KAMPOT - I took these photos of the Brateak Krola Lake (or “secret lake”) north of Kep, Cambodia and of the “old bridge” in Kampot. Beautiful, right? They also happen to be evidence of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime from the 1970s. Soldiers forced Cambodians to build the bridge and to dig the lake with hand tools. We will never know how many people died in the process. But today, they are simply part of the landscape. To me, they embody how the genocide functions in Cambodian society today.
For those who don’t know (like me, circa 2014), or those don’t remember, here’s the synopsis: The Khmer Rouge were the armed wing of the Communist Party in Cambodia. They (led by Pol Pot) officially controlled the country from 1975-1979 with the goal of returning it to an agrarian utopia by starting over at “Year Zero.” Meaning, they forcibly emptied the cities of their residents and literally marched people onto inefficient collective farms. Anyone with education, who spoke another language, who wore glasses, who had a connection to the previous government, etc., was targeted, often tortured and killed. They abolished money and private land ownership. Somewhere between 1-2 million people, (nearly a fourth of the population) died, and the entire nation was left traumatized and undernourished. It’s indisputably one of the worst human catastrophes in recorded history.
Back to the photos. Everyone knows how the bridge and the lake got there. But instead of filling the lake in or tearing down the bridge, people have had to move on with normal life. They even decorated the bridge, as you can see. It has recently been replaced with the “new bridge” next to it, but a taxi driver tells me it will remain standing as homage to “the history.”
As I traveled the countryside I thought about what it must have looked like when the Khmer Rouge marched hordes of the population to those nonsensical collective farms. I can’t help but wonder what horrors the trees and mountains have seen. If that isn’t enough of a reminder, there’s the conspicuous lack of elderly people. For the most part though, it seems that the average Cambodian does not think about things like that.
From the numbers you can see plainly that everyone was affected by the genocide. Of the Cambodians I’ve spoken to, all lost family members. And so, without any choice about it, the genocide has become a part of the societal landscape. People don’t dwell, because there is no use: everyone was affected. A 2004 study reported that 81% of Cambodians have experienced violence, 28.4% have PTSD, 11.5% have mood disorders, and 40% have anxiety disorders. And still, everyone must move on. (With very little health care, mind you.)
I met a Scotsman who came to Cambodia in the early 1990s working for the United Nations, and has been coming back every year since. He adopted a few children from the country and plans to retire here. In his words, “The process of recovery is gradual, but Cambodians are moving on. They don’t want to talk about it.”
Well, some do. I spoke to a survivor of the infamous Tuol Sleng security and torture prison in Phnom Penh. (Somewhere between 12,000-20,000 inmates, 12 survivors: you do the math.) He said that at first he never spoke of his time there. But he now serves as something of a spokesman for the museum, with an autobiography published in several languages. He told me that since opening up about it, “it has become easier to live.” It’s worth mentioning that the other, younger Cambodians I asked (carefully) about it matter-of-factly told me of their family’s history at that time.
I think the overarching point is that people don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Many of them are too busy struggling to put food on the table. That being said, the Cambodians are not in a good way. By destroying the entire educated class (doctors, teachers…) the Khmer Rouge brought the nation to its knees. While it’s apparently getting a little better, corruption remains rampant. Government officials have pocketed much of the billions of dollars of foreign aid money that have streamed into the country over the past decades. People do not feel that their own government has their best interest at heart, with very good reason. Education is only free through grade nine, so less than thirty-five percent of the population attend secondary school. Those that attend school normally have to pay bribes to their teachers every morning. Ditto if you need medical treatment. Alcoholism is rampant.
And yet, there is some hope. Almost 70% percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30. As a different UN employee told me, something like 90% of that age bracket voted for the opposition in the last election. Despite their poverty, many of these Cambodians have cell phones, and relatively more access to the outside world than their forefathers. Industry continues to grow in the country as it moves away from a rice-farming base. The poverty rate has dropped by half since 2004 (though many remain on the brink).
I spoke to several Southeast Asia travel veterans who warned me “Be careful! Everyone is trying to scam you in Cambodia!” All of the above is what I think about in response to that stereotype. Not as a way to justify, but as a way to contextualize.
P.S. I had a long internal debate about what topic to address in this post on Cambodia. I didn’t want to write about the genocide at first, because it seemed well...lazy. While I learned about other fascinating things like government corruption, orphanage scams, spirit houses, the LGBTQ population and the craft beer scene, I couldn’t shake this out of my head. What can I say? I’m a student of World War II history. And it shocked me how little I knew about this genocide before coming here.
P.P.S. Recommended reading for further information: Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley, First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung.