Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Remember to forget

A torture room at S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison. Prisoner's were electrocuted on the bare bed frames, kept chained to the floors and made to confess their "crimes" against Angkar. Before it was used for killing, the prison was a school and many of the torture instruments were fashioned out of old desks. Photo by Simon Whistler.

On April 17, 1975, columns of Khmer Rouge soldiers – overwhelmingly made up of children – rode into Phnom Penh in commandeered trucks under a banner of revolutionary rhetoric. For years Cambodia had been a victim of its stronger regional neighbors, a pawn under French colonialism in Indochina, and had recently sustained heavy American bombing in the U.S. effort to "win" the Vietnam War (During a several month period, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia that it dropped in all of WWII). And so when the KR arrived many people actually welcomed the change – under new leadership that was fiercely nationalistic and opposed to any foreign intervention perhaps the country could find a little peace and stability.

But the KR soon kicked everyone out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside. The people were now expected to work in the fields and would form – at least idealistically – the classless foundation of a new utopian agrarian society called Democratic Kampuchea. One of the central tenets of this new society – a tenet that proved to be its ultimate undoing – was a broad rejection of religion, technology, modern medicine, education and the arts. The KR declared intellectuals, artists, monks and other "elite" enemies of the state and sent them to secret prisons where they were tortured, made to confess their "crimes" and then killed. One of the KR's initial ploys was to convince people think that there were jobs for them – that they were needed for the revolution – and to come to Phnom Penh.

"When they say Angkar needs you to study they mean you go to die," my guide, Pon, at the Tuol Sleng prison museum told me.

All the destruction was done in the name of Angkar (from the Chinese word for "organization"), the vague hierarchy under which KR leaders operated. This hierarchy simultaneously implicated and absolved all who killed in its name. During four years of nightmarish horror, Pol Pot ("Brother Number One") and his lieutenants eradicated, whether through starvation, sickness, torture or execution, at least four million Cambodians, or roughly half the country's population. Babies were bashed against trees. Heads were cut off with rough palm bark.

"You die or not die according to Angkar," Pon explained. When people arrived at Tuol Sleng, a.k.a. S-21, which was the most notorious of the KR torture centers, they "understand already that everything is over," he said.

As tragic and needless as all this death was, the real destruction – and the darkest irony – of the KR years is that in "saving" Cambodia from the corrupt influence of foreign interests, the KR nearly destroyed Khmer culture. The country is a skeleton of its former self and it is questionable whether it will ever be fully fleshed again. As Cambodia struggles to rebuild its society, it does so in a cultural vacuum: traditional Khmer music is more readily found on CDs than in the countryside; a vast majority of monks have no knowledge of the old teachings; and what passes for education has left Phnom Penh not with a new intellectual pool to draw from but with thousands of recent graduates poorly trained in business management and marketing who vie for not nearly enough jobs.

The Cambodian birth rate at the moment is one of the highest in the world and the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with adolescents and twenty-some-things. They are generally happy and their only knowledge of the KR years is that someone, or often many people, from their family died. I asked a 25-year-old if he learned about the Khmer Rouge in school. He said no, but that he didn't want to learn about them. Like many Cambodians, he has no interest in that dark past. There is only the future.

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