Timing is everything when visiting a new place, particularly if it is in a war zone or a former one. By way of example, I visited Angkor Wat the day after a CIA-inspired coup removed Cambodian Prince Sihanouk from power and handed the reins to General Lon Nol. Even Air France did not know whether the plane would land though it turned out to be a great time to view the ancient ruins as no one was there. In this particular case, the country was soon engulfed by war as Sihanouk fled to China and elicited Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge guerilla fighters. Therefore, a visit much later could have been problematic. However, I went back to Angkor Wat soon after the Khmer Rouge had been driven to the jungles of western Cambodia following a Vietnamese-led invasion. That visit was too soon as there was limited running water and food though, once again, there were no tourists.
During my second trip to Angkor Wat, Joey and I also visited Phnom Penh with close friends from Thailand. One had been air-lifted out by Air America with his father, the Thai Ambassador to Cambodia, while the Khmer Rouge were firing rockets at the air strip. Our visit was too soon but not due to the pitiful accommodations. The immediate shock of viewing direct evidence of the Khmer Rouge atrocities inflicted on their own people had not been widely shown to the outside world and it was overwhelming. The master of much of that Khmer Rouge experiment was Kaing Guek Eav. He was better known by his alias, Comrade Duch, which he adopted from a fictional dutiful schoolboy in a book. Recently, the Financial Times published his obituary Comrade Duch, War Criminal, 1942-2020. He is shown below following his conviction sentencing him to life imprisonment by a UN-backed tribunal in 2010 for crimes against humanity, torture and murder.
Comrade Duch was the first of only three senior Khmer Rouge officials convicted for some 1.7 million deaths caused by their regime during their rule from 1975-1979. Obviously, it was not a rigorous exercise as many others were clearly involved in the deaths of approximately one-fourth of the country’s population. He joined the Khmer Rouge, then fighting Cambodia’s U.S.-backed government in 1967, which was near the beginning of my era in the region. He headed the remote site, M-13, where he perfected the skills of violent interrogations. He then took over as head of the prison at Tuol Sleng, a former school, in 1975. Not only was Duch a proficient interrogator by every ruthless and degrading means possible, he was also an excellent teacher of his staff. More than 14,000 men, women and children passed through S-21, Tuol Sleng, to extract whatever confessions were needed. If they did not die there, they were sent to the “killing field” outside Phnom Penh where they were bludgeoned to death.
As very little of this background had reached the outside world when I visited Tuol Sleng, it was too soon to visit in order to be able to process it all. Everything was carefully photographed and documented by the Khmer Rouge which was overly graphic and distressing that mankind could do such things. The images of some of the prisoners are shown below though the most distressing ones were when the name tags of some of prisoners were affixed to their bodies by large safety pins. No matter what, the vacant look on everyone’s faces reflects a distant recognition that they were already dead.
A stranger chapter in Comrade Duch’s life was when Vietnamese troops invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He fled to the Thai border with his wife and even spent two years teaching Khmer in China. He returned to Cambodia following his wife’s death, converted to Christianity, which would have been one hell of a confession, and worked for an American NGO before being identified by journalists in 1999 and arrested by Cambodian military authorities. He always maintained that the orders came from the higher echelons, most notably the dictator Pol Pot, who lived in the jungle near the Thai border and never faced justice. The Thai military always had a cozy teak and gemstone smuggling relationship with the Khmer Rouge. Shockingly, Hun Sen, the current “leader for life” of Cambodia is a former Khmer Rouge commander and a very close ally of China.
Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia was the Battalion Commander of the Eastern Region of Democratic Kampuchea (State name of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge) until his forces fled to Vietnam following a purge. He returned to Cambodia in the Vietnamese invasion and seems to have become the leader of Cambodia for life. Strangely, both the U.S. and the Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1980’s as the U.S. was still suffering a wounded ego following the defeat by North Vietnam in 1975. Since then Hun Sen has assembled a vast fortune and intends to keep his job through whatever means are necessary. The Nikkei Asia Review recently published an article entitled Hun Sen Cracks Down on Cambodia’s Slow Boiling Pot of Dissent.
Cambodian authorities have begun a violent campaign of stamping out small-scale peaceful protests before they grow out of hand. The protests have come from youth activists, environmental campaigners and family members of imprisoned opposition politicians. Having seen the large protests in neighboring Thailand that recently drew some 100,000 demonstrators, the Cambodian authorities seized two young rappers and a Buddhist monk to preclude any act of discontent. Given the fact that one-fourth of the population was killed by the Khmer Rouge, a former Khmer Rouge head of government and a young population provide a powder keg that could easily explode. “Small protests or big protests, we arrest them all if they act against the law,” Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party told the Nikkei Asian Review. Have you ever noticed that political parties that include “People” in their name care nothing about their people? A protest below arose when a union leader was recently arrested following critical comments of the government. The crowd did receive the “wear masks” memo.
Consistent economic growth of 7% over the past ten years has enabled the people to turn a blind eye to the corruption and massive wealth accumulated by the political elite. However, the pandemic has reversed that trend as shown below. Clearly, a young population that begins to suffer economically can become a powerful and often insurmountable force no matter how ruthless their leader may be.
Moreover, increased human rights repression will impact Cambodia’s trade positions with some of the more caring parts of the world. Hun Sen remained defiant when the EU enacted a partial suspension of Cambodia’s EU trade preferences in response to human rights abuses. He has kept an eye on the future by forced dissolution of any opposition party of strength with the objective of installing his son as successor. Hopefully, we are not seeing similar visions in the western world. With all of these issues floating around Cambodia, it may be too soon to pay a visit there. For once, it is not the pandemic but potential political pandemonium that underlies that thought.