As a tourist, one breezes in and out of a country. You read a little, you hear a little, you get impressions – hardly the basis for providing a narrative about a culture. I don’t presume to do so. I really knew very little about Cambodia before we visited, other than its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. I had heard about the Killing Fields, [and there were many, not just one] and our tour gave us the choice to see the area near Phnom Penh used as a grave for many thousands at the Choeung EK Genocidal Center, and visit the S21 Detention Center in the center of the city [also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.] We chose to see. The tours were respectful and sorrowful. Rather than include the often seen photos of the killing fields, I’m posting the bracelets, thousands and thousands of them woven around acres and acres of fenced land where bodies were unearthed.
The former high school used as a Security Prison by the Khmer Rouge was the location of torture for an estimated 17,000 people. Photos and records were kept of each person who was brought here, and few left alive. There are many rooms lined with these photos, often showing the results of the horrors perpetrated on them. The Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate an estimated quarter of the country’s population in four years.
What’s to be made of it all? How can one possibly understand genocide? I came back home wanting to read more, and found Joel Brinkley’s book, “Cambodia’s Curse: the Modern History of a Troubled Land.” Brinkley reported on the fall of the Khmer Rouge and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 writing about Cambodian refugees. He had a long career with the New York Times, and returned to Cambodia 30 years later to reassess its conditions. I was riveted. He quotes a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph Mussomeli, as telling visitors “Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” I get it.
There is a lot wrong in Cambodia, as there is in every country. But Cambodia seems to have had more than its share of hardship. It lags behind its neighbors in most every element of development. Much of its rural population lives with minimal standards and without basic services. [We were astounded at the scourge of plastic bags all over the countryside.] The government is described by Brinkley and others as venal. And there are studies showing that a large percentage of the population that survived the Khmer Rouge is suffering from PTSD. How could they not?
There is also a new generation of Cambodians. More visitors are coming to see their country now, with its beauty and long history to share with the world. One can hope that the future holds better prospects for them than their past.