Yesterday, Friday 17th April 2015 marked the 40 year anniversary of when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge and the whole city was evacuated to work in the countryside in one of modern histories the biggest forced migrations. Some survivors gathered to burn incense at one of the mass graves at Choeung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Many people initially greeted the black clad Khmer rouge soldier, wearing their distinctive red checked kramas (scarves), with flags and cheering as they thought it was marking the end of a bloody civil war. Little did they know of the horrors which were to come.
For the next few days tens of thousands of people were forcibly marched out of Phnom Penh at gunpoint to the countryside in an attempt to create a Utopian society, for some of them this exodus was to last more than a month. They were told it would be temporary “only for a few days” and told they could survive on harvested vegetables, grains and rice. The reality for many of these educated city dwellers was death from starvation, forced labour camps, separation from family members and eventually many were executed in a bid to eradicate those who would be a threat to the regime. Almost overnight, Phnom Penh , once known as the “pearl of the east” had become a ghost town.
Over the next four years it is estimated that 90% of Cambodia’s artistic, religious and intellectual communities and 25% of the total population were killed, making it one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th century.
Today looking at Phnom Penh and its economic growth, growing middle class and desire to achieve, trendy coffee shops and modern shopping malls you would not know it had been through such horrific atrocities only 40 years ago but looks can be deceiving. Beneath the surface there is a nation which has deep scars and a society where many people lacked the ability to know where to begin to start the healing process from such an atrocious part of their history. For a long time people tried to bury the past and didn’t or could talk about what had happened, until only recently even schools did not teach about the Khmer Rouge and many younger people began to wonder if it really happened.
A few years ago on a visit, to Toul Sleng, the notorious prison which had been a thriving high school, I came across a local school party who had come for a visit. They were astonished at what they found and said they had no idea about what had happened so recently in their country. I will always remember what one of them said, “Today I am ashamed to call myself a Cambodian, I could maybe understand if this had been done by another country but for my own people to do this to each other,that I cannot understand”.
For me though, in my time of living in Cambodia, I have heard many sad stories but I have also heard so many stories of hope and seen the way Cambodians are trying to improve education, revive the arts and music, improve working conditions and how people have been learning to come to terms with their past and move on. There is still a long way to go but things are changing.
Killing Fields Living Fields: Cambodian Church Post Khmer Rouge
- Toul Sleng