Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back to Phnom Pehn

Back to Phnom Pehn.

Our first night in Phnom Pehn we visited a nearby restaurant for, in my case, a local fish dish (alok?) and some more frogs legs. There were less frogs legs this time, four to be exact, but very big and probably all from the same frog given that two were bigger than the other. Lovely!

Dinner was followed by a dvd screening detailing Cambodia's turbulent recent history. Not exactly anyone's idea of fun, but I think we all felt we needed to get a handle on what was still implicit all around us. The dvd, however, quite apart from being somewhat shoddily put together, was also a little flexible with the truth, probably understandably so given that most of the major players are not only still around, but in government.

There are a lot of histories of Cambodia online, so I won't go into detail, but effectively what we learnt went something like this:

The French, who ruled Cambodia, installed what they thought would be a puppet king, King Sihanouk. Sihanouk, however, far from doing what they wanted achieved independence for his country in the fifties and ruled merrily (well, almost) until the Vietnam War. He allowed the Vietnamese Communists cross his borders in their war with the South, much to the ire of the Americans. The Americans bombed southern Cambodia in their 'Secret War', killing many thousands of Cambodians in their attempts to kill many thousands of Vietnamese. There was a coup to oust Sihanouk and install a more Western-flavoured government. Sihanouk fled to the open arms of China, the obvious santuary of a monarchy. Meanwhile Pol Pot was building his army in the forests. Sihanouk allied himself with Pol Pot in order to oust the new government and together oust it they did, in 1975. Amid the celebrations in Phnom Pehn, Pol Pot's soldiers told the people to leave the city, ostensibly for a few days, either to remove any remaining opposition or because American bombing raids were expected. 'A few days' became years. Banks and markets were destroyed. All professionals such as doctors and teachers were killed. The entire population was effectively forced to work on rice production. Pol Pot's plan was to create a totally agricultural state, to do consciously to his country what the Americans wanted to do, through the use of weaponry, to Vietnam ("...bomb them back to the stone age"). It is a cliche to talk of the sheer evil of Pol Pot, but do consider that his army, the Khmer Rouge, were for the most part composed of teenagers. 1.7 million directly died at their hands. Another 1.3 million or more died from starvation and disease. Eventually, the Russian-flavoured Vietnamese, reacting against the China-flavoured Pol Pot's incursions into Western Vietnam, invaded and 'liberated' the people in 1979, forcing Pol Pot to flee to the jungles on the Thai border. This 'liberation' involved more forced labour and thousands more deaths. Eventually the Vietnamese were negotiated with into leaving. At present many of the Khmer Rouge's former members, including the prime minister, Hun Sen, are in office. King Sihanouk denies involvement in, or even knowledge of, any of the genocide, but there are a lot of indications that he was more deeply involved than he confesses.

Just to put things in perspective, 50% of the country's population are under 17. Several generations simply disappeared.

The next morning I revisited the Royal Palace. It was hardly worth the effort as much of it is off limits. The Museum was next, and though small, had a lot of wonderful sculpture. Getting into the museum proved to be something of an ordeal, however, as I only had a 50 dollar note (although the Real is the official currency, everyone uses US dollars, and indeed atms issue them). No one, least of all the ticket office, had change. I ended up having to buy a drink in a cafe, Friends, to get change. Friends was were we met for lunch and, like Cula in Hanoi, is a kind of charity cafe where street kids are taught to cook etc.. Lunch was good.

There was some trouble though. The day before Rebecca had tried to get out some money and had her card swallowed by the machine. To get it back she needed to show her passport. Still no card was forthcoming though and, the crowning disaster, when she got back to the hotel she found that she had lost her passport. With Charles help she went to the British Embassy, but she needed a police report. The police said it would take three days - too long - unless of course a 35 dollar bribe was paid. It was and Rebecca got a temporary passport. However, she and Charles missed our afternoon, a visit to a prison and the Killing Fields.

We had an excellent guide, but he was constantly looking over his shoulder. The prison he brought us to had originally been a school, but rooms had been halved into torture cells, tiny sleeping cells had been erected in others. Climbing frames had been turned into torture devices (hanging people and immersing them in barrels of fetid water). The tortures were detailed. The photographs of prisoners and prison guards were everywhere. The guards, dressed in the Khmer Rouge's black, were invariably children. Apparently these kids, torturers, orphans who had often turned in their own parents, were killed themselves each year by the next batch of recruits, presumably because they knew too much.

This was not a happy place. I was not a happy man. I exited the place and the first thing to confront me was a horribly burnt beggar, his glassy eyeballs fully exposed by his shrunken pink flesh. I was caught off guard and did not know where to look or what to do. I turned back into the prison and waited for a group to leave.

Next we went to the Killing Fields. There is a large funerary tower, a stupa, full of the skulls of those bodies exhumed. Some carboard signs by some of the bones say 'Teenage Girl', '60 Year-old Senile Man', etc.. Around the stupa, there are trees and grass, with pathways of parched earth threading hollows in the ground. These are the pits into which live prisoners were thrown. Sparing the use of bullets, prisoners were often hit on the back of the head with a spade and fell forward still alive, then to be buried. A nearby 'Magic Tree' had a loudspeaker to play music intended to drown out the sound of screams and moans. Another tree was used for hanging raped women and beating their infants to death. Walking along the pathways, we tried to avoid standing on the cloth and bone that still protrudes. This is only part of the fields used, the part that has been excavated. The rest will remain untouched.


At 12:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the nightclubs, go-go dancers and all that??


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