Ending genocide is paramount. And in the years after a mass atrocity, it is time for healing and justice. Eventually, however, graver human rights violations foment elsewhere and intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, and the press pack up and move on. Therefore, it’s quite common that a people who have overcome genocide and their progeny are still greatly effected by the past. That is apparent when examining Cambodia.
In 1979, the Cambodian Genocide ended. Approximately two million Cambodians had been murdered in less than four years and the perpetrators–the Khmer Rouge–escaped for the jungles along the Thai border. The Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, remained stationed there for nearly two decades, as civil war ensued and Cambodia became the most heavily mined country in the world. (Pol Pot died in 1998, but during those nineteen years in the jungle, his Khmer Rouge was still recognized as the Cambodian government-in-exile and they held a seat in the United Nations.)
Despite Pol Pot’s death and the eventual dissolution of the Khmer Rouge, today, the country is still haunted by the 1970s and the troubling decades that followed.
“We know the members of the Khmer Rouge, but we cannot take them to jail,” my guide told me as we stood on a blood-stained floor in S-21. This former school in the capital city of Phnom Penh had been transformed into a prison and torture site back in 1975. “After the war, this man smiled at me because I knew he was Khmer Rouge. I could only smile at him. But we cannot send them to the jail.”
Victims living beside their perpetrators is disturbing. To make matters worse, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, and members of his cabinet also have ties to Pol Pot. Hun Sen is a Khmer Rouge defector; the most questionable member of his cabinet, Hor Namhong, is alleged to have run one of the most infamous prisons. (A former Khmer Rouge prison guard, Kaing Guek Eav, who had admitted to performing the same tasks that Namhong is accused of having carried out, is the only high-ranking official to receive any sentencing from an international court for his crimes against humanity.)
As one travels Cambodia, the face of Hun Sen becomes ubiquitous. He, along with other members of the Cambodian People’s Party, appears on blue metal signs, which outnumber traffic signs by a huge margin. The signs remind the people that Hun Sen is not cutting short his 28-year rule. He’s been voted out, but used violent purges to retain power. Presently, he is being accused of rigging last summer’s elections. Over the past few months, anti-government protesters and strikers hoping for a fair wage have been gathering peacefully. Hun Sen’s response has been to deploy his military police and crack down on demonstrators. Many protesters have been injured and earlier this year, five workers were killed when security forces fired live ammunition into the crowd.
When a prime minister suppresses natural human rights and violates election laws, it should come as no surprise that he would do much more to retain power and save face. Thus, in an effort to keep the next generation from judging their prime minister’s prior role as a Khmer Rouge member, most Cambodian students do not learn much, if anything, about the genocide.
“They know what happened,” my tuk tuk driver had told me after we had spoken with a 21-year-old man who had taken his younger siblings and cousins to a killing cave in Battamabang. While we had come to visit the stupa filled with bones and pay our respects to the dead, the children were there to make offerings to a Buddha. “They just don’t know why it happened.”
Knowing the what matters little when a government skilled in propaganda can revise history.
When my wife and I arrived in Siem Reap, the town most proximate to the Angkor Wat complex, a teenager named Tom approached our dinner table–one of many that line the popular street West Alley. He was selling a pirated copy of Loung Ung’s memoir “First They Killed My Father.” (Of course, his pitch began with the charming Cambodian cliche for building rapport with Americans: a recitation of the capital cities for Alaska, Texas, and New York and then a naming of the American presidents from Obama back to Reagan.)
“You know a lot about history,” I told Tom. “What sort of history do they teach you in school?”
“We learn about ancient history,” he said.
“What about the 1970s? Like what happened in this book?”
“We learn only ancient history,” he said again, as that past consists of a more lucrative pool of facts, facts that can be used by future tour guides of Angkor Wat. (Sadly, very few people stop along the roads that lead to the ruins. If they had, they would have noticed a small cemetery where a stupa that contains the remains of the thousands who had been murdered nearby stands. Even fewer stop to notice the signs that explain that land mines and unexploded ordnance have been found nearby the major tourist attractions. One stood a few meters from the parking lot of the Banteay Srei temple.)
“But this is a very good book that you will enjoy,” Tom continued. “You will learn all about that time period.”
“You’ve read it then?”
“No. I just read the back.”
Then the cops came and chased him down West Alley.
There are thousands of Cambodian kids like Tom, forced by parents, orphanages, or gangs to peddle shlock to tourists. Unlike Tom, the work keeps them out of the classroom and perpetuates a society of eventual, uneducated adults.
For all the money that tourism brings to a country, the influx of travelers to Cambodia has also done significant damage, beyond that of creating a low caste of merchant children. In a country where a third of the people live on less than one dollar a day, many young girls have been forced into prostitution. Additionally, numerous disreputable orphanages have become for-profit businesses. According to a recent Forbes report, 71% of children in orphanages actually have living parents. These orphanages speciously promise families that the kids that come to live with them will have better lives. However, these institutions only serve to exploit the children and break up healthy families.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power, educated people were targeted and killed. It’s no wonder that health care in Cambodia has felt the brunt of a society that had their trained medical workers eliminated. According to the World Health Organization, adult mortality in Cambodia is twice as high as the other countries in the region and UNICEF reports that Cambodia has the highest infant and under five mortality rates in the region.
During my visit in 2012, while tourists raced to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, I remember long lines forming outside of hospitals. Parents were running toward the doors with their babies cradled in their arms; other parents paced out front, waiting to learn about their children’s fate. Cambodian kids were dying from a “mysterious disease.” (Today, researchers believe that the 52 Cambodian children who had died that summer from this outbreak had contracted Hand Foot and Mouth Disease.)
Deadlier still are the estimated five million land mines and unexploded ordnance littering the countryside, killing and maiming kids or making them orphans. According to the HALO Trust, Cambodia has the highest number of amputees per capita. The psychological impact on Cambodians is huge and there is increased pressure on families to care for victims of land mines. Additionally, there is a major economic strain on a society replete with severely disabled citizens and a significant economic loss when the land that could be used for agriculture, irrigation, or development, is too dangerous to enrich.
Still, despite all the problems that Cambodians face, they are a resolute and optimistic people. For every legless beggar that I came across, I saw bands of amputee musicians performing on the street, committed to earning their income through hard work.
After I had stepped out of Choeung Ek, the most infamous of the killing fields, where the bones of nearly half of the 20,000 murdered there sit on display, I crossed the street and ordered a coffee at an outdoor cafe. On the other side of this hanging tarp, which served as the back wall to the cafe, I heard the blunt sounds of something being whacked. I peeked around the hanging plastic and saw a scattering of prosthetics. A dozen men, who were missing legs, smiled as they played volleyball.
While Cambodians have learned to inhabit their beautiful country that unfortunately has a corrupt government, severe poverty, a troubled educational and health care system, and deadly land, the country should serve to remind us that the impact of genocide is long lasting and the consequences of such a tragedy should never be allowed to go ignored.
Noah Lederman writes the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust. His travel writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Economist, the Chicago Sun-Times, Islands Magazine, Draft Magazine, and elsewhere, including numerous blogs and in-flight publications. He is the author of Traveling the Cambodian Genocide.