Some surprising attitudes to legacy of Khmer Rouge cruelty
LETTER FROM CAMBODIA:I WAS sitting quietly on a bench, well off the main path out of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tuol Sleng is a 1960s high school, converted into the notorious S21 torture centre by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
You need a bit of quiet after visiting Tuol Sleng, or at least I did.
The silent rooms in its three-storey blockhouses are heartbreakingly eloquent about the miseries endured by thousands of alleged “traitors” under Pol Pot’s notorious regime.
Almost everyone who survived the interrogations here was then transported to Choueng Ek, an orchard transformed into a killing field.
I had dreaded coming to this place, yet it felt wrong to enjoy the splendid Khmer temples around Angkor Wat and the abundant wildlife of Tonle Sap’s flooded forests without making some small pilgrimage to acknowledge Cambodia’s nightmarish recent past.
Still trying to make some sense of the senseless cruelty in S21, I was surprised to be accosted on my bench by a tall, sixtysomething American of unmistakable military bearing, who had turned off the path to face me. This in itself was odd. People generally move around Tuol Sleng in stunned silence, avoiding each other’s eyes, often weeping mutely as they walk. There are exceptions: a graffiti writer from Waterford, Killian by name, had signed himself as “Boss Sex Tourist 2010” on a wall that must have witnessed unimaginable suffering.
But back to my big American. “You having a good time yet?” he asked me affably.
“What?” was the most articulate response I could manage.
“Hey, this is a vacation, isn’t it?” he persisted, grinning broadly, facing me four-square and eyeballing me behind dark glasses. This guy was not moving on until I got his little joke.
I asked him, as calmly as I could manage, if he had the remotest idea where he was standing.
His tone changed. “I know exactly where I am,” he said firmly, and then added, with knowing emphasis: “I was here.”
That did it. Maybe I was wrong, but he seemed to be saying, very proudly, that he was a veteran of the American wars in southeast Asia.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course. We had shared the trip to Tonle Sap with a former GI who was teaching voluntarily in Siem Reap on his holidays “because I want to give something back”.
But this guy seemed touched by no such reflections and brought out the worst in me.
“You people bear a lot of responsibility for what happened here,” I snarled.
I was thinking of the illegal US saturation bombing of Cambodia, more tonnage of high explosives on this single small country than had been had dropped by the Allies on Europe in the entire second World War.
Rage against this terror from the skies had driven tens of thousands of desperate peasants into the arms of the Khmer Rouge “liberation” movement and contributed to its victory in 1975.
I was also thinking of the cruel contortion in Cold War geopolitics that had led the US (and Britain and China) to actively support the Khmer Rouge “resistance” for a decade after the Vietnamese had ousted Pol Pot from Phnom Penh four years later.
All a bit too complicated to explain to my new acquaintance.
“My people?” he said, genuinely puzzled. “But I’m Irish.” And he shrugged and strode off, as innocent as the day he was born.
Cambodia is certainly a very complicated place and it would take years, not weeks, of experience to begin to understand it.
Few peoples seem better adapted to welcoming foreigners than today’s Khmers.
You find yourself wondering how people who have suffered so terribly, and in some cases have inflicted such terrible suffering, can be so unfailingly kind to strangers.
Every so often, however, you realise that dark and turbulent currents still flow beneath the radiant surface charm.
While we were visiting, one of the chronically delayed UN-backed trials of the Khmer Rouge leadership was taking place in Phnom Penh.
Khieu Samphan, a former head of state, claimed that he knew nothing about his regime’s atrocities. He said his movement had simply defended the nation against aggression, first American, and then Vietnamese.
During the trial, I happened to ask a young, very bright and well-informed Cambodian whether any Vietnamese lived in the village we were visiting with him. He abruptly launched into a barely controlled tirade against Vietnamese influence on his country. Although I had not mentioned the trial, he volunteered that he thought that Khieu was, at least in part, telling the truth about the past.
For the second time in our visit, I was left speechless.