Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Cambodia - The Killing Fields and the demise of the Pol Pot's regime

Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh
Overall, some two million people are believed to have died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, from a combination of executions, starvation, overwork and diseases.

There were about 18 prisons and torture centres like Tuol Sleng, and in the region of 300 execution and mass grave sites. The most famous of these is Choeung Ek - or The Killing Fields, where around 20,000 people were murdered. This infamous place was previously agricultural, where the owners grew longan tress and watermelons, in a beautiful orchard setting. One area was used as a Chinese graveyard, and there are still a few of those graves there today. That peaceful place was shattered in the years from 1975-79.

Except in the case of very important prisoners, Tuol Sleng was not a place of execution, and in fact care was taken not to allow a prisoner to die during their torture if possible. When prisoners had made their confessions, they would be taken to Choeung Ek, with their numbers carefully recorded and accounted for.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

The Killing Tree, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh
To keep the devastating truth about the purpose of this place hidden from those nearby, the trucks would arrive at night. When they were ready to carry out the executions loud communist music would be played to hide the sounds of death. The prisoners would be taken to the edge of the mass graves, made to kneel. Occasionally the victims would be shot, but usually they would choose not to waste ammunition, and instead they would be beaten and hacked to death, with their bodies toppled into the pit.

There is a tree here, which is known as the Killing Tree, where babies and young children would be killed by swinging them against the tree trunk to smash their heads. Today, the tree is covered in ribbons to commemorate the victims.

Some of the mass graves were exhumed after the Khmer Rouge were ousted, but others remain as they were. Walking around the sites, you can see bits of clothing, and sometimes bits of bone emerging out of the ground. It is a chilling reminder of what this place was.

Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh
The memorial stupa here, designed by Lim Ourk, houses many of the bones of the bodies exhumed. It is a strange place, but feels somehow fitting. The audio guide is not as good as the one at the prison, but it definitely worth listening to and includes a number of accounts from people who lived through the regime.

We visited here after having been to Tuol Sleng, and I think that is the right way around. Personally, I thought that Tuol Sleng gave the more informative and compelling experience, so if you only had time for one, I would suggest there as a priority, but I was glad that I went to both.

Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh
Pol Pot's rule lasted until 1979. Khmer Rouge border incursions into Vietnam eventually gave the Vietnamese reason to invade Cambodia. They deposed Pol Pot, and brought an end to his regime. He continued to lead the Khmer Rouge from the jungles of Cambodia or bordering countries and, with still having the name of Prince Sihanouk on his side, the western world continued to support the Khmer Rouge - if not necessarily Pol Pot himself - as the legitimate leadership of what was now called Kampuchea.

I referred earlier to the Blue Peter interview with Margaret Thatcher, and even then, as late as 1988, she and the British Government was saying that for a new regime in Cambodia to be legitimate, it would have to involve the Khmer Rouge. Doubtless, this approach was partly justified by their link to the last official ruler in Prince Sihanouk, but sadly, the prime motivation was likely rather less honourably driven.

Memorial Stupa, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

With the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the ongoing Cold War with Russia, the USA was never going to acknowledge Vietnamese leadership in the country. They also were keen to appease China, which was firmly on the side of the Khmer Rouge's Democratic Kampuchea Party. The UK followed suit.

Not that the Cambodian people wanted the Vietnamese in power either. Whilst the Vietnamese undoubtedly ended the brutal regime of Pol Pot, they were still an invading force. The Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in 1982, made up of the Prince's party Funcinipec, the Khmer Rouge party and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. It was this party that was unofficially recognised by the UN and the West.

A ten year civil war followed, until the Vietnamese finally left Cambodia in 1989, but in the absence of a clear and acceptable leadership, it was a further two years before a resolution could be achieved.

On 23 October 1991, the various factions finally signed the Paris Peace Treaty, and Cambodia could at last look forward to a peaceful future and start to rebuild their shattered country. Whilst of course the worst of the atrocities here was the work of fellow countrymen, given the actions and inaction of the West, it is a wonder to me that the people here are so welcoming to foreigners. But even today, we still saw evidence of a lot of resentment towards the Vietnamese.

Pol Pot himself was finally arrested in 1997, by his own followers, after he killed one of his advisers. He was placed under house arrest, dying a year later, never having been held to account for any of his crimes.

The UN eventually arrested and charged five other Khmer Rouge leaders, including 'Duch' , whose trial began in 2009 and in 2010 he was convicted and jailed for 30 years, later increased to a life sentence.

Nuon Chea, who was Brother Number Two to Pol Pot's leadership, (now aged 90), was originally pardoned in 1998 as part of a peace deal, but then arrested in 2007 and put on trial, which started in 2011. He and Khieu Sampan, who was the President during the Khmer Rouge rule, (now aged 85), were jailed for life in August 2014 for crimes against humanity.

The appeal against that conviction is due to be decided this November. A second trial, on charges of genocide also began in 2014 and is yet to be completed. Of the two others, Leng Sary died, and his wife Leng Thirith was ruled unfit to stand trial.

The legacy of 22 years of bombings, genocide, and war have left a huge toll on Cambodia. Around one third of its population was murdered in the genocide, including most of those who were educated. The country was left devastated economically, and the land itself remains littered with thousands of unexploded 'bombies', the small round explosives that were inside the US bombs. These cause devastating injuries, and sometimes death, to people working on the land and to children, who find them and play with them.  Added to this is the risk of the huge numbers of landmines that were planted by the CGDK fighters in the war against Vietnam.

Today, Cambodia is a wonderful country to visit, especially with the amazing attraction of the temples at Siem Reap, but I don't believe that it is possible to even start to appreciate the country or it's people, without knowing about this, still very recent, history.

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