To me, Cambodia was always synonymous with an act of genocide, but thankfully my short visit there has given rise to some much more positive associations.
The Khmer Rouge’s slaughter of 1.7million Cambodians (around one fifth of the population) between 1975 to 1979 under the orders of leader Pol Pot was one of the most horrific and unjustifiable events of last century.
What happened on the ‘The Killing Fields’ was shocking in its magnitude and insanity, but also for the continued inaction of the rest of the world. The USA (and by association, Australia, which still follows American foreign policy like a faithful pet lamb) has plenty of blood on its hands from this period of Asian history.
While the British and French were mainly responsible for plundering Central and SouthEast Asia during the early part of last century, America’s actions throughout the 1960s and 70s should quite simply be regarded as crimes against humanity.
The US carpet-bombed Cambodia throughout the Vietnam War, killing hundreds of thousands in the vain hope of eradicating communist guerrillas.
This campaign rates in effectiveness with the rest of American strategy from that period in Asia. When the US abandoned the Vietnam effort in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emerged from their jungle hideouts, stormed Phnom Penh, and effectively cut off the country from the rest of the world.
America’s attempt to halt the spread of communism through SouthEast Asia resulted in the death and displacement of millions and was an abject failure. It was scuppered by the same lack of empathy that hindered its modern ‘nation building’ strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Pol Pot’s effectiveness in isolating Cambodia from the rest of the world was an excuse for Western blindness during his bloody rule, there can be little justification for its shameful delay in bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice since.
Unbelievably the flag of the Khmer Rouge flew at the United Nations until 1992 under the ‘Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea’. This arrangement was never a formal coalition or government, certainly wasn’t democratic, nor was it even based in Cambodia.
Pol Pot evaded justice for mass murder until he died in his sleep in 1998. Only now are some of his colleagues facing trial but, to date, only one former prison chief has been sentenced by a Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal set up in 2005.
It continues to flounder with financial problems and ongoing political interference by former Khmer Rouge members who still exert influence over policy in Cambodia.
It seems increasingly likely the majority of those responsible for the Cambodian genocide will go to their own graves without punishment – but the country itself is now conducting a kind of trial by tourism.
On my second day in Phnom Penh I visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, established around a mass grave where perhaps 20,000 Cambodians were transported, tortured and killed.
Visually the site is powerful, but it’s the testimony of survivors that makes this a profoundly moving experience. Those who managed to escape this ‘hell on Earth’ tell their story as you move past a tree babies were beaten to death against, bones of the murdered still emerging from graves and skulls of victims stacked high in a pagoda near the exit.
A visit to the notorious S-21 prison adds to the education. Of the 14,000 known to have entered – only seven survived.
The Khmer Rouge were fastidious in record keeping and, not only transcribed all prisoners’ interrogations, but photographed most of the inmates. Some 6000 of these pictures have been recovered and now comprise a grisly but enormously powerful image archive.
Making genocide into a tourist attraction may seem macabre, but in a way is almost more effective than any UN backed tribunal.
It’s confronting, but ensures those who committed the atrocities are being put on trial by the thousands who visit these sites every year.
In 2012, compared to many points in its troubled past, Cambodian people enjoy a relatively free and democratic way of life.
Gaz, my travelling companion in Burma, was reunited with his Cambodian partner Srey Phors when we arrived in Phnom Penh, and we enjoyed yet another ‘insider’ travel experience.
We spent a couple of days in the capital which consisted of sightseeing, followed by ridiculously cheap (AU$1.25) and excellent cocktails, then an inevitably delicious meal.
On my last full day on holiday we travelled to the village where Srey Phors grew up, a lengthy tuk tuk journey up the Mekong River from Phnom Penh.
We met and enjoyed the hospitality of her family (including five of six brothers), were joined by most of the village children for a dip in the Mekong and ended up pushing our tuk tuk most of the way back through a tropical downpour.
It was quite humbling to see the bamboo shack where Srey Phors’ mother brought up her family.
It’s literally a world away the Western upbringing Gaz and I experienced, and yet our destinies have now collided.
This was a wonderful final chapter in what was more an education than a holiday. I returned to Australia with more perspective, a fresh outlook on life and a smaller belt size.
Asia took about six kilograms, but a return to Western indulgence is slowly taking care of that.
Click here to see the Facebook gallery of images from Cambodia.