I arrived back in Cairns two days ago, and am settling in.
By the way, I was greeted by heavy rain on my arrival, in contrast to the dry weather I experienced during my 3.5 weeks in Cambodia. Otherwise, it was similar: tropical and hot here and there, quite easy to accept for me.
Although my stay in Cambodia was very positive overall, I must mention one disturbing thing without which my account would be inaccurate. It’s about the Khmer Rouge. It’s about my visit to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. It’s about the first time I heard about the atrocities committed by Pol Pot’s regime – when I was on an exchange student program in Cuba, in January 1979. Cubans, and my fellow Soviet students who were there at the time, were horrified to learn that 3 million people, i.e. one third of Cambodia’s population, were killed by the bloodthirsty regime of Pol Pot. (Later the figure was revised to about 2 million). When I came back to the Soviet Union in April 1979, I realised that the pain was shared by the Soviet people at large, as well as by the whole planet.
I must be honest with you: I was somewhat reluctant to visit the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum during my visit to Cambodia, because I knew it would cause a lot of pain. However, it had to be done. And when you visit the places, it’s difficult to describe the actual pain you go through. It is that traumatic. I couldn’t help crying. However, the pain experienced by me and other visitors, no doubt, pales in comparison to what the victims of the regime had to endure… Forced labour, forced marriages, forced displacement, beatings, torture, brutal killings… Destruction of the society, economy, culture. If you had white skin, wore eye-glasses, spoke a foreign language, you would be killed. Nearly 90% of academics, teachers, artists, Buddhist monks were exterminated. It was supposed to be an egalitarian agrarian society growing rice. It did not work of course. Same as communism did not work in the USSR, or nazism in Germany. Totalitarian ideologies have a short shelf life.
A little bit of history:
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to Cambodian/Khmer communists (rouge means red in French). Their leader was Pol Pot.
After nearly four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979 as a result of an invasion by Vietnam. Today, 7 January, is a national holiday in Cambodia commemorating the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime, when Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese troops. By the way, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen (he’s been in power for over 30 years now), who was formerly with the Khmer Rouge, defected to Vietnam in 1977, and participated in this invasion/liberation. The history of Cambodia since 7 January 1979 has been controversial and complicated but the nation has been doing everything possible to prevent the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime from happening again.
It is a forward-looking, rapidly developing society and economy, with thriving cultural life. And present—day Khmers are friendly and nice people, often with a smile on their faces. They don’t blame the history, they are learning from its lessons.
Tuol Sleng was a high school that was transformed into an interrogation and torture centre called “S-21” during Pol Pot’s regime; today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum contains many of the former torture and prison cells, and photographic and picture displays relating to those years.
I met there a survivor of the S-21 prison, Bou Meng, from whom I bought his autographed memoir, and who willingly agreed to pose for me. According to some sources, he is one of less than 10 survivors of the nearly 20,000 people tortured and killed there. He is an inspirational person.
Here are some photos of my visit to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on 15 December 2017.