Proving genocide can be difficult. If anyone survives – well, it can’t have been genocide, and if everyone gets killed, who is left to complain? For example: the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey is still not acknowledged by some western countries.
The genocide in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is not disputed by many sane people. This is because the Khymer Rouge documented their deranged slaughter of a quarter of the population most conscientiously. The motto of the Khymer Rouge, inspired by the late Pol Pot and sweetly sung by the band Down I Go was, ‘To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss’. They weren’t kidding.
The urbanites of Phnom Penh who were moved to the countryside to begin their new lives as slaves were the lucky ones. Educated people such as teachers, doctors, writers and spectacle wearers were arrested arbitrarily – it was better to punish ten innocents than to let one guilty person go free – and systematically tortured before being hacked to death in a field and shoved into a mass grave.
We visited the S-21 prison, which was a converted school. There were thousands of mugshots decorating the long corridors, taken at the point of arrest. Most facial expressions revealed, as you would expect, terror and anguish, but a few men were laughing grotesquely at the camera. One exception was a prisoner holding her baby; she stared through the lens of the camera with pure rage in her eyes.
Sometimes we think thoughts that aren’t really opinions. They’re just transitory blips that may or may not contribute to a reasoned opinion later on. This was the thought I had when I saw the picture of the lady with the baby: It would be better if nothing had ever existed than for this to have happened.
Then we visited the killing fields, where between one and two million people were clubbed or hacked to death with blunt machetes. Saving ammunition! To drown out the screaming, they played music at deafening volume. Cambodian music is droning and dissonant, and as a soundtrack to a prolonged massacr it is suitably grotesque.
The regime of the Khymer Rouge lasted for four years, before the invasion of the Vietnamese forced them to retreat to the jungles. This marked the start of two decades of civil war. The Khymer Rouge were assisted in their struggle by the Thai, US and British governments, who provided them with finance, arms and food. They were even offered the Cambodian seat in the United Nations in the early eighties. So much I didn’t know. They certainly don’t teach that in schools. All I learned of history was that we gave the Germans a thorough and deserved kicking, as a consequence of some arch-duke bloke getting shot.
Tourism has only existed in Cambodia for a decade. It is expensive. Pol Pot more or less outlawed any form of human activity other than farming rice, so restaurants, bars, bookshops and venues for the arts are all owned by Europeans or Australians. They are priced accordingly, and are beyond the reach of Cambodians. This unsettles me. In Thailand, you socialise alongside Thais. Same in Vietnam. Not quite so true in Laos – restaurants are just for tourists – but the locals are very happy to join you in drinking the night away.
A lot of travellers talk about how smiley and happy Cambodians are. I fear this is wishful thinking. It seemed to me that most Cambodian men over the age of 35 have the thousand-yard stare, even the ones with a full set of limbs.
The number of amputees is astounding. Most beg for money, and it’s not uncommon to be sworn at if you don’t make a contribution. I’d do the same if I was them. After all, a government of my country in my lifetime paid for some of the landmines, yet here I am making merry while they struggle to survive.
As the Khymer Rouge slowly dissolved, many discreetly returned to the general population. People my age must spend time wondering which of their neighbours might have been the ones who tortured their parents to death.
One of the main architects of the Khymer Rouge stands trial for crimes against humanity in a couple of months. Perhaps that will provide some opportunity for Cambodians to exorcise some of their demons, but I fear it will take another generation or two for the mutual suspicion and bitter collective memories to lose their sharpness.