similar. I don’t profess to understand Middle Eastern politics, but I think that even the so-called experts are struggling to grasp what is going on at the moment. What is clear however, is that everyone has got a whole lot more interested since Russia joined in the fun. The real horror as far as the West is concerned, is not the fact that in the last four years half of the population of Syria has been killed, displaced or fled the country. No, the real threat is that Russia, like Vietnam, could become a big power in the region. It’s the cold war all over again, but this time the battle ground is bigger and far more treacherous.
So the world sits back and watches. Children as young as eight are being held in detention centres like Tuol Sleng and Auschwitz, both by ISIS and by the Syrian government.Except that instead of being loaded into trains heading for the gas chambers, people are loading themselves and their children into questionable vessels knowing that this may be the last thing they do. And the world still sits back and watches.
Syria can’t expect to be ‘liberated’ like Cambodia by a neighbouring power, because even if the West would allow it there are too many factions fighting for control, and we can’t seem to decide which is the lesser of evils. Whoever it may be, it definitely is not us. Almost every time I visit a new country , I learn about another chapter of colonial terror that has been swept under the carpet, and when introducing myself abroad, I feel more and more reluctant to call myself British.
These days with all the information available at our fingertips it is easy to draw parallels and see patterns, and organisations like Wikileaks mean that we are even more aware of the duplicitous and hypocritical actions taken by our governments. So why are we no closer to stopping them? Sometimes I envy the naive little girl who, having nothing but the GCSE curriculum to guide her, believed that Hitler had been defeated and so all was right in the world. This generation will not be granted the bliss of ignorance, as we are more aware than ever of the suffering that we are ignoring.