Tuesday, 7 August 2007

What came out of my research for a weekend trip to Cambodia

Being newly "appointed" (i.e. arrowed) as the recreation coordinator of the company, my first task is to plan a weekend trip to Cambodia. I was supposed to surf the internet for cheap airfares and tourist hot spots to put together a DIY package, but I ended up being captivated by the Khmer Rouge and Tuol Sleng literatures.

I believe most would have heard something about the genocide during the reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. The genocide took place between 1975-1979 and it was estimated that 1.2 to 2 million people were killed, out of the 7 million population of Democratic Kampuchea back then. It was an "exercise" to rid those whom the leader thought as "unfit" and I cannot help but wonder what he would do with a country eventually left with no one. The bitter years were finally put to an end when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and removed Pol Pot from power.

Pol Pot and many of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were young men who once had received scholarships to study in France (2 of them even had doctrate degree from the French University). As to what went wrong in those intelligent minds no one could tell for sure. I see it as a form of insecurity, fear of being betrayed and the desire to consolidate power which led them to such insanity.

What Pol Pot and team wanted to achieve was a "self sufficient" country through agriculture, somewhat inspired by Chairman Mao's ambitions. Foreign influence was isolated, schools and factories were closed down, banking and finance abolished, religions were outlawed and properties were confiscated, all these to create a "classless" society. People were relocated in masses and families were torned apart, most were made farmers and had to perform forced labour. As a result, many died from hardship, dieseases and starvation. Not to mention that western medicines were also prohibited and people had to seek tradition remedies, which we all know could probably cause more harm than cure.

During that time, the Khmer Rouge had a slogan which read as such: "To spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss". Hence the massacre begun. People were executed for suspected alliance with foreign intelligence, for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, and I'm sure auditors won't be spared if those existed in Cambodia at that time) and intellectuals, homosexuals and even for as simple as wearing spectacles.

One of the most infamous tourist site in Cambodia has to be the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. It was once a high school but was used as a concentration camp (Security Prison 21, aka S-21) during the Khmer Rouge time. This was the place where 17,000 people were imprisoned and only 7 survived (needless to say the rest were executed or died). While in S-21, prisoners were tortured to confess crimes which they were innocent of. Those methods of tortures include electric shocks, hot iron treatment, and I also heard witness account of pouring water and cement into the nose of victims. Instant death was not what the Khmer Rouge wanted as confessions were what they were after. It is not hard to imagine that on top of physical abuse, deprivation and unhygienic conditions must have been of the greatest ordeal for those in captive to survive.

Tuol Sleng was discovered by a photographer in 1979 as he followed the stench of rotting corpse at the gates of the school. It was said that it took over 2 years for the stench to completely go away. I thought long and hard as to what pictures of Tuol Sleng I should post on this blog and finally decided that it will not go beyond some photos of the building and cells. I do not think I should put you through the grotesque sights of blood stained floors, gadgets used for tortures, pictures of victims, skulls, etc as I personally felt extremely painful to have to look at those.

While in S-21, prisoners were photographed and their biographical data were meticulously collected. On hindsight, this appeared to be least that the Khmer Rouge could have done for the victims, keeping a name and a photo of each so that they can be remembered eternally. There were both men and women in those photographs that I saw and many were just children.

If you ask me, what is the point of lamenting history, I say, let this be a lesson for us to remember for a long long time. It is incredible what man who possesses great power can do and even you and I are capable of small unkind acts from time to time. Let not this evil in us manifest into greater danger and pain for the world. No one should ever die this way!

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