Right the blog is so far behind I'll try and update it from what I can remember!
November 23rd we travelled by bus from HCMC in Vietnam to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.
A little about Phnom Penh; Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since the French colonized Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation's centre of economic and industrial activities, as well as the centre of security, politics, economics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy of Cambodia. Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to more than 2 million of Cambodia's population of over 14 million. The city is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia and is home to the country's political hub.
On our first day in Phnom Penh (Thursday 24th November) we went to visit the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison.
First I will tell you a little about the Khmer Rouge;
After taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge leadership renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. The Khmer Rouge forced around two million people from the cities to the country to take up work in the agricultural field. They were not only forcing people out of their homes, but then also depriving humans of their basic rights as they controlled how Cambodians acted, what they wore, who they could talk to, and many other aspects of their lives. Over the next years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors.
The population in Cambodia was around 7,100,000 at the beginning of what ended up being the most lethal regime of the 20th century. Throughout the next ten years, 3,300,000 people (including men, women, children, and foreigners) were killed and by the end of the genocide, there was a total of slightly less than four million that were lost to the ways of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of "involvement in free-market activities". Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, many urban dwellers, and people with connections to foreign governments.
The Khmer Rouge believed parents were tainted with capitalism. Consequently, children were separated from parents and indoctrinated in communism as well as taught torture methods with animals. Children were a "dictatorial instrument of the party" and were given leadership in torture and executions.
Pol Pot was a key leader in the movement after he returned to Cambodia from France. He had become a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) which gave guidance to the ideas of the Khmer Rouge.
The movement gained strength and support in the north-eastern jungles and established firm footing when Cambodia's leader Prince Sihanouk was removed from office during a military coup in 1970. The former prince then looked to the Khmer Rouge for backing. With the threat of Civil war looming, the Khmer Rouge gained support by posing as a "party for peace".
As the Khmer Rouge gained power they focused on an ideology of establishing a purely agrarian society. Pol Pot highly influenced the propagation of this policy. It is believed that he was influenced by the way that tribes of the north-eastern jungles lived. He respected that they lived "free of Buddhism, money or education" and decided that this was a good way for the people of Cambodia to start living. He wanted social institutions to be removed and make the society all agrarian. This was his way of "[creating] a complete Communist society without wasting time on the intermediate steps" as the Khmer Rouge said to China in 1975.
After four years of rule, the Khmer Rouge regime was removed from power in 1979 as a result of an invasion by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and was replaced by moderate, pro-Vietnamese Communists. The Khmer Rouge survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement operating in western Cambodia from bases in Thailand. In 1996, following a peace agreement, their leader Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998, having never been put on trial.
The killing fields or Choeung Ek is the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17 km south of Phnom Penh, it is the best-known of the sites known as The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime executed about 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in their Tuol Sleng detention centre.
Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in.
Before visiting the Killing Fields we both knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge Regime. On arrival we were given an audio guide. There were points around the killing field's site where you would stand while being told what happened in that area. It was the most shocking and saddest thing I've ever had to listen to.
Analysis of 20,000 mass grave sites by the DC-Cam Mapping Program and Yale University indicate at least 1,386,734 victims. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of around 8 million. In 1979, communist Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese (except for those already prominent among the Khmer Rouge themselves), ethnic Chams (Muslim Cambodians), Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. As a result, Pol Pot is sometimes described as "the Hitler of Cambodia" and "a genocidal tyrant." Martin Shaw described the Cambodian genocide as "the purest genocide of the Cold War era."
The judicial process of the Khmer Rouge regime, for minor or political crimes, began with a warning from the Angkar, the government of Cambodia under the regime. People receiving more than two warnings were sent for "re-education," which meant near-certain death. People were often encouraged to confess to Angkar their "pre-revolutionary lifestyles and crimes" (which usually included some kind of free-market activity; having had contact with a foreign source, such as a U.S. missionary, international relief or government agency; or contact with any foreigner or with the outside world at all), being told that Angkar would forgive them and "wipe the slate clean." This meant being taken away to a place such as Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek for torture and/or execution. The executed were buried in mass graves. In order to save ammunition, the executions were often carried out using poison, spades or sharpened bamboo sticks. In some cases the children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees. The rationale was "to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents' deaths." Some victims were required to dig their own graves; their weakness often meant that they were unable to dig very deep. The soldiers who carried out the executions were mostly young men or women from peasant families.
After the killing fields we drove to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum; the site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge communist regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill".
The five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975; four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, into a prison and interrogation centre. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex "Security Prison 21" (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians. Although the official reason for their arrest was "espionage", these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners' families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek extermination center.
In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People's Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Life in the prison;
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were ordered to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide. Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonful's of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days.
The prison had very strict regulations, and severe beatings were inflicted upon any prisoner who tried to disobey. Almost every action had to be approved by one of the prison's guards. They were sometimes forced to eat human faeces and drink human urine. The unhygienic living conditions in the prison caused skin diseases, lice, rashes, ringworm and other ailments. The prison's medical staffs were untrained and offered treatment only to sustain prisoners' lives after they had been injured during interrogation. When prisoners were taken from one place to another for interrogation, their faces were covered. Guards and prisoners were not allowed to converse. Moreover, within the prison, people who were in different groups were not allowed to have contact with one another.
Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months. However, several high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres were held longer. Within two or three days after they were brought to S-21, all prisoners were taken for interrogation. The torture system at Tuol Sleng was designed to make prisoners confess to whatever crimes they were charged with by their captors. Prisoners were routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoners' heads under water, and the use of the waterboarding technique. Females were sometimes raped by the interrogators, even though sexual abuse was against Democratic Kampuchea policy. The perpetrators who were found out were executed. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Khmer Rouge needed their confessions. The "Medical Unit" at Tuol Sleng, however, did kill at least 100 prisoners by bleeding them to death.
In their confessions, the prisoners were asked to describe their personal background. If they were party members, they had to say when they joined the revolution and describe their work assignments in DK. Then the prisoners would relate their supposed treasonous activities in chronological order. The third section of the confession text described prisoners' thwarted conspiracies and supposed treasonous conversations. At the end, the confessions would list a string of traitors who were the prisoners' friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. Some lists contained over a hundred names. People whose names were in the confession list were often called in for interrogation.
Typical confessions ran into thousands of words in which the prisoner would interweave true events in their lives with imaginary accounts of their espionage activities for the CIA, the KGB, or Vietnam. The confession of Hu Nim ended with the words "I am not a human being, I'm an animal". A young Englishman named John Dawson Dewhirst who was arrested in August 1978 claimed to have joined the CIA at age 12 upon his father receiving a substantial bribe from a work colleague, also an agent. Physical torture was combined with sleep deprivation and deliberate neglect of the prisoners. The torture implements are on display in the museum. It is believed that the vast majority of prisoners were innocent of the charges against them and that the torture produced false confessions.
For the first year of S-21's existence, corpses were buried near the prison. However, by the end of 1976, cadres ran out of burial spaces, the prisoner and their family were taken to the Choeung Ek killing field. There, they were killed by being battered with iron bars, pickaxes, machetes and many other makeshift weapons owing to the scarcity, and subsequent price of ammunition. After the prisoners were executed, the soldiers who had accompanied them from S-21 buried them in graves that held as few as 6 and as many as 100 bodies.
I was shocked to hear that the remaining surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are still awaiting trial.
When we arrived back at our Guest House we both felt very emotionally drained, it was a hard day but we learnt so much and despite having gone through so much in recent years the Cambodian people are the friendliest and most welcoming we have met so far.
The next day (Friday 25th) we visited the Cambidoian National Museum: Designed by George Groslier and the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens the National Museum was built in 1917 in traditional Khmer style and inaugurated in 1920 by King Sisowat. The National Museum houses the world's foremost collection of ancient Khmer archeological, religious, and artistic artifacts from the 4th to the 13th centuries. There are over 5000 pieces and is the repository of the Kingdom's cultural wealth. In addition, the roof space is home to the largest bat colony in the world living in an artificial structure. Every evening these bats flock out of the roof and swarm around in the sky before searching for food.
It was actually pretty boring! We wondered around then spent more time sat outside enjoying the architecture!
Next we walked across to the Royal Palace; a complex of buildings which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. Its full name in the Khmer language is Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk. The Kings of Cambodia have occupied it since it was built in 1860's, with a period of absence when the country came into turmoil during and after the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The complex is divided by walls into three main compounds, on the north side is the Silver Pagoda; (The Silver Pagoda is a compound located on the South side of the palace complex. It features a royal temple. Its main building houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Most notable is a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha (the "Emerald Buddha" of Cambodia) and a near-life-size, Maitreya Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds dressed in royal regalia commissioned by King Sisowath. During King Sihanouk's pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble)
To the south side is the Khemarin Palace; (The Khemarin Palace is used a residence by the King of Cambodia. This compound is separated from other buildings by a small wall and is located to the right of the Throne Hall. The main building is topped with a single spired prang.) The King was actually in residence the day we visited too as we saw his flag flying!)
The central compound contains the Throne Hall (The Throne Hall is where the king's confidants, generals and royal officials once carried out their duties. It is still in use today as a place for religious and royal ceremonies (such as coronations and royal weddings) as well as a meeting place for guests of the King. The cross-shaped building is crowned with three spires. The central, 59 meter spire is topped with the white, four-faced head of Brahma. Inside the Throne Hall contains a royal throne and busts of Cambodians kings of the past. This Throne Hall is the second to be built on this site. The first was constructed of wood in 1869-1870 that Throne Hall was demolished in 1915. The present building was constructed in 1917. The building is 30x60 meters and topped by a 59-meter spire. The buildings of the palace were built gradually overtime, and some were dismantled and rebuilt as late as the 1960s. But some old buildings dates back to the 14th century.