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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Cambodia's Khmer Legacy

Cambodia is unlike any other place I have been before. Interesting and unique, I also found Cambodia deeply haunting. As much to do with its past history as it’s current. Perhaps when a country experiences such horrific atrocities on a mass scale, perpetrated by their families, friends, neighbours, and government, it makes it hard to rebuild the foundations of a culture.

How do you rebuild a society after losing half the population? Especially without those that have the knowledge and skills to create development. The systemic slaughter of predominantly skilled and educated people, including their offspring, with the view to “cut them at the root”, has left palpable scars and makes it hard to feel anything other than profound sorrow. There is widespread and pervasive poverty, particularly in the countryside, and plastic bottles and cans litter people’s driveways as if they were as prevailing as a blade of grass. It was unexpected. Much of the natural beauty somewhat overshadowed by the smattering of plastic over fields, divets, roadsides, and bushes on the roads connecting Ankor Wat to Phnom Penh.

Despite this, the Cambodians have impressively managed to catch on to their flourishing tourist industry. True to its name as the land of a thousand smiles, people overall, apart from those aggressively selling items at the market for “one dollar!”, are very warm and friendly. Prices reflect the rise in tourism, as I found it more expensive than its neighbouring countries Laos and Vietnam. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that they use dollars, as well as Cambodian Riel. This is as a result of the UN’s introduction of the dollar as local currency after the fall of Pol Pot in 1979, and a near total crash of their economy from the previous four years of his murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

The regime enforced a system where all able-bodied people were made to become farmers or labourers. Cambodians were forced to work 12 hours a day under extreme conditions. Even though most people were forced to work as farmers in the rice paddies, this did not entitle them to eat the rice. They were fed only two spoons of porridge a day, so even if you were spared the killing fields and Tuol Sleng prison, known as S21, you would more than likely die from overwork and starvation in the rice fields. As a result of the mass killings of skilled labourers, academics and a complete ban on education, today, 90 percent of the workforce are still farmers in Cambodia so their main source of income is through rice production and export. A legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Between 1975 and 1979, The Khmer Rouge soldiers rounded up any individuals, including women and children, that they thought were Vietnamese or an “enemy” of the state. Once they had killed off a large proportion of the “enemy”, which included skilled and educated people, they began to search people’s hands to check whether they were smooth. If they were smooth, they then concluded that they were not manual labourers or farmers, and if you were unlucky enough for this to happen, you were then sent to the slaughter. Another “check” the army did was to kill anyone who wore glasses just in case, as they were likely to be academics.

The Khmer Rouge set up a system based on paranoia. “The organisation”, an Orwellian big brother monitoring system was established, or so the Khmer soldiers led the population to believe, thereby creating a culture of fear. People began to worry what they said or did for fear of being spotted by a member of the “akha”. Reminiscent of “the eyes” in the handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. Khmer soldiers told people that “the organisation” was watching them. Inevitably ensuring that people were too scared to question or revolt. Killing educated people and the fear of constant monitoring paved the way for total population control and dictatorship.

The most heinous part of all of this for me is that when the Vietnamese intervened and established a government in 1979 by colluding with members of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army, they then placed these men in government. In addition, in order to establish “peace”, they ordered a nationwide “pardon” to members of the Khmer Rouge for their atrocities. So the very men who murdered babies by smashing their heads against trees in front of their screaming mothers and tortured men to death with hammers and machetes, even using the serrated edge of a palm leaf to cut people’s throats, were now allowed to roam the streets again, free from repercussions and punishment. They claim they were forced into it. That may be the case, but if you are ordered by force to blanket kill surely you would want to kill quickly and without additional pain. These men were undoubtedly brainwashed, the majority of whom were between the ages of 12 and 20. However, they were also sadistic in their methods and ritualistic in their unmitigated cruelty. Now, they live amongst people whose very husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends they killed as if nothing had ever happened. From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge slaughtered more than 3 million people. They specifically hunted down educated people and executed them with the view to keeping the population uninformed, thus making them easier to brainwash. In only four years, just under half the population was killed as a result of torture, execution, starvation and overwork.

Cambodia currently functions under the guise of democracy but in reality is more like a communist dictatorship. A banana republic that relies solely on its exportation of rice. The government, “the Cambodian People’s Party”, as if the name alone wasn’t enough to tip you off to their ideology, has been in power for 40 years, ever since it was established by the “new” Khmer Rouge. It consists of former Khmer Rouge members who had betrayed Pol Pot. Yet, as the majority of Cambodia's 16 million population are young, they are now losing popularity. As a result, in 2017, the government dissolved the opposition party and put the leader in jail. This smacks of dictatorship to me. So, come July 2018, there is now no other party to vote for in the general election. Apart from other smaller parties that are controlled by... you guessed it, the People’s Party.


As part of our trip through Cambodia, we went to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison, dubbed S21 prison in Phnom Penh. More than 20,000 people died in S 21 in just four years, yet a total of three million were systematically murdered overall. Prisoners were brought to S21 for “interrogation” and either died from Torture or wounds inflicted by torture. I met Bou Meng and Chung Mey, two of only seven survivors of the prison from the Pol Pot regime. Both lost their wives and children to the Khmer Rouge. Bou Meng only survived because he was an artist and was ordered to paint Pol Pot’s portrait to his likeness or “become fertiliser for the paddy fields”. His portrait of Pol Pot is now famous worldwide.

Chung Mey’s life was spared because he was a mechanic and was able to fix machinery for the soldiers. I am in such awe of these men for coming to the place where they faced such inhumanity just to ensure it never happens again.


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