Friday, 24 January 2014

Choeung Ek

NB: This post contains information about the actions of the Khmer Rouge, and images that some could find disturbing.
It's not going to be really graphic, but it's not a nice subject.

Beginning at the end seems to make the most sense for this post.
On our return from Choeung Ek, our tuk-tuk driver stopped for petrol. At the pump, a young Khmer man asked "Why do foreigners all want to go to Choeung Ek?" His tone of voice, more than his question, made it clear that he found it slightly distasteful, and potentially offensive, that foreign tourists flock there.

We answered that we wanted to go in order to learn, and to understand what happened in Cambodia during the years of Democratic Kampuchea. I don't know whether this satisfied him, or if he found it an acceptable reason - he got distracted by the arrival of an apparent paramour and went away to flirt with her.
I stand by that answer, though.
The Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnamese forces a few months before I was born. I always knew the name Pol Pot, but had no idea what had actually happened here in the short years of the Khmer Rouge. When Pol Pot died, I was old enough to pay some attention - it was a familiar name, after all - but there was little detail in the reports. It was old news, and there were more current repercussions from genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda for the journalists to cover.
I never looked into it further. I never really knew or understood what the Khmer Rouge was, or did. Until I came to Cambodia, and read about Choeung Ek.

In 1975, Cambodia had an unstable and unpopular government, and was caught up in the American War with Vietnam. The US was bombing Cambodia, believing it to be sheltering Viet Cong soldiers. The Khmer Rouge gathered an army, marched on Phnom Penh, and told all of the inhabitants that the US were going to bomb the city.
Within three days, Phnom Penh - and every other city in Cambodia - was empty.

The pattern is familiar, if not the details. Intellectuals were undesirable, and enemies of the people. Peasants were patriots, and work on the land was the means to national salvation.

Intellectuals were arrested, tortured and killed.
Those who worked the land were underfed, and many starved.
The rice produced on work communes went to China, to pay for weapons and ammunition supplied to the Khmer Rouge before their coup.

Of Cambodia's population of 8 million, the Khmer Rouge murdered between 2 and 3 million people - between a quarter and a third of the Khmer people.
They did not do this over the span of a generation, or even over an elongated administration. The Khmer Rouge were in power for only 3 years and 8 months.

In that time, at least 8,000 people were killed at Choeung Ek.
Their remains are displayed in a memorial stupa - many stories high, it is filled with glass cabinets containing nothing but the bones retrieved from the mass graves excavated shortly after the Khmer Rouge were ousted.

There is an audio tour available at the site - a series of recordings that are linked to various locations. We shared one, in English, and I repeated the information for Eva and Leon. The stories were profound, and disturbing, and repeating them aloud ingrained them in a way that listening alone would probably not have done.
People did not stay long at Choeung Ek. It was not a prison camp. Those transported there were killed on the same day they arrived. The tour details how Choeung Ek operated, and has some interviews with former Khmer Rouge recruits who worked at Choeung Ek, as well as those who survived the actions of the Khmer Rouge. The details are, as one would expect, brutal, disturbing and horrifying. They are told with dignity, by a narrator who works not only to record the history of the period, but to help bring those associated with it to justice, and to provide counselling and support for anyone who wishes to access them.

Choeung Ek now is an orchard and memorial site. The mass graves are enclosed, and tributes and offerings brighten the fencing around them. Despite the tranquility, it is impossible to walk Choeung Ek and forget the magnitude of what happened there, and what was reflected at similar sites all over Cambodia. Were there any danger of this, the audio tour frequently requests that visitors not pick up any bones or teeth that may be on the paths (they are washed from the graves in the wet season), and a reflexive glance at the ground around your feet is very likely to reveal something of that kind (they have groundskeepers who collect all of the washed up remains at frequent intervals, but the ground there is saturated with them, and it is impossible to keep it clear for any period of time).

I took a few photographs while I was there.
It felt strange to do so - I'm not a photographer by nature, and while in the right hands it is an important tool, a camera to me always feels a frivolous item. I tried to get over that, so below are a small number of pictures of various areas.

 The memorial Stupa, from outside

 One of the mass graves, with tributes on the fencing

 A shrine next to a glass case holding clothing

 A spirit house, next to a glass case housing unidentified remains not housed in the Stupa

 Loudspeakers were hung from this tree, and used to project revolutionary songs and music to cover the sounds of the executions

 Interior, the memorial Stupa

Interior, the memorial Stupa. The remains have been identified by gender and age, and are arranged according to seven characteristics, including bone type.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted and a new Government elected for Cambodia, the international community (including Britain) continued to officially recognise the Khmer Rouge as the government of Cambodia for several years afterwards - long after information emerged about the atrocities they committed.

I am still ill at ease with visiting sites like this. At least, those that are not part of my own heritage. Partly because I am worried about how people will perceive my intentions.
I believe, though, that it is important for outsiders also to try to know and understand how such things happen. To say another people's experiences can never be shared, or that it is none of my business to understand someone who does not have the same history as me, is to risk not only the proverbial repeating of history, but also to jeopardise the development of a better understanding of ourselves and each other. 

I hope the petrol pump attendant would agree it is a good reason.


  1. Whilst in Poland, I visited Auschwitz out of something that I find hard to describe, but could possibly convey as a sense of duty. I did not enjoy my time there. I will never go back. I am, however, glad I went. It was a brutal reminder of how fragile the freedoms I've grown up with really are, and I think that it's one of the few experiences that helps me fight my complacency when it comes to politics and human rights. The feelings that you get from being in a place are much more intense than mere words or pictures can convey. It makes actions taken before my birth somehow more real, more immediate, more dangerous. Society works because humans mainly follow. Teaching your people to challenge, to refuse, to question. These are what gives people a real chance.

  2. It sickens me how much tragedy is caused by the evils of people who are simply greedy and arrogant. I think it is good to be reminded of these things, especially when they are not a part of your culture, as at the end of the day we are all human and we all have to share the same world.