Cambodia, to me, felt very much as though it also deserved its own reflections post. We spent time at both ends of the country, and saw both its triumphant past as a city of art, culture and religion in Angkor, and the more recent and tragic history that so thoroughly wrecked the country and held it back. I don’t think it’s possible to visit Cambodia and not be deeply, permanently moved by the utter devastation and brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime.
I struggled so much to understand what drove the Khmer Rouge, practically and psychologically, that I downloaded and read Survival in the Killing Fields, by Haing Ngor, who was a doctor in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and managed to survive, although he was tortured three times and lost his wife and almost all his family. The book is devastating and gripping, and I recommend it strongly. Reading through, the pieces that made the genocide possible became tangible and understandable; the overspill into Cambodian territory of North Vietnamese communists and the Vietnam War; the overthrow of Cambodia’s savvy political king Sihanouk by a corrupt general, Lon Nol; and the fatal mistake by Sihanouk of trying to reestablish his credibility and ‘face’ by going over to the Khmer Rouge, who were then a ragtag band of fighters living in the jungle, and urging other Cambodians to join them. Without the backing of Sihanouk, whom rural Cambodians widely saw as a god, the Khmer Rouge might never have gained enough credibility or manpower to take over. So much of the violence seemed driven by petty revenge – the poor and uneducated were given rifles and saw their chance to get their own back on the city people and the elite – and a horrifying number of the Khmer Rouge soldiers were, essentially, children. And, as in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, on which many of the Khmer Rouge’s ideas were based, millions died not from concentrated malice, but from starvation stemming from poor planning and sheer incompetence.
One of the painful things about the story is that there is no happy ending. I’m as blank as I ever was on the motives and the drivers of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the shadowy operators who ran things under the banner of Angka, “the organisation”. Petty point-scoring and vindictiveness of the small-scale Khmer Rouge killed millions, but the leaders instituted programmes of mass killing, and none of them have ever seemed penitent or regretful. Pol Pot died in relative comfort without ever facing prosecution, and the Khmer Rouge continued to be recognised as Cambodia’s legitimate government by the UN until 1993. Nor did ‘liberation’ by the Vietnamese in 1979 improve things any. The story of Cambodia is of a small, sleepy, inoffensive country brutally kicked around and exploited by greater powers in the twentieth-century battle for strategic footholds in Asia. What I found tragic, as well, was that Cambodia’s countryside has not progressed from how it’s described in 1970, when civil war began. I think it possible that it has even gone backwards. In rural areas, I saw essentially no vehicles larger than a motorbike or scooter, and most people still scratch out lives of subsistence farming. Ngang, our guide at Angkor, told us about the challenges of keeping rural children in school; teachers aren’t paid a living wage, so they charge the children per lesson to attend, and many families simply can’t meet the double burden of not having children available to work, and having to pay for their education on a literally daily basis. Almost all the country’s Buddhist monks died, and almost all temples were destroyed. The scale is almost ungraspable.
By reading, I also learned so much more about the culture of the country, and of Southeast Asia in general. The importance of ‘face’ is something everyone knows, but it takes time for someone from a Western culture, I think, to understand it deeply. When you become angry with someone in Southeast Asia, you literally ‘break his or her face’, and cause them to lose status in public, which requires them to restore their ‘face’ by getting revenge on you. As a result, it is genuinely very important to maintain your temper while dealing with people in the region, even under provocation; you can stand your ground, but you must smile while doing it. The more I learned, the more I felt embarrassed by my ignorance; the importance of not pointing your feet at a Buddha image, of not touching people on the head (the seat of the soul for Buddhists), and the need to understand that for Khmers, who are culturally polite and shy, a hesitant ‘yes’ means the ‘no’ that it’s not considered polite to give. Women must never touch a monk, even by accident, so it’s important to be careful as you walk past one on the street. It may seem a lot of effort for a short holiday, but I think it’s not only respectful and worth it, it’s essential to challenge our own prejudices and habits. When you visit someone’s home, you accept that within it they have the right to set their own rules; to obey them is common courtesy.
Cambodia is beautiful and heartbreaking. Go there.