Cambodia. Sadness, Resilience.


Of all the places we’ve been on the trip, Cambodia is by far the most decimated by war, oppression, and base human cruelty.  From 1970 to 1975, the Cambodian civil war, together with spillover from the war in Vietnam, ravaged the country.  One million Cambodians died.  Cambodians killed Cambodians.  Hundreds of thousands, sometimes entire villages, were annihilated by American bombs, as U.S. fighter planes tried to root out Viet Cong hiding themselves among Cambodian farmers.  Unexploded ordinance, as well as land mines laid by Cambodian ground soldiers, still litter the country.  For years, scores of curious children have been killed or maimed when they tried to play with these souvenirs of war.

The problem persists today but has been slowly improved by the painstaking efforts of international organizations working to remove these deadly hazards.

In 1975, Cambodia’s civil war ended, with the Communist Khmer Rouge defeating the U.S. backed military government.  Rather than bringing peace, this is when country’s real horror began.  For nearly 5 years, the Khmer Rouge, led by the fanatical Pol Pot, implemented a plan to transform the country into a “utopia” of agrarian simplicity.  As described to us, Pot’s goals were to remake society, erase all class structure, and “restart at Year Zero.”

To achieve their communist vision, the Khmer Rouge drove the people out of Cambodia’s cities, towns, and villages.  They forced the population into work camps where men, women, and children over 6 spent 16 hours a day toiling in the rice fields.  They burnt down people’s homes, and blew up their cars and trucks, so they would have no reason or way to go back.  (We heard that much of the rice harvested during the Khmer Rouge regime was sold to Vietnam and China to line the pockets of party leaders, many of whom were corrupt from the start.)

The Khmer Rouge also destroyed all of the banks and cancelled all currency.  They forbade ownership of private property.  People were not even permitted to accumulate their own food; they ate communally and had only what the soldiers decided to give them. Children were torn away from their parents and put into child “care” centers to facilitate indoctrination efforts.  The Khmer Rogue turned boys and girls young as 11 and 12 into child soldiers.  They eliminated medical care and schooling for all but the Khmer Rouge leaders and their families.

To destroy the elite, the Khmer Rouge rooted out those who had been academics, teachers, doctors, and lawyers before the Revolution.  They tortured these “bourgeois” until they confessed their crimes against the State and then executed them en masse, in areas known as killing fields.  Some were simply buried alive.

The Khmer Rouge cut off all ties with the outside world, depriving the Cambodian people of any international aid and obscuring the full extent of their terror.  Of course the world was not entirely clueless.  But there was no will or international consensus to take any action.

In 1979, the increasingly empowered Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.  They deposed Pol Pot, drove the Khmer Rouge leadership into hiding, and installed a new government.  Many Cambodians describe this as a fake liberation, which simply replaced one authoritarian regime with another; this time one that would do Vietnam’s bidding to the detriment of the Cambodian people. But with the Khmer Rouge out of power at least the atrocity subsided. And the full extent of Cambodia’s devastation revealed itself to the world.

We now know that, during their 4 year reign, the Khmer Rouge caused more than 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people to die–from execution, starvation, disease, or forced labor.  We also know that, as part of its campaign of cultural cleansng (and to enrich themselves and the party), the Khmer Rouge vandalized and plundered numerous awe-inspiring works of the Angkor Kingdom, including magnificent temples that had been discovered by archaeologists only decades earlier.

The Angkor Kingdom constructed and maintained its beautiful cities in central Cambodia from the 11th to 16th century.  The sophistication of the architecture, urban planning, and infrastructure surpassed anything that existed in Europe at the time.  In the 1500s, under attack by the Thai king, the Angkor monarch moved the capital south to Phnom Penh. The central cities were abandoned and fell into ruin.  These marvels were found, 300 years later in the late 1800s, by a French naturalist looking for rare butterflies.



We’re in Phnom Penh now, after having spent 3 days exploring the damaged but still amazingly beautiful Angkor ruins.  It is amazing to walk around this bustling capital city, knowing that after the Khmer Rouge took power, they literally emptied the city, turning it into a ghost town.

As we wandered around a beautiful festival celebrating Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei (the Cambodian New Year) at Wat Phnom, it was almost impossible to believe that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge actually occurred–in our lifetime, to people our age.

But the reality of what occurred in this country was brought home by a visit the next day to S 21, a Phnom Penh school that Khmer Rouge converted into an interrogation and torture facility.  Only 7 people who the Khmer Rouge brought to the facility survived.  Two of them were young boys.

We also saw Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, at Choeung Ek, where an estimated 20,000 people, including little babies, were executed in less than 4 years.  (Only the older kids saw these places, which we wandered in silence, our knees weak with sadness, disgust, and even fear.)

The reality is evident not just at these sites.  It is evident when you look around a crowded city street and see so few older people; so many of our parents’ generation were killed.  You see it in the stunted development of the country’s infrastructure.  The Khmer Rouge saw no need for electricity, running water, or motorized transport for the people.  Progress has been made in providing these basic services in the ensuing years, especially among the country’s wealthier segments.  (I saw at least 7 Range Rovers, and one RR dealership as we drove from our hotel is S 21.)  But even now an amazingly low percentage of villages has electricity or clean running water; one estimate we heard was 20 percent.   The reality of what happened is also reflected in the dark sadness you sometimes glimpse in the eyes of people who witnessed and survived “Khmer Rogue time,” as one of our guides called it.

Perhaps what struck me most, however, given what this country has endured, is that sadness and dark are not all you see in Cambodia.  You also see remarkable displays of resilience and the strength of the human spirit.

The friendly smiles we received from villagers preparing for the New Year celebration.  Some of these people no doubt remember when the Americans dropped so many bombs on the country and then withdrew all support as the Khmer Rouge finally overtook Phnom Penh.  But they shared their balloons with Phoebe and Coco, and even replaced the one Phoebe popped on a Buddha.

The industriousness of the people working so hard to make a better life for their children.  Like our guide for Angkor Wat, Phally, who is three years younger than Brendan and me.  He spent the first 8 years of his life running with his family from the Khmer Rouge. They lived in a series of refuge camps. His older brother died of starvation when he was 3.  Phally learned later that the Khmer Rouge had plans to execute all of the adults in the camp where he and his parents were living.  They survived only because the Vietnamese invaded just two weeks before that planned killing.  Today, Phally lives in a village near Siem Reap with his wife and two sons; his parents and 7 siblings born after Khmer Rouge time live nearby. He speaks nearly perfect English and makes a good living as a guide.  Phally taught us so much.


The struggle for freedoms we take for granted.  In the decades since the Khmer Rouge lost power, the country has been ruled by one party.  The same prime minister, Hun Sen, has maintained power for more than 3 decades.  He lives like a king with immense wealth and a 1000-man security force.  There is an Opposition Party and elections are held every 5 years.  But many dismiss these elections as rigged and only for show.  In 2013, though, the year of the last election, people came out for the opposition party in unprecedented numbers.  That evening the news began to report that the ruling party had lost several provinces. Suddenly, the nation’s televisions and radios went blank.  When the broadcast came back on a few minutes later, the news had changed:  the reporters said that Hun Sen had been victorious again.

In the following days, protesters took to the streets.  Many were arrested and put in jail.  The Opposition leader, Sam Raimsy, was also threatened with prison and Hun Sen the threatened to outlaw the party if Raimsy refused to resign (which he has now done).  Still, the Opposition remains and people are optimistic for a victory in 2018.

Many Cambodians are calling on the UN and the US to do more to help ensure a free and fair vote.  I wonder whether I would have the courage and strength to struggle for political rights if I lived under these circumstances, where so recently mere survival of my family was in jeopardy.

I feel an urge–and, at the same time, at an utter loss–to do something, anything to respond to what we saw and learned about in Cambodia.  Give money to an NGO?  Petition our American government to push for election monitoring in 2018?  To be honest, those easy options all feel pretty empty.  I do take to heart the words inscribed on the  UNESCO memorial at S 21. “Never will we forget….”

And I remind myself that new atrocities are happening in our world right now. Imagine if we could go back and do something to stop the Khmer Rouge.  How could we not?  And if that is so obvious, I have to ask, what can we do, what are we doing, to stop the atrocities happening now? Maybe each of us asking ourselves that question–one I myself spent little or time on until recently–is the best way we can honor the promise to the Cambodians to never forget.


3 thoughts on “Cambodia. Sadness, Resilience.

  1. There is a very good book on the Khmer Rouge Revolution called “When the War was Over” by Elizabeth Becker, who was a Washington Post reporter in Cambodia in 1973. The country has an terrible sadness about it as you describe, a sense of shame that these unthinkable crimes were committed by Cambodians upon Cambodians. It is getting better but the vestiges of the horror are all around, from the maimed people to the startling lack of many people over the age of sixty. The fact that the people are as friendly as they are is a testimony to the human spirit.

    Can’t wait to see you upon your return to the States!



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