Tuesday, July 22, 2008


The longer I've been in Cambodia, the more I've learned the importance of recognizing and understanding different perspectives. I suppose that now I'm a little over the whole culture shock stage, and it's easier to process what is really going on around me.

This past week, we went to Tuol Slang (S-21) and the Killing Fields. Tuol Slang used to be a school for children, and it is very eerie to walk off the bustling street onto the compound. Of the over 17,000 men, women, and children who were imprisoned there, only 12 survived. Like the Nazis during the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge kept very careful records of their proceedings, taking pictures of the inmates and detailed notes. It is thought that this was a crude way to prove the legitimacy of their actions; if it could be documented, their actions must be justified.

The bottom floors of the prison are lined with rows after rows of what are essentially mugshots of those brought to the prison, accused of being enemies of Angkar (the supreme ruling body) through espionage, treason, or having been affiliated with opposition political groups or the educated. Affiliation was what brought the rows of infants, toddlers, and young children that were pictured on the walls that never made it out.

Other rooms held tiny, brick individual cells, whereas other rooms had held over 200 people shackled together and forbidden to move, speak, or even use the bathroom without permission. Adjacent rooms held the torture devices, including electric shocks, barrels of water that the prisoners are dunked into upside-down until they drowned, various knives and other crude instruments to extract what were often desperate false confessions that would send the victim straight to their death, or at least death 15 kilometers away in the killing fields. Though they've "cleaned up" the displays for the new influx of tourists that the new peace has brought, some blood stains on the floors and walls were still present. The Cambodian map that had been made of the skulls and bones found in the mass graves that were used by the prison (until the Khmer Rouge ran out of burial space and moved out to Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields) is gone, but it is now replaced by a large cabinet holding the remains.

After visiting Tuol Sleng, we took a short bus ride out to the killing fields, or Choeung Ek. Like when I visted Dachau in Germany, it was a little disconcerting visiting a place on a pleasant, sunny day where so much death took place. About 9,000 bodies were found buried here in shallow graves. Although the graves have been recently exhumed and are only grass covered pits, there are still bits and pieces of clothing sticking out from the pathway. The scene was actually very peaceful, but my stomach kept turning every time I saw one of the sun-bleached shreds in the ground.

An almost three-story stuppa holds the thousands of skulls found at the site. Many are shattered and cracked because, in an effort to save bullets, most of the victims were bludgeoned or macheted to death.

The memorial site is actually very controversial. When the Vietnamese invaded and discovered these sites, they erected the memorial with help from the Russians (it is obvious from the wording that the Vietnamese did not contribute). Many wish to give the victims' remains a proper Buddhist burial, but the leaders of the government want to keep the stuppa intact during the ECCC tribunals which are starting up again. Controversy is also surrounding how the grounds-keeping has been leased to a foreign company. Yet another chapter in the rampant government corruption here...

I had learned about the Khmer Rouge before considering coming to Cambodia, but it has a greater impact seeing the people and their environment and the effects that have taken root since then. The older generation has a definite aura of numbness; it seems like their eyes are heavy with all that they witnessed. The younger generation holds the burden also, as they have had the trauma passed on to them in some degree. Despite this, there is a definite gap between the young and the old here. Over fifty percent of the Cambodian population is under 25 years old, a situation that offers the opportunity for energetic development and optimism, but also the volatility of a frustrated and dangerous mass trapped in what seems a stagnant economy and civil society.

Speaking of perspective, a conversation that I had with my friends here really revealed how being an American in a developing country really puts things in a different light. We were listing the things that we missed about home (warm showers, the guarantee of toilet paper in restrooms, not being wary of the food we were eating...) when on of my friends sighed and said, "You know what I miss more than double-stuff oreos? Infrastructure." It's sad how we can take for granted the simple every day luxuries such as clean water, dependable electric connections, a free media, transparency (or at least, some degree of it) in our government, etc. Most people here are living day to day, meal to meal, and don't have the opportunities that we do to really develop their human potential and bring themselves out of their situation. It's an endless cycle. A Cambodian journalist for an opposition newspaper was also killed recently in Olympic Stadium (a popular exercise area) in broad daylight. The killers have not been jailed, and newspapers around the city have obviously been exercising a degree of censorship as the elections get closer.

Talking to the Cambodian students in our program, it's a little comforting to see that small changes are taking place. Though the CPP is guaranteed to win the elections, their margin of victory and number of seats they control will continue to shrink. The older generation have a low point of reference to compare the future to, and the fear of renewed violence brings them to accept the corruption and lack of successful infrastructure implementation with the attitude that "anything is better than what we had then." The younger generation, with the increased amount of technology and the fact they are removed historically from the Khmer Rouge era, have a greater need for change. The danger comes when that need for change is not realized, and they seek to use other means to obtain it...

Sorry to go poli sci on everyone, but it's important that I'm not just like "Ohmygod, I'm in Cambodia and this is all the funny stuff that happened to me!" That's also why I included the links (inspired by Jenny Nance :) so you an read about the stuff I didn't go into detail as much.

Well, off the heavy topics, I went to Sihanoukeville this weekend and got to snorkel around coral and visit some islands. It was a nice break from all of the heavy stuff that we had last week.. :\. Our group managed to find a guesthouse that was only $5 a night, so we took it even though it didn't have air conditioning or a tv. The beaches were lovely, the water was warm, and the weather was nice. We even took a moto ride out to see the waterfalls nearby, which was very pretty. It was very relaxing because it was easy to get around, and the beaches were so beautiful. The only downside to the trip was that it was obviously the height of "sex tourism" season, so the place was crawling with sketchy, middle-aged men toting around some poor Cambodian girl. It makes me sick to see it. Most of the girls have no choice, and I can't believe that someone would stoop so low as to exploit someone's situation. I even almost got into a fight in a bar when I saw some guys my age asking one of the girls for sex, and I rather loudly said "Seriously? You should be ashamed of youselves!" Needless to say, they were not very happy with me and we had to get out in a hurry..

I also attempted to drive a moto, which ended in complete failure. I made a fool of myself in front of the French because, being the "typical American," I couldn't drive anything non-automatic..

Oh, and here's a funny story. I wasn't feeling well during class, and ended up having to run into the hallway towards the bathroom because I could feeling the impending doom in my stomach. Yeah, didn't make it, and threw up what appeared as only rice on the floor. A Cambodian student walked into the hall, and I was like "Where's the office? Where's the nurse?" and he just ran away..I finally found the nurse and told her what happened. Or at least, TRIED to tell her what happened. I must have gone through every single synonym for "Throwing up" because she couldn't understand me or my mimes. Needless to say, I started bawling in the nurse's office because a) I felt like complete shit and b) she couldn't understand me and c) I was still covered in puke. Thankfully, Bryan our director came and found me, I took a cipro, and passed out for the rest of the day. I guess I got it out of my system, because I've felt fantastic ever since..

But this episode has made me want to avoid rice even more than I have before. I don't know how the asians eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner..

This weekend, I'm going to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Should be a good time! Keep an eye on the news for Cambodia and its elections, and it's conflict with Thailand over Preah Vihear! :) Oh yes, I am in a political science mood right now..

PS - How is everyone? I have no idea what's going on back home...Facebook stalking only tells you so much!

1 comment:

Kim said...

I think I probably know more about Cambodia than the I know about the rest of Asia combined. You're like my own person Carmen San Diego. I too appreciate the Wikipedia links, as that's usually where I go as soon as I finish reading your entries. :D

I miss you a lot, but I am so happy that you're having such an amazing (albeit not always joyful) experience.