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Published: January 16th 2007
A chilling memorial to some of the thousands executed during the Pol Pot years, Phnom Penh.
© L. Birch 2007
The music started at 5am after which, sleep was almost impossible. It came from a loudspeaker mounted on a dilapidated building facing the square. Sunrise was still an hour away but - by the time it was light - the market square was already busy with people going about their daily business.
Market traders who had spent the night asleep at their stalls were re-arranging produce or chatting with their neighbours. Barrow boys with wooden carts laden with fruit, sacks of rice or tins of paint, ferried purchases or stock to and from the market. Cows walked nonchalantly through the streets, and in amongst the crowds of people and piles of rank smelling rubbish weaved the ever present motorcycle taxis, known locally as "moto-dop" or more simply as a "moto".
The music that had started at five - a gentle xylophonic sound similar to Indonesian gamelan - continued throughout the day, overlaying and pervading everything that happened in the little market square. The small town of Kratie (pronounced 'Krat-che') a market town on the banks of the Mekong in central Cambodia - was our first introduction to life in the country and it was a relief to discover that
Echoed to the sound of xylophonic music from early morning to late at night.
© L. Birch 2007
an air of normality prevailed.
This has not always been the case however, for Cambodia's recent history has been one of violence, brutality, struggle and tragedy. Corruption and lawlessness seemed to go hand in hand with the policies of a government that saw no wrong in using any means at its disposal in order to retain power. The country's president, Hun Sen, seized ultimate power from First President, Prince Ranariddh in a bloody coup staged in 1997. For three days, Phnom Penh echoed to the sounds of gun and rocket fire as the two sides battled for supremacy. Hun Sen emerged victorious and his troops - supposedly pledged to uphold law and order - immediately embarked on a campaign of looting; robbing ordinary Cambodians and taking anything of value they possessed. Citizens had no choice but to stand back as gun-toting soldiers invaded their homes and helped themselves to TVs, fridges, furniture or anything else they could find. The guns may be slightly less in evidence today (although we frequently heard gun fire at night in Phnom Penh) but Hun Sen's strong-arm tactics are no less so. Though nominally a democracy, the voices of opposing parties have sometimes been
The Lao / Cambodian border post was one of the smallest and most isolated we had ever used.
© L. Birch 2007
silenced by violent means. Either that, or as a result of laws designed to 'restrain' those who would dare to speak out against the ruling government.
And then of course, there were the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. As a result of a complex series of events - precipitated by Cambodia's reluctant involvement in the Vietnam conflict - a savage civil war raged for several years culminating in the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge (KR) in April 1975. Thus began one of the most bizarre and horrific socialist experiments in the history of communist governance. For nearly four years, the KR under Pol Pot, closed Cambodia off from the outside world and attempted to turn the country into a Maoist, agrarian co-operative. Everyone, regardless of their background, was forced from the cities and set to work in the fields. Dissenters of the new regime were tortured and executed, as were thousands of people simply by virtue of the fact that they spoke a foreign language, wore spectacles or had a disability. Hundreds of thousands more died from malnutrition, disease and maltreatment at the hands of their supposed benefactors.
Phnom Penh Sunrise
Early morning sun lights up the rooftops and temple spires of Phnom Penh.
© L. Birch 2007
stranglehold on the country was only broken when the Vietnamese invaded in January 1979. Even so, the KR continued to wage a guerilla war that lasted well into the 1990s. We had been in the region in 1994 but deferred visiting Cambodia when news reached us of the kidnapping - and later execution - of three western backpackers.
So, was it any less dangerous now? Mary, an English expat working in Phnom Penh, told us it was much safer these days. All the same, "The more time you spent in the capital," she said, "the greater the likelihood that you would be robbed at some point." Worryingly, our guide book gave advice on what to do if we were held up at gun point but Mary said we were more likely to become victims of petty extortion than statistics of gun crime.
Petty extortion - in one form or another - was just a fact of life in Cambodia. Although there had been none of the problems we had anticipated in crossing the border, the post north of Stung Treng was still an "unofficial" crossing point for foreigners and border guards saw it as an opportunity to charge
Opulent Grand Palace stands in stark contrast to the poverty and brutality of its past.
© L. Birch 2007
an "unofficial fee". On the Lao side of the border, the guards held onto our passports and demanded a few dollars extra as a processing fee. Considering how remote and isolated our location was, everyone coming through paid up without fuss. It was a long way back to anywhere and we weren't sure how firm the ground would remain beneath our feet if we refused. But a short walk through 'no-man's land' took us to an identical shack on the Cambodian side of the border where guards were asking for a further five dollars. It wasn't so much the amount - rumour had it that the guards often tried to charge much more - but the principle. It was at about this time that we decided to try and get through without paying anything.
Since we had set off from Don Det in Laos that day, people had been crawling out of the woodwork and demanding money at every turn. Enough was enough and by the time we had reached the Cambodian guard post we had formulated a strategy. Viv went first and handed her passport to one of the three guards at the desk. "Morning." She said brightly
A metal bed littered with instruments of torture is the only furniture in one of the former classrooms at S:21.
© L. Birch 2007
and began joking with them, smiling broadly all the while. Since we already had our visas, processing took two minutes and simply involved the stamping of an arrival date into the passport. Looking as severe as possible, the guard handed back the passport and demanded five dollars. With a big grin, Viv reached across the desk and dropped between 6-8 candy sweets into the guard's open hand. At first the guard looked surprised. Viv said something to him, which I didn't catch and laughed gaily. The guard smiled and closed his fingers over the sweets as Viv stepped back from the desk - she had done it, she was through. There were around six other people ahead of me in the queue - all of whom happily parted with their money without quibble. I didn't think we would get away with using the same ploy twice but stepping up to the desk was prepared to try and gave the guard a big friendly smile. The smile was returned and the same scenario unfolded as before. Trying to look as casual and friendly as possible - even though my heart was hammering - I dropped a fistful of sweets into the
Voices from a Brutal Past
Still haunt the empty halls of S:21 where pictures of some of the many hundreds of victims are displayed on the walls.
© L. Birch 2007
guard's hand when the expected demand for payment was made. To my relief, he accepted them with a laugh and I walked out through the other door and into Cambodia.
After listening to this story, Mary told us that one of the neat things about Cambodia was that you could negotiate over a fine or demand for money made by officialdom. In Phnom Penh, the police were well known for stopping foreigners on motorbikes and charging them fines for committing apparent 'traffic violations'. But if you kept your head, if you continued to smile and remain reasonable, you could often get the amount asked for reduced or even pay nothing at all.
Cambodia was also very good at trading on the brutal history of its past and several stories we heard illustrated just how much of a bizarre 'Disneyland of Violence' the country had become. One traveller related being deeply affected by a visit to Phnom Penh's genocide museum and the killing fields at Choeng Ek. A gruesome monument of stacked skulls stands in memorial to the hundreds of thousands of people executed by the Khmer Rouge and in a nearby field, you can see the partly exposed pits where victims were buried in mass graves - bone and shreds of clothing still poking through the dry soil. Returning to his moto for the ride back to town, the traveller was not sure whether to be amused or shocked when the driver asked if he would now like to have a go at firing off a few rounds from an AK47 or shooting at targets with a rocket launcher.
Beautiful, ugly, exciting, scary and wonderful: there really was nowhere else quite like Cambodia. Postscript
Estimates on the number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 range from 750,000 to 1.8 million but the simple fact of the matter is that, no one knows for sure.
In addition, not one of the highest ranking members of the regime has ever been brought to justice despite overwhelming evidence that it may well have been responsible for the genocide of nearly 2 million people. Neither has any member of the regime ever admitted to any wrong doing or offered an apology to the Cambodian people. The nearest Pol Pot ever came to making an apology was during an interview when he said, "The regime may have made some mistakes". But up until he died from natural causes in 1997, Pol Pot denied any knowledge of 'so-called' atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge claiming that that they were the fabrications of foreign media, dreamed up to discredit the regime.
During our stay in Phnom Penh, we visited the former school that - under the Khmer Rouge - became the concentration camp known as S:21. As our guidebook rightly states, this is one museum that does not need to demand silence. As you walk from one room to another, empty save for instruments of torture or the terrified faces of victims that stare out of old black and white photographs - speech is almost impossible.
Recently turned 68, Pol Pot's former second in command, Muth Meas - once known as Brother No. 2 - was unrepentant and had this to say during an interview conducted on his birthday.
I know that I am accused of committing genocide and war crimes but what evidence do they have for accusing me? They say they have evidence of graves, bones, skulls and victims, but let them show us who did it
(source: "The Cambodia Daily"- 2/01/2007. Thet Sambath.)
The saddest fact of all is that those Cambodians still alive today who lost parents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives - may never live to hear the truth or see justice served on those responsible.
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