We left Saigon on a high note. We climbed up several flights of stairs in an old apartment building tucked down an alley, to emerge on the roof, where there’s a lovely restaurant called The Secret Garden. Homestyle food, some of the most delicious we’ve had. Then we caught a bus across the border to Cambodia.
I was instantly happier in Cambodia. The sun came out, which it almost never did in Vietnam. Not that that was Vietnam’s fault. But I was in a new country, with a new currency. Not, as you might expect, the Cambodian riel, but the U.S. dollar! It is possible in Cambodia to make every transaction in USD, only getting small change in riels. Automatic banking machines even dispense dollars.
We arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh, and walked into a guesthouse. Well, we walked into three before we found a room we liked—$10 a night with a fan and a surprisingly nice bathroom. I will never get over how easy this is in Southeast Asia. It shows how much we’ve gotten used to that the tile and plentiful supplies marked the bathroom as “nice.” After all, it was still a wet room, where the shower sprays all over everything and just drains through the floor. But some things we have gotten used to.
Others I never will. Almost everywhere we’ve eaten in Asia, except Indian restaurants, they just bring the food out in whatever order it’s cooked. I think this is because they assume everybody shares dishes family style—which we do in Indian restaurants too—but really, rice getting cold is not a course in itself. Even in Hong Kong, our friend told us if a main course happens to be ready, they’ll bring it, never mind if the appetizer hasn’t come yet. First World issues, eh?
The first friend we made in Cambodia was our remork driver. The Cambodian version of a tuk-tuk is a kind of wooden chariot, sort of like the ones on a carousel, that is integrated with a motorcycle in front. It’s a lot stabler than it sounds! This guy called up to us on the balcony of our guesthouse and offered his services, which we negotiated while he (astonishingly) identified T. as a Mancunian. I didn’t think there was enough of an accent there, certainly not for a Cambodian to hear it, but he’s a big Manchester United fan. He also turned out to know the words to “O Canada.”
|Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill|
|The old and the new: Phnom Penh riverfront|
When he asked us brightly, “Would you like to go to the Killing Fields tomorrow?” we had to accept. It’s not the kind of invitation that sounds, well, inviting. But we were in Cambodia and it had to be done.
For all the horrible things that human beings did to each other in the last century, it is hard to think of a worse string of luck than Cambodia’s. This is a country with a great ancient civilization, the Khmer empire, and whose colonial power (France) really did “protect” it, to some extent, from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. When King Norodom Sihanouk declared independence in 1953, things really started to go well for Cambodia. Then the hell started.
|Norodom Sihanouk monument, Phnom Penh|
It is bad enough that Cambodia, ostensibly on the pro-U.S. side, was used for part of the ingenious Ho Chi Minh trail, prompting massive bombings. (It was this escalation of the war into Cambodia that students were protesting in 1970 when the Kent State killings happened.) It’s bad enough that it became the most mined country on earth, with corresponding casualties. Before Saigon even fell in 1975, Cambodia was embroiled in its own conflicts, the upshot of which was the coming to power of what Sihanouk called the Khmer Rouge.
You could look at the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge and take it as a lesson that communist, no less than fascist, fanatics commit devastating violence. What strikes me most about it, though, was that Cambodians killed Cambodians. Most of the (depressingly not rare) genocides, intentional or unintentional, have been of one people against another whose lives they don’t value: Jews in Nazi Germany or aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Americas. But in Cambodia, almost everybody suffered.
Not the leader called Pol Pot, or his cronies, like Ieng Thirith or “Duch” (another nom de guerre). Ironically, although I’m ceasing to believe in irony in communism, they were highly educated people, the kind of people marked for death under their rule. Pol Pot was a teacher who ordered the murder of teachers. Ieng Thirith was a woman who studied Shakespeare at the Sorbonne and was the first Cambodian to earn a degree in English literature. Duch was a math teacher.
So they didn’t suffer, but everyone else did. Including the peasants, though the theory was class struggle in which the peasants were going to rule. Telling this to ignorant boys was how the Khmer Rouge got the man[sic]power to enforce their hideous regime. One of these young recruits, ordered to kill “traitors to the revolution,” recalled: “We were told that we had to catch up with the cycle of history.”
We heard this at an excellent memorial, Choeung Ek. There were many killing fields in Cambodia, but this one is accessible from Phnom Penh. It is where many of the men, women, and children imprisoned and tortured in a former high school in the city were brought to be murdered. (You can visit Tuol Sleng too, but I hope my readers will forgive me; we just couldn't.) After 1979 mass graves were discovered at the Choeung Ek killing fields. Not much else was left.
|Grave of 450 people|
It’s a tough place to visit, but very well done. You get to walk around with an audio guide and your own thoughts. The narrator in English is a Cambodian survivor of the regime; his family was split up after being forcibly removed from Phnom Penh, and many did not survive. The many voices you hear at Choeung Ek make the story personal: how could Cambodians do this to millions of their own countrymen?
One clue is that by 1975, 80% of Cambodians were living in extreme poverty. That statistic is as staggering as the estimated 25% of the population who ended up dead because of the Khmer Rouge. The country had just been wrecked by a war that wasn't even its own. When Pol Pot came along and said let’s start over…
|One ghostly flip flop. Evoked the "shoes without people" at Auschwitz death camp|
“Starting over” literally meant “Year Zero” for the Khmer Rouge. They wanted to wipe out any trace of civilization in Cambodia, and largely succeeded. They killed Buddhist monks and nuns and damaged or destroyed almost all the temples in the country. For reasons that are hard to grasp, they wanted everyone in Cambodia to work on collective farms, producing rice at a rate that was not humanly possible. At one point in the late 1970s, the entire country was basically one huge slave labor camp.
Perhaps because the horror of the Khmer Rouge was contained within Cambodia, and the borders were sealed, it took time for the rest of the world to gain awareness of what had happened there. For some time after Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge, it was still considered the legitimate government of Cambodia by Western countries, including the U.K. and U.S. Perhaps some people were reluctant to recognize anyone who had been installed by communist Vietnam.
But when the killing fields were acknowledged, here is what was found: 20,000 people murdered just at Choeung Ek. One hundred and twenty-nine mass graves. Across the country, up to three million Cambodians killed by their own people in less than four years. No wonder it was hard to believe.
|A peaceful place for contemplation now|
There are no buildings left from the time of the killing fields. By the end of the regime people were starving, and they took any materials they could use. All you find there now are graves, and the occasional tree.
When confronted with what had happened at this tree (“taketh and dasheth thy little ones...” as the Psalmist said), the man known as Duch broke down. Later, in the tribunal, he accepted responsibility for the murders and refused to blame his subordinates for carrying out his orders. He also said that he prayed for the souls of his victims.
Duch defected from the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s and became a Christian. He is the only member of the regime’s leadership to have admitted his crimes or expressed remorse.
Religion, being an expression of humanity, was one of many things the Khmer Rouge was bent on destroying. But for many Cambodians, their Buddhist faith was part of what got them through those terrible years. At the center of Choeung Ek is a stupa, a Buddhist site that traditionally holds holy relics. This one is a charnel house. It holds the skulls, teeth and bones of some of the eight thousand human beings whose remains were recovered for this purpose.
You can take pictures in the stupa, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do, in the presence of these people; I don’t know how else to describe it. I removed my shoes, of course, and thought I’d say some kind of prayer for peace for the victims. But what actually came to my lips was the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
I didn’t think that out consciously. The prayer that came to me was Christian, not Buddhist, because that is my tradition. It may sound naive in the face of so many horrors, but I really did come out of that place feeling that I must be a better person, or do more, or something. If faith means anything at all it can’t just be my tradition, but make some kind of difference in real life.
And this was tested right away, because as we moved into the week before Christmas, the question was raised: If God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became man and performed miracles and all that, why would he then leave the world to it? When it’s obvious that we make such an awful mess.
Now, I know that there are men, and at least one woman, who have devoted whole books to this question. Virginia Mollenkott wrote Godding based on I John 4:17: “As He is so are we in this world.” I was raised to believe that I should "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (I Peter 3:5). But in Cambodia, in the final week of Advent, I really didn’t have an answer. Not one that would speak to the bones of Choeung Ek.
Of the many Cambodians’ voices we heard on our audio tour, perhaps the most moving was that of a young man who survived imprisonment to emigrate to America and, eventually, return to work on trying to heal Cambodia. This survivor, when really just a boy, was held in a prison full of adults. There was a man there who spoke up to the prison authorities, insisting that this child did not belong in an adult prison and they should let him go. Eventually they did, but the young man said he realized that by repeatedly speaking up for him, the other man had sacrificed his own life.
Was this older man “Godding”—being as God is to his fellow man in this world? Is this an answer? I don’t know, but as with every such story, it was humbling. And in this world that can seem much more like the crucifixion than the manger, it was the closest I could get.