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Explaining genocide to our kids: S-21 and the killing fields: Day 27 Asia – Cambodia

It’s simple to walk out the door of the hotel, grab a tuk-tuk and visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, along the Tonle Sap riverbank. It’s our first stop of the day.

Such ease was unthinkable until only very recently. Cambodia has been the pawn of local and world powers for the last several centuries and then once given it’s own independence, made a horrible mess of it. Cambodia has, indeed has been struggling for stable prosperity since the fall of the ancient Khmer Empire in 1300.

Some historians still consider Khmer civilization to be in a dark age begun when the last Khmer Emporer died in 1300. Though that’s a slight exaggeration, no one doubts that recent history has not been kind to Cambodia.

Thank you for invading us!

The French occupation, like most colonial imperialism did a lot of harm.  But as one tour guide points out, it’s never clear how bad it might have been otherwise.  He says that without the French occupation, it’s most likely that Cambodia wouldn’t exist. It would have been swallowed by the Siamese to the Northwest or the Vietnamese to the Northeast.

For that, he says he is grateful.  It’s a small sign of the sad historical story of Cambodia.  They are grateful for being invaded by one country because the others would have been even more ruthless.

France occupied and assimilated the Cambodians for about 60 years.  The French language never took here, as it did in parts of Africa.  Bakeries did however.  We get some pretty nice mini baguettes along with breakfast.

The Royal Palace

After decades of civil war and centuries of foreign occupation, the 1993 UN brokered deal gave Cambodia an independent constitutional monarchy. The King, is a titular head of state, and is technically elected by a group of senior government officials (although it has to be someone with Royal blood, it doesn’t have to be his son.)

The young new king has big shoes to fill – his father is generally considered a hero.  A blue flag on the premisis tells us that the King is here today, deep inside the grounds of the palace.

The Palace, built in the 1860’s, is kept in mint condition and is beautiful. But it’s lifeless too.  (After seeing Angkor Wat, this feels even more true.)  There are about 10 buildings here, but only four can be visited.

Two of them are spectacular however.  The Royal throne room has a golden throne and intricate ceilings that retell the cambodian version of the Ramayana called the Reamker.  Pictures of the King are omnipresent and the four faces of Brahma sit atop a high spire of the building.

Trillions in gold and diamonds.

The silver pagoda is the real draw of the Royal Palace.  We were lucky to see it , because it’s only open from 9-11 and 1-3 or something like that.  You really have to time your visit correctly to get in.

Inside is an overwhelming amount of silver and gold.  The floor is literally paved with silver.  Hundreds of gold and silver buddhas line the glass cases – so many that you can’t really pay them any attention, but each one would make you pause if it were at a museum.  And in the center, high in the air is a 17 ct. Baccarat crystal green buddha, called the Cambodian ‘Emerald Buddah’.  It’s stunning when the light hits it.

And if that weren’t enough, there is a life size Maitreya Buddha statue in front with almost 10,000 diamonds, the largest of which is 25 carats!  It’s insanly opulent.

How much is this stuff worth?  It has to be worth trillions.  Emma exclaims ‘This is stunning” and shakes her head in disbelief.  If a Hollywood movie showed this, you wouldn’t believe it was true.

The door shuts behind us.  It’s 11am and we just made it in time to see it.

Creekmore Equilibrium

We thought the exit sign would dump us on the street where our tuk tuk driver is waiting.  Cambodia has sooo many tuk-tuk drivers that they will wait for you, essentially for free, because it’s a guaranteed fare.  Everywhere else in the world the ‘wait for you’ is a bad deal because they charge an expensive hourly rate to wait.

But instead there is more to see.  A white eleephant room is pictured above.  And there is another Buddha shrine.  If you’ve been to SE Asia, I don’t have to tell you that Buddha shrines are everywhere; in shops, bathrooms and every public space.

Frequent contact with the image of the Buddha encourages enlightenment, is the explaination.  (I still haven’t figured out how Trillions of dollars in gold and diamonds encourages enlightenment, but I’m sure there’s a reason for that too.)

As usual, I’m walking ahead of the family.  Fast walking is something I picked up in New York.  I do it everywhere.  One of my co-workers joked that I looked ‘like I was trying to out-run my suit’ at the office.

But Trish doesn’t go as fast as I do.  Between us there is a constant, unspoken dynamic as we walk everywhere; me pushing us ahead, her slowing us down.   The kids shuttle between us like little planets caught in the orbit of two suns.  Every once in a while she yells “slow down!’ or I’ll yell “speed up’ but mostly it’s unsaid and we exert our force on each other in a pedestrian equilibrium.

A mysterious plant

But sometimes I scout ahead and wait for them to catch up.  particularly on hot days, where my strategy is to get to the shade faster.  (Trish’s strategy is to move more slowly through the sun and exert less energy.)  Were we bunched up together, we might have walked past this shrine, but as I wiped the sweat from my brow, I notice the most unusual tree.

It’s a tall tree, maybe a hundred feet or more.  The canopy begins about twenty feet off the ground.  In all respects it’s just another tree, except that the trunk has spiraling vine-like brown, spiky shoots that twist around the tree.  And on the ends are the most unusual flower I’ve ever seen.

I love gardening and plants.  It’s sometimes sad how repetitive plant use is worldwide – the same 30 varieties of annuals are used in municipal landscaping across the globe.  But this is something new to me and it sure looks exotic.  The family catches up and oohs and ahhs at the mysterious plant.  (click right to see the picture bigger.)

I find out later it’s called a Shorea Robusta Roxb or Shala tree, and that it is fairly common.   Both Hindu’s and Buddhists revere the tree as it has significance in their religious stories.

I’ve never seen one though, and maybe this one has been trained to have that look.  None of the others online have the wavy branches.

We really have to go now, because our driver leaves the hotel for Seam Reap in 2 hours and we still have an important site to visit.  “Tsol Sleng” I tell him.  The notorious prison where at least 17,000 cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between ’75 and 79′.

Red Cambodia

Cambodia, always a pawn in regional and global power struggles, again became the playground of bullies after the French formally left in the 1950’s.  For a while things seemed okay but there was a Coup d’etat supported by the US (allegedly) and the Viet Minh army was using Cambodia to attack southern Vietnam in the war.

China, Russia and the United States each supported different and possibly changing sides within Cambodia.  The world will never know the whole truth.  But we know in the end that the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and declared the country Democratic Kampuchea.

What happened after that was not well known at the time, but within days, he ordered city dwellers to the countryside to work on farms that didn’t have enough food to support the new inhabitants.  Anyone connected with former regimes were quickly executed and kids, families and friends were expected to expose those that did not support Pol Pots vision of an isolated, self-sufficient, agrarian utopia.  Probably a quarter of Cambodias’ eight million population was killed, half murdered and half starved.

Explaining genocide to kids.

On the way over, I give the kids a brief explanation about what happened here.  Lily cracks joke, and none of us laugh.  Being so young, she doens’t get the magnitude and I explain that when people talk about genocide, it’s usually not funny.  (This was reinforced at the Museum because they had pictures of smiling faces with the Circle and line through it.)

Emma is curious and asks a lot of questions.  “Were there kids killed?”  “Did the people they killed do anything wrong?”  “Why didn’t anyone stop them?”  “What does interrogation mean?” Of particular interest to her is the mind-blowing concept that tortured people will say horrible things just to stop being tortured – like husbands declaring that the wife is a spy or traitor; effectively sentencing her to death.

Emma is familiar with the Nazi extermination camps, but this was the first that she had heard of others.  As we walk around the killing-school Lily begins to process the history, especially when she sees pictures of kids, about which she is rightly horrified.

We walk at a slow pace.  It’s not a large museum.  The most frightening part to me is how it sits right in the center of the city, in the bright sun.  It was just a school before it was turned into a torture factory.  What would it have been like to live nearby and hear the screams and cries?

Emma and Lily hold my hand as we walk across the sunny yard.  Someone in the next street plays soft music, which makes it even more atmospheric.  “This is hell, girls.  If one existed anywhere, it’s in this spot.”

A survivor looks to the future

On the way out, Emma spots an old man sitting by a table.  He is signing books.  It’s one of the four survivors of S-21, Bou Meng an artist that escaped execution because he was useful for painting propaganda posters for Pol Pot. His wife was executed and children died of starvation in a Khmer Rouge child center.

His face is smiling and he warmly pulls Emma over and shows her his book, which we buy for $10.  She might never read it, but it’s a good souvenir.  On the table are handwritten signs in English and Khmer that he wants to forgive and prevent future injustice.

I admire him, but I don’t think I could feel that way.  I’m not sure I would even want to live if something like that happened to me.

The hard questions

In the Tuk Tuk, Emma has a lot more questions.  “Does America do that?”  Sigh, I should have known this was coming.  “Well, something like that, but it’s not the same.” I talked about the huge numbers of America Indians that were killed by the colonization of North America.   Whether or not you call that ‘America’ and use the word ‘genocide’ is debatable. She gets it.

“I mean torture.  Do we torture people?”  Oh, shit, that’s even tougher.  “Yes, but definitely not on this scale.”  We talk about the Guantanamo prison.  And I try to explain the different sides of the argument, because I do my best to present both sides of political arguments.   “Some think that when our security as a country is at stake, some kinds of torture are okay.  It’s justified.”

But my own feelings come through and I burst into tears, overcome by the visit to S-21.  “But  other people, like me, think it’s much worse to torture or kill an innocent person, and that definitely happens once in a while even if you try really hard to be right.”

Tears stream down my face.  Trish puts her hand on my knee.  I can’t get any more words out.

The Killing Fields

After lunch we squash our luggage in the trunk of a taxi that will drive us six hours to Seim Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, our destination for the next three days.  But first we stop at the Killing Fields, the mass graves outside Phnom Penh where the victims of S-21 and as many as 1.3 million other people were buried.

The little museum is okay, not as well done as the Tsol Sleng museum.  In the center is a Buddhist shrine filled with skulls of the dead that were killed here, and who will never be separately identified.   It’s chilling.

But even more so are the killing fields themselves.  This was just farmland in 1975 and still is for the most part.  Chickens roam around, blissfully unaware of the sadness buried in the ground.  The ground is pockmarked with holes, not very deep.  Each one was one mass grave, and there are dozens in sight.

We are in the rainy season and clothes of victims have surfaced everywhere – very erie. And baby teeth are laid out in a row at the base of ‘the killing tree’ where Khmer Rouge leaders admit that guards would smash babies heads.

I thought Emma and Lily would get desensitized to it, but they continue to absorb what they are seeing.  “Why didn’t other countries stop this?”  Among other things, I explain, it wasn’t well known.  It’s very hard for kids to comprehend how limited information was 35 years ago compared to today.  It’s not impossible now, but it would be a lot harder to disguise.

Eventually, the Vietnamese got sick of Pol Pot killing their people in border raids and invaded.  It amazes me that he was never jailed or tried for what he did.  Even today, people say the Cambodian government doesn’t want trials because some powerful people might get named as former Khmer leaders.

On to Siem Reap

We don’t seek tragic stuff out when we travel.  But you can’t go to Cambodia and celebrate the great Khmer civilization at Angkor Wat without understanding the modern tragedy of the Khmer genocide.  It was time well spent.

After the experience of the 1970’s the people of Cambodia now look to the distant past for a source of pride and motivation.  Angkor Wat is a great national symbol, and has huge potential for tourism, which is increasing by 20% a year.

The road to Angkor Wat is generally good, with farms on both sides the entire way.  The night time driving is scary and we lurch to a stop at least a dozen times because there are  kids, dogs and bicyclists on the unlit highway.  The six hour drive is hard, but we all are glad to have some quiet time.  It’s been a mentally tough day.


3 thoughts on “Explaining genocide to our kids: S-21 and the killing fields: Day 27 Asia – Cambodia

  1. Juliana

    I appreciated your commentary on your Cambodian trip. I’ve published a a novel called Into The River set in 1960’s post colonial Cambodia. and am curently writing Return to Angkor, set twenty five years later. I understand that the Grand Hotel in Seamreap, which I knew in the 1960’s when I lived in Cambodia, has become a Raffles Hotel and I have not been able to determine whether it would have been open for business in 1993 prior or during renovations. Would you have any information regarding that? Also might you have any outside photos of the hotel which you could share that would refresh my memory about its entrance, how far it sits from the road etc.Any help you could give me in my research would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, Juliana