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.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Cambodia - the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
Cambodia is one of those countries where we felt that it would be impossible to understand the country and its people, without considering the still comparatively recent actions of the Khmer Rouge. However, as we soon discovered, it wasn't just Pol Pot that threw this country into the awful state it ended up in. As you can imagine - this isn't a particularly pleasant post, but I think it is important.

As a young child, I have vague recollections of a Blue Peter appeal for Cambodia, which was held in 1979. At that age, I can't say I really took in the full horror of what happened here, but I have ever since associated the country with something terrible. Over the years, I picked up more information, but it was only on coming here that I really learned the full story.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
On the subject of Blue Peter, there was a further appeal in 1988, this time under the name of Kampuchea, where Margaret Thatcher gave an interview. I wasn't watching the programme then, but have since seen the interview; we'll come to that later.

The Khmer Rouge started out in the 1960s as a small communist guerrilla group, based in the jungles in the north east. It was here that Pol Pot, a former school teacher, saw the way the tribal population lived, without religion or other institutions, which would later form part of his Marxist philosophy for the country.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
They gained power when they came to the aid of the Prince Norodom Sihanouk, when he was deposed by a military coup whilst on a trip to France in 1970. They allied with him in his exile in Beijing, and used his followers to gain legitimacy and support. What was to follow was diabolical, but might never have come to pass if the country was not already in a state of turmoil thanks to the USA's bombing campaign.

For eight years, from 1965 to 1973, the USA bombed significant areas of Cambodia, with over 230,000 flights dropping over 2.7 million tonnes of bombs. To put this into context, that is more bombs than the Allied Forces dropped in the entirety of WWII. And the USA was not even at war with Cambodia. They did the same with Laos too, but we'll talk about that when we get there.

The reason for all of this? The USA was in then midst of its war with bordering Vietnam; a war which is itself, with hindsight, generally accepted to have been an ill-conceived campaign borne out of fear of communism. Prince Sihanouk had felt that the wind was blowing towards communism, and had made agreements with the Vietnamese Communists and China, and the Vietnamese were infiltrating Cambodia as a place to hide, gain supplies, and further the communist agenda. Aware of this, the USA decided to bomb the areas where they felt their enemies might be.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
Of course this bombing was largely indiscriminate, and caused unknown - but undoubtedly very high - numbers of casualties, and destroyed their land and homes. Unsurprisingly, this led to huge resentment and anger.

It was this anger that likely brought about the internal unrest and military coup, with the aim of forcing the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, that, after almost five years of civil war, saw Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge come to take control in 1975.

The regime was brutal. Pol Pot's aim for the newly renamed Kampuchea, was to turn the clock back to 'Year Zero', expunging education, technology, foreign interaction, and Buddhism. He forced people out of the town and cities to work in the fields. He despised anyone who was of the middle classes, educated, artistic or religious, and they were singled out for the harshest of treatment - worked to death in the fields, or simply imprisoned and executed. It didn't take much to make you an 'enemy'; the wearing of spectacles, or being able to speak a foreign language, was enough to identify you as a hated 'intellectual' and have you carted off.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
Carted off to places like Tuol Sleng, camp S-21, which was sited in what was previously a school, in the heart of Phnom Penh. Its prison chief for much of the time was Kaing Guek Eav, known as 'Duch'.

We visited Tuol Sleng, now a Genocide Museum, where you can see the cells and torture rooms used by the Khmer Rouge. There is an excellent audio tour, which includes a lot of information, some of which, as you would imagine, is quite harrowing. Some rooms are full of photos of those who are known to have been imprisoned here. They ask you not to take photos inside, which of course we respected.

Photos outside were permitted. The buildings have wire fencing across the walkways, to stop prisoners from jumping off in a bid to end their suffering. The original notices tell prisoners such things as they must answer questions, and must not cry during lashes or electrification. Much as the visit here is disturbing, I would highly recommend it.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Centre, Phnom Penh
From around 17,000 Cambodians, men, women and children, who were imprisoned and tortured here, only seven survived. We met one of those survivors. Chum Mey told his story at Duch's trial, and has written a book about it. In 1975, he was a mechanic, married, with three young children, one of whom died during the enforced march out from Phnom Penh to the countryside, where they were to labour in the fields.

Chum Mey was later returned to Phnom Penh to fix sewing machines, used to make the black uniforms of the Khmer Rouge. In 1978, he was taken to Tuol Sleng, where he was kept shackled in one of the tiny cells. He was tortured for twelve days to try to force a confession of spying. He was whipped, beaten his fingers broken, his toenails pulled out, and he was electrocuted. Eventually, like most prisoners, he signed a false confession, and gave the names of further innocent people. Doubtless they too were rounded up, tortured and eventually murdered.

with Chum Mey, survivor of Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh

After his confession, Chum Mey was put to work to repair the sewing machines and typewriters, which he believes - undoubtedly correctly - is what kept him alive. When the Vietnamese arrived Chum Mey was marched out to the countryside, where he was fortunate to meet up with his family in another group. Sadly, that happiness was shortlived, as he the guards took the whole group to an isolated place and shot them; Chum Mey was the only one who managed to escape.

I can't imagine ever wanting to return to Tuol Sleng if I were him, but he spends most of his days there, wanting to ensure that his story is told, to prevent such terrible events happening again.

I think that is enough for this post. I will finish the rest of the account tomorrow.

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