I recently returned from a Christian mission trip to Cambodia, during which I saw the aftermath of what a Communist regime can do to a country.
It put into context some of what’s going on in our country right now.
Because in the spring, a young activist’s fancy apparently turns to thoughts of Occupying once again.
And as usual, with the advent of renewed activities among “Occupy (insert name of traditional/conservative/fiscal/religious object of ire du jour here)” will come the usual cast of anarchists, Marxists, socialists, communists and a host of other “ists” hell-bent upon the destruction of America as we know it. In it’s place they look to thee creation of a new, egalitarian society, based upon the redistribution of wealth, and a looting of the perceived “haves” by those who consider themselves to be the “have nots”.
Although a brief perusal of last years’ headlines should be enough to convince one that these self-styled have nots feel entitled to just about anything, there are two things that occur to me as these young firebrands call self righteously for the death of capitalism and the end of America.
Photo courtesy Ellen Brown. Image copyright 2012 Ellen Brown used by permission only.
One is that these malcontents have no idea how good they have it right now; and two, since their knowledge of Communism and Socialism come from college professors and community activists, these people have no idea what they are asking for.
If they knew the truth, if they had the courage to face the truth, and the courage to stand up instead of hide behind their own egos inflated by the Svengalis of the left wing intelligentsia- if they were honestly sought the truth about these matters- they might run screaming for the nearest employment office, after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They might, but I doubt it.
Like any good journalist, while in Cambodia, I kept notes.
What follows, comes from those notes:
I am sitting in the lobby of my hotel, leafing through the previous day’s issue of the Phnom Penh Post. About 150 yards from the door, the Mekong River, known to most in my generation by references to the Mekong Delta in relation to the Vietnam War drifts idly by, boats dotting its surface. It is a big river, bigger than I expected, At least the size of the Mississippi.
Cambodia in February.
The first thing I notice about Cambodia is the heat. Just standing at the curb at the airport, I break a sweat loading suitcases into our bus. The second thing I notice is the air. It is the dry season in Cambodia, which means two things: weddings, because during the rainy season it is impossible to hold any kind of event outside (in some places in Cambodia, the water level can rise beyond 20 feet) and burning. The burning of trash and in particular the burning of rice fields. As a result during the dry season the sun never seems to fully shine and the sky is never truly blue. Columns of smoke dot the land and city scapes giving rise to the distinct smell of burning vegetation and a haze that does not clear away.
In Phnom Penh, the thing that strikes me is the congestion. The congestion of vehicles, people and buildings. One thing is heaped atop another in Phnom Penh. The fact that telecommunications exist here at all is miraculous. Miles upon miles of wire and cable are bundled, looped, strung, doubled back and tied into any number of boxes on any number of posts and then twist their way around the city like a nest of snakes. The cable fights for space with concertina wire that lines the walls of stores and courtyards of homes. The sidewalks are crammed with people. Those who are not crammed into the stores sell everything from food to computers to motorcycles to building supplies. Other people are crammed into tiny houses or third floor apartments with wire cages in front of the doors that serve as balconies.
The streets are chaotic by Western standards. I am told traffic accidents are frequent here, but I never see any. And that strikes me as odd since the first rule of the road in Cambodia is apparently that there are no rules of the road. Pedestrians, pushcarts, cars, trucks and in particular motorcycles, which are the predominant form of transportation; all jockey for pole position in narrow streets that resemble medieval Europe.
Phnom Penh seems to be a city that is trying to catch up with itself. Old and new exist alongside one another. Buddhist monasteries sporting TV antennae share the streets with massage parlors, cell phone stores and beauty salons. Outside of my hotel room is a traditional spirit house, which contains a statue of the Buddha. At night it is accented by the garish lights of an amusement park located next to the hotel. In the city, buildings are gutted or demolished in the tight quarters to make room for new construction, with the debris spilling out into the sidewalk. Entire buildings are being constructed or refurbished as if Phnom Penh is in a race to complete a makeover before some unknown deadline.
To the newly arrived, Phnom Penh, and Cambodia itself seem to be in the midst of an identity crisis. Indeed, Cambodia is still trying to recover from the events of the 1970’s and other wars that turned the nation inside out.
But how did the country of Cambodia find itself in such disarray?
On April 17th, 1975, following years of conflict, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, effectively bringing the communist group to full power in Cambodia. People in Cambodia believed at the time that peace was at hand, but they could not have been further from the truth.
The ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot brought almost unfathomable misery to the Khmer people. Cities were emptied as the Khmer Rouge soldiers told residents that American or Vietnamese forces were preparing attacks, or that the Khmer Rouge needed to conduct house-by-house searches for enemy troops or spies.
Many Cambodians believed they would be returning home within a few days. In fact, it was Khmer Rouge policy to end the urban way of life in Cambodia and force everyone into the countryside to create an agrarian nation. Families were separated, some family members killed outright. Many were resettled into districts far from their homes and were tasked by the government to begin year-round rice production.
That meant people working long hours in the fields, often with little or no food. They would work until they died, or were shot for treason or for stealing food.
Most people associate Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge with the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields”. When Pol Pot took power, he began to execute government officials and anyone who was educated or even appeared to be educated.
Wearing glasses in Cambodia in the late 1970’s could be enough to have one branded as an intellectual and imprisoned. Imprisonment and execution was not just limited to government officials or educated people.
Those that did not work hard enough, or were suspected of plotting against the government could be put to death. Owning a radio was an obvious indicator that you were a spy for the CIA or for Vietnam. And you were executed. Owning cloth could get you executed.
Two people talking on the street could be in an indicator that they were conspirators against the Khmer Rouge. Laughing, or crying and showing pity could mean being arrested.
Twelve hour workdays, and little more than a weak broth with a few grains of rice to eat meant that some people resorted to stealing food. And they were executed. And as the reign of the Khmer Rouge wore on, the regime became increasingly paranoid of even its own members and began to arrest and execute many of them too.
I meet people who tell me stories of diving for cover during air raids, some of them conducted by the United States in an effort to target the Communists in the country. I hear stories of people being beaten by the Khmer Rouge until they lost their site. I hear stories of the Khmer Rouge taking babies from their parents either to be raised by the state. I hear stories of people laboring in the rice fields until they die of exhaustion and malnutrition or of being forced to haul human excrement barehanded from toilets to the rice fields for fertilizer. I hear stories of families being separated and loved ones never seeing each other again.
The Killing Fields can be found all across the nation, and some of the stories that accompany them such as that of Women’s Island are nothing short of horrific. But the legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge can be best experienced at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh.
Now a national memorial site and genocide museum Tuol Sleng Prison, or S-21 was originally a high school. The Khmer Rouge transformed it into a secret holding and interrogation facility. Out of approximately 14,000 people that were brought there, only about 12 survived the hell that was S-21. 1
The rules of life at S-21 are posted on large signs in English and Khmer for visitors to the museum:
You must answer according to my questions. Do not turn them away.
Do not try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me,
Do not be a fool for you are someone who dares to thwart the revolution.
You must immediately answer my question without wasting time to reflect.
Do not tell me either about your immoralities or the revolution.
While getting lashes or electric shocks you must nor cry out at all.
Do nothing. Sit still and wait for my orders. If there are no orders, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
Do not make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom so as to hide your true existence as a traitor.
If you do not follow all of the above rules you shall get many lashes or electric shocks.
If you disobey any point of my regulation you shall get either ten lashes or five electric shocks.
At S-21, dorm rooms and class rooms became prison cells and torture chambers whose floors to this day still bear the bloodstains of the victims. Some rooms still contain the metal bed frames and shackles used to hold prisoners during interrogations. Children’s exercise equipment was turned into racks upon which prisoners were hung head down and were repeatedly raised and lowered until they blacked out. They were revived when their heads were dunked in pots of water laced with excrement. The porches and balconies of the buildings were covered in barbed wire, in order to prevent people from flinging themselves out of the doors in suicide attempts.
Some of the rooms at Tuol Sleng are full of pictures of those who went there to die. Photograph after photograph is on display. Most are of men, but some are women, even women with infants. Their faces showing fear, a few defiance, many blank. One photograph of a young woman seems almost accusatory. Although I know that her anger is directed at her captors; she also seems to be looking at the present day visitors to S-21, demanding that her story be told to people yet unborn when she died.
People have painted pictures from their memories from elsewhere in the county. Memories of people dunked repeatedly under water to extract confessions; and of infants taken from their mothers and tossed into the air to be shot by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
One room defies my mind’s ability to process information. It is the same room in which hangs the picture of the soldier shooting babies. The room consists mostly of cabinets, housing bones and skulls of the victims of S-21. It puts one in mind of an anthropology exhibit: the remains of distant ancestors from the prehistoric past. But these remains are the result of the bloody carnage that occurred from 1975 to 1979, and represent only a tiny fraction of the slaughter that took place in Cambodia.
As our bus prepares to leave the museum, a man presses his face to the window. Half of his face looks almost human, the other half-anything but. He resembles a wax figurine held too close and too long to a candle, his features melted into a mass of scar tissue. Like too many in Cambodia, this man found one of the many land mines left over from the years of conflict that have besieged this country. He makes his living begging on the streets.
Under the Khmer Rogue five thousand women and children were shipped to Women’s Island in the center of the Bassac River to be massacred. There were at one time, two trees on the island used by the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers would beat infants and children against these trees until they died from the trauma. The trees were cut down, but one of them absorbed so much blood from its victims that their blood began to appear in the tree’s newly bitter fruit. The tree eventually developed a permanent curve from the impact of tiny bodies. The women and children were not shot, as so many of the victims from that time were because the Khmer Rouge decided that these victims were not worth wasting the bullets.
Because the Khmer Rouge executed so many government officials, doctors, lawyers and other educated people, Cambodia developed a phobia of higher education. Pol Pot has cast a long shadow over the years, and education and economic development have been a long time in coming. The present generation of young people is the first in years to even consider continuing their education, and most people in Cambodia exist on less than one dollar a day. The deaths of the community leaders and millions of other people in the 1970’s left a vacuum that has proven hard to fill. The country is trying to find its way out of chaos.
In one benighted section of Phnom Penh, Children walk barefoot over broken bricks and rubble. Black water trenches filled with human sewage run under the rickety patched-together shacks raised above the flood level on stilts. These homes, which would be considered slightly larger than a backyard storage shed in America may house up to ten people in some cases. When the rainy season comes, the leaky roofs make sleep impossible. The only thing the residents can do is get up and stand in the rain coming through their roofs until the storm passes, and then try to go back to bed. It is poverty on a scale none of us have ever seen. A man relieves himself in a pit as we walk by and the smell of human waste and rotting garbage is overpowering. I feel the bile rise in my throat and ashamed of my reaction to another’s plight, I fight back the urge to retch. How would I feel if someone were to vomit at my front door? The residents of this alley are squatting on government land. They have no food and no clean water, and rely on the charity of others for enough food to make it though the month. Children in some cases become prostitutes, child soldiers, beggars or street peddlers.
The United States of America is far from perfect. It has its list of sins and it is now and ever shall be a work in progress. But it remains the most successful republic in the history of the world. And for whatever the faults of this nation, the people here, especially those Occupiers who have the gall to portray themselves as poor and oppressed with their laptops and cell phones, demanding you and I foot the bill for their condoms and their college degrees have fared far better than our counterparts in other parts of the world. Perhaps it would behoove these protestors to spend some time in these countries in which the ideas of Lenin, Marx and Alinsky found full flower and reached their inevitable bloody conclusions. Perhaps it would benefit them to live under such regimes before they try to establish such a nation under the threat of violence for the rest of us.
1 A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979) Khamboly Dy; Published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia; copyright 2007