Year Zero nostalgia in Cambodia – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the long shadow of the Khmer Rouge

If, on your travels, you ever ruled out the possibility of asking someone, in earnest, the Pythonesque question: “What did the Khmer Rouge ever do for you?” you might consider the frontier town of Anlong Veng in northern Cambodia. Locals there will answer in echoing tones of Monty Python, and equally in earnest: water, irrigation, roads, bridges, a school, a hospital.

A dusty outpost near the lush, mountainous Thai border, the town and its surrounds are a retirement zone of sorts for former Khmer Rouge operatives and their families, most of them ageing subsistence farmers living off crops of jackfruit, cashews and rice. Possibly the only place you’ll hear the words “Khmer Rouge” and “nostalgia” uttered in one sentence, this is where the communist movement held out for nearly 20 years after it was ousted in 1979, and where the ghost of Ta Mok, known as Pol Pot’s “Butcher”, preoccupies locals.

As military enforcer of the regime that ruled Cambodia for four years, wiping out two million people, Ta Mok was also a shrewd politician, taking care of local needs and rewarding loyalty. He fought with Pol Pot, though, a dispute that split the leadership in the 1990s, and it’s this crucial point in Khmer Rouge history that the people of Anlong Veng appear to regret most, because it heralded the collapse of the movement.

There’s no doubting which side the locals were on. Ta Mok’s name means “Uncle”, and he’s venerated as a wise ancestor who’s unfortunately no longer around, having died in custody in 2006 while awaiting trial for war crimes. His grave is a well-visited grand stupa, in stark contrast to the decrepit cremation site nearby of Pol Pot, who died while under house arrest in 1998, a year after a show trial orchestrated by Ta Mok.

There is, coincidentally, more than one python in this account. Ta Mok’s house, now a museum, is built on stilts by a man-made lake a few kilometres out of town. There’s little remaining evidence of his life in its spartan structure, but a distressing image in the yard greeted this visitor, and the fact it wasn’t intended to shock made it eerily apt: a black duckling with a bright-orange beak was standing in an iron cage, contemplating two sleeping pythons coiled up beside it. The snakes were in mid-digestion, each diamond-patterned green-and-brown body bulging at a point midway between head and tail. The size of their last meal appeared about the same as the live bird now watching them. The cage floor was littered with soft black feathers.

Three girls from the local high school giggled shyly on seeing my dismay. “Of course,” they answered in unison in their Khmer language, to an obvious – and, to these teenagers, comically innocent – question about the duck’s fate.

Measuring less than five feet by three, the cages once held humans. Pol Pot’s military henchmen and some of their family members spent months languishing there after his arrest and trial. His main commander, wife and son were eventually taken out and buried alive.

The girls at the museum were born after the demise of the Khmer Rouge which, incidentally, once counted among its members the prime minister, Hun Sen, who has been busy abolishing the opposition and crushing the free press ahead of elections this month. But they have grown up with stories about the “glory” days. “My uncle was a soldier with Ta Mok,” 16-year-old Sros said proudly. Asked what she would tell Pol Pot if she met him now, she replied. “I would ask him: why did you argue with Ta Mok? Why did you divide everyone? You should have concentrated on unity. I’d tell him stuff like that.”

Unity, in Sros’s view, means Khmer Rouge – not national – unity. “There are people here, like Sros’s uncle, who believe the Khmer Rouge could have kept going, and still be in power if Pol Pot hadn’t started that dispute,” Ly-Sok Kheang of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia explained.

The centre, which has collected a vast archive on the genocide and plans to turn the area into a historical tourism and educational site, has been organising reconciliation events in which victims of the regime meet its former cadre members.

The ambitious aim is to integrate the people here with the rest of the country. “There’s a mindset here that’s hard to change,” says Kheang. “But this is what reconciliation is all about.”

In Python terms, the duckling is most definitely deceased. Protecting others from the same destiny is Cambodia’s challenge.