The Hot Season has arrived in Cambodia and it’s a scorcher. Today will be 36C with 60% humidity and 0 chance of precipitation despite thick clouds weighing the sky down. That makes for a very sticky time and after a warm but comfortable couple of months, my Many Sweats have returned. The MSF “zero contract” fell through. For now I’m still on the books for a short project but by the end of this month if nothing comes up, I’ll leave for my planned travels instead. Meanwhile it was interesting to see a new part of Cambodia last week, on a four day visit to Kep on the south east coast. The famous Crab Market about 2km from the town centre was an especially fun and interesting place. The nation’s muddy rivers are not the only water where Khmer people master their impressive boating and fishing skills. There is also hundreds of kilometres of coastline along which industrious seafaring lives play out. On our recent trip to Kratie I realised Chom’s references to living on the Mekong with his father as a child, have made him an adept sailor, swimmer and fisherman. His dream is to own a boat to take tourists on guided tours of the local delta. One of my dreams is to help him realise this dream.
The horrors of life with the Khmer Rouge were well illustrated by my Tuk Tuk Madame in Kep, who was born in 1974 and has memories of life in the late 1970s when Pol Pot ruled. Khmer Rouge soldiers lived in the hills around Kep, which are now graveyards to thousands of people who lost their lives on the famous “Killing Fields” scattered throughout the land. TTM described his memories of the townspeople traveling communally each evening to a nearby island by boat, to escape the gun battles which raged in Kep every night. A few decades later this island is visited by more tourists than locals and I had a very relaxing afternoon in a hammock under a tree with my book here, pondering on how different my experience of this island was in comparison to countless locals.
TTM took me past, and into, many abandoned homes which had clearly once been comfortable and modern abodes. Khmer Rouge marched the owners away and killed them, as they did all of the accused “bourgeoise”. These homes were then plundered and now lie derelict and overgrown. Stories abound, particularly at the ruins of the king’s coastal palace, of ghosts roaming the grounds searching for someone to speak to. The external walls of this shorefront building are riddled with visible bullet holes. These once-wealthy homes sit on prime coastal real estate which is slowly being bought by wealthy landowners. Currently they sit like open air museum relics from an era of deranged violence perpetrated against millions, in an area known as “Ghost Village”.
The historical context of Cambodia made it “ripe for the picking” by Pol Pot. 100 Years of French colonial rule was followed by King Norodom Sihanouk whose main preoccupation appeared to be self-preservation. He was overthrown by Prime Minister Lon Nol in 1970 who was a corrupt right wing military leader with very unbalanced behaviour. National Khmer interest was not represented well by any leader for many decades. This created a political setting of war with neighbouring countries and the creation of the very secretive and atrocious Khmer Rouge army under Pol Pot’s leadership.
It’s difficult to fathom the rationale behind Pol Pot’s policies, which I think is because he was an unhinged maniac. Whilst the bourgeoise and intellectual classes were among his first focus for genocide, noone was really safe and his adolescent armed forces purged many. The purges were predictable to begin with – ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese; Islamic (Cham) communities; those identified as loyal to the overthrown Republic; most city-living people because they were considered tainted by western ideals; anyone thought to have broken the stringent set of rules put in place under the regime. As the years passed, these purges became broader and more unpredictable. The country was divided into “zones”, removing all signs of the previous provincial divisions, and at different times, different zones were purged (ie murdered en masse) after failing to achieve the unrealistically high expectations in rice yields. These yields were often forged in official documents to prevent the wrath of the administration, who had destroyed all infrastructure whilst demanding production which manual labour alone could never sustain.
Tuol Sleng, previously a school in Phnom Penh, is the famous genocidal torture chamber run by the regime’s Special Police Force, but the country was littered with smaller versions of this prison where low ranking cadre carried out punishment and murder on a scale that remains only estimated to this day. Documents show that victims of these hell holes were tortured into admitting various fictional crimes which confirmed Pol Pot’s paranoid delusions including that they were plants of the American CIA, Vietnamese government and other fantastic, often convoluted stories. But millions who did not fall victim to the overt violence and killings, died from disease, starvation, overwork and lack of any medical service. The country’s food supply dwindled and the peasant workers, as they were now known, worked themselves into the ground, in a constant state of fear, for literally no gain other than the desire to survive.
Many who previously thought they were reasonably safe, including high ranking members of the Khmer Rouge and even some who had been his closest confidantes, ended up as targets of Pol Pot’s very fluid paranoia. All evidence of failure in his lunacy-driven regime had to be blamed on outside infiltration and “the enemy” was imagined in all kinds of places. This was why certain Khmer Rouge cadre fled the country. One such middle ranking officer was the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who was captured in Vietnam after escaping from would-be executioners in 1977. When Vietnam invaded in 1979 they denied involvement despite all evidence, claiming instead that Cambodian insurgents were responsible. Hun Sen entered at this time as the Vietnamese-installed Foreign Minister.
Human rights abuses in Cambodia are visible on a daily basis today. From the poverty and deprivation that I often speak about, to removal of land from underneath homes if it is deemed useful for another purpose and the violent silencing of opposition which is reported in local media almost daily. According to Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org/asia/cambodia), Hun Sen has kept himself in power for the past 27 years through intimidation and force, with corruption and suppression officially sanctioned in most if not all political spheres. Today this man and his government ministers, almost all of similar backgrounds, are the people that my Australian government are working with on a program of refugee resettlement.
Australia is giving $35 million to the Cambodian government in exchange for resettlement of an unknown number of asylum seekers from our detention centres. That a democratic government alleged to have right-wing ideals would find partnership with a Communist regime seems unlikely, but their ideals seem to be frighteningly similar, at least where persecuted and marginalised minorities are concerned. It seems that the political spectrum is a circle and if you travel far enough in either a left or a right direction, you’ll end up meeting your political opposite on mutual territory!
In the middle of this political parody, last month Cambodia forcibly returned 40 Vietnamese ethinic minority asylum seekers to Vietnam, amidst claims that because Cambodia is “neutral”, they cannot legally take refugees from any country!
Particularly nauseating for me, was a media report last year of Scott Morrison, Australia’s Minister for Immigration, in Phnom Penh to sign the deal, surrounded by Cambodian officials, at a table trimmed with golden faux-silk, sipping champagne in celebration of the agreement. The deal and the scene made a mockery of the Australian delusion that we are in any way more humanitarian than third world despotic regimes. Mister Morrison sat like an Australian mascot, apparently blissfully unaware of the hungry, suppressed masses a stone’s throw away from his privileged floral cushioned throne.
I can only hope that when chickens come home to roost for Morrison and PM Tony Abbott, they don’t bring the rest of us down with them. Modern day Cambodian history is a good example to suggest that hope is an unlikely outcome.
This is a brief synopsis based on my own brief readings and opinions.