When I’d finally stepped off a bus and back onto the streets of Phnom Penh, I found my bike where I’d left it, looking lonely and locked to a tree.
Though I’d spent less than a week here, I’d quickly built a pattern. This started each morning with long cups of coffee and a short reading spell. This was always followed by a small walking loop around the city.
I’d start my stroll beneath the glittering spectacle of the King’s Palace, hoofing it from its gates, through a parkway, to a riverside promenade.
This was where I’d take my place among a bustle of Cambodians, who shopped for goods or salivated over food stalls. Stopping momentarily to wince at those freely snacking from a cart of fried spiders, beetles and worms, I’d finish my loop of the city through the gardens of the National Museum. There I slowed into a kind of languorous ease.
On the third morning, I broke pattern.
Instead of my morning walk, I found myself in the back of a tuk-tuk, fidgeting with anticipation.
After we’d crossed town, the driver departed from a dizzying chain of traffic, then curled through a clump of faceless neighborhoods, before he came to a stop.
After he did, he silently raised a finger.
“There,” was all he said.
I followed the aim of his finger across the street, to a rather ordinary looking cement-block building.
I scanned it for a moment, thinking he’d made a mistake. Until my eyes caught something that distinguished it from the rest. It was a crude sign above a gate that read simply: “Genocide.”
I’d arrived at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly Pol Pot’s “S-21 Prison.”
I was there to inform myself about a painful part of Cambodia’s history. Sadly, after reading so many accounts of the Jewish Holocaust in my high school textbooks, I cannot recall a single drop of ink dedicated to the oceans of blood that were spilled in Cambodia during this time.
I came to learn.
This in the single hope that within that information, perhaps through the story’s re-telling, there might be some future resolution. Some key that might unlock the mechanisms of any further genocide.
As I walked the hallways of this former secondary school, an eerie silence fell upon its rooms. There, I learned the Cambodian Genocide took place from 1975 to ’79, just after American troops withdrew from the country.
In the subsequent power vacuum that followed, a former grade-school teacher, Pol Pot, and his ultra-Communist Khmer Rouge Party seized control of the country.
Acting as prime minister, Pot announced he would free Cambodia from its corruption and promised that the “parasitism” of city life would be completely uprooted. With that, he vowed that Cambodia would be “the first nation to create a completely Communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps.”
With that, he began to kill.
His killing began indirectly, with one of the largest forced evacuations in history.
Nearly draining Phnom Penh of its 2.5 million people, Pot decided to “relocate” these city dwellers into forced labor camps throughout Cambodia’s countryside. Those who weren’t relocated were sent to S-21.
Today, in the lower floors of the museum, there are rooms entirely filled with row after row of black and white photos of these people.
During the height of S-21′s operation, The Khmer Rouge detained, photographed and imprisoned 10,449 people.
They were workers, teachers, artists, engineers, anyone whom the Khmer Rouge felt posed the slightest intellectual threat. After they were photographed, they were tortured into meaningless confessions. If they survived, they were transported to the Killing Fields to be executed with a collection of crude instruments.
Those who were not killed directly by the Khmer Rouge died of starvation or disease. A recent Yale University study put that number at nearly 2 million. Others claim more.
When the killing was over, out of all this darkness came a rather remarkable story.
One as told by the American Buddhist Jack Kornfield. In that story Kornfield described an event that took place just after the Khmer Rouge had fallen to the Vietnamese.
It started with the ringing of a bell.
It was a monastery bell that summoned the people to once again gather and worship. Worship that – for the previous five years – had been strictly forbidden by the Khmer Rouge.
Gathering reluctantly at first, the Monastery courtyard began to fill. Soon hundreds of Cambodians, gathered en masse.
After the bell stopped ringing, a silence filled the air.
Here was a large group of people who had every reason to enact revenge upon their captors.
Instead, they did something remarkable. They began to chant.
Thousands of Cambodians, with tears streaming from their eyes, stood weeping, chanting.
Their chants were the words of the Buddha spoken 2,500 years ago. “Hatred will never cease hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
It was a story I carried away from the Genocide Museum like a gem dug from the darkness.
Had all this not been enough for me that afternoon, I leaned over my tuk-tuk driver’s shoulder on the way home and requested he take me to one last place before we returned. It was a place a local journalist described to me a week earlier.
Several minutes later, we sloshed to a halt at the end of a muddy road.
I stepped out of the vehicle and my vision expanded outward into a massive landfill, roughly the size of a New York City block. As I reached for my camera, I stared out in disbelief. For inhabiting this massive dump were hundreds of families. Men, women and children living among the refuse in simple dwellings.
Those who didn’t live there, picked through the stinking mountains of trash. It was simply what some had to do in Cambodia to survive.
“Those stories have been done a thousand times,” a local NGO aid supervisor informed me that evening.
I’d met the man at Phnom Penh’s Foreign Correspondence Club after I’d sought out a much-needed beer.
“The real story today in Cambodia is the government land evictions.” he said. “You could not call yourself a journalist and leave this place without reporting on that…” he finished wryly.
“But I don’t call myself a journalist anyway,” I returned, then laughed.
I agreed to hear him out. He said he wasn’t an expert, but he knew some people who were.
So the next day, I was introduced to a new group of NGO supervisors who worked for various aid organizations from around the globe — some of whom had lived in Cambodia for the last eight years. (All of them requested anonymity, mainly because those who’d spoken out publicly about Cambodia’s corruption had a not-so-funny way of winding up dead.)
The group took me on a small tour.
First we entered the hulking shell of a massive, burned out theater. Some believed the theater had been purposely burned down because the government disagreed with some of its commentary.
After seeking a group of artists that were on the verge of being evicted, we were greeted by something else. Silence.
Then, out of nowhere, popped a small girl. Approaching us with reluctance, she began to speak in Khmer. An interpreter explained that the child lived within the crumbling expanse of the theater. It didn’t take an interpreter to figure out that after it was torn down, this child would be out on the streets.
Human Rights Watch reports that 3,000 families face government evictions in Phnom Penh alone. In turn, throughout the country, it is estimated that up to 30 percent of Cambodia’s population – mostly peasant farmers and indigenous people – are being forcibly evicted from their land.
“What’s causing all these forced evictions?” I asked one of the NGOs.
The man laid out a piece of paper and began drawing a crude map of Asia.
“You see this area here?” he asked, as he circled Southeast Asia. “Now that the wars have all ended in these countries, and the markets have all opened up, this whole area is now being courted by a host of multinational corporations for their resources.”
He said that the Cambodian government had just signed major contracts with an Australian mining corporation, a Chinese oil-refining company, and an American petrochemical corporation, the latter of which has agreed to pay the government $1.7 billion to extract the first of five blocks of offshore oil.
“But isn’t that good?” I asked, “Doesn’t that influx of cash bring up the standard of living for all Cambodians?”
“All that corporate cash does is strengthen the centralized power base,” he answered. “There is no such thing as trickle-down economics within a corrupt government. Instead of trickle down, what you get with corrupt governments is what economist refer to as ‘suck-up’ economies.
“This is where the government sucks up resources – land, minerals, oil, timber – to gain wealth and power.”
“As it does,” he said, “a handful of well-connected developers get rich, while large numbers of peasants and indigenous people are evicted into landless poverty.”
He paused for a moment.
“Without an address,” he said, “a Cambodian is not able to vote, or even send their children to school. They literally become ghosts.”
Now I was the one who paused.
“So what is to be done?” I asked.
“It’s really not a matter of what you should be doing for Cambodia,” he replied, “but what you shouldn’t be doing. We (in Australia and America) need to stop the overconsumption of resources.”
“The over-consumption of things like gasoline, timber, power, and minerals, it puts power directly into the hands of these corporations, many of whom have little or no concern for human rights.”
He took a moment, then looked me square in the eyes.
“You’ve heard the term, ‘Live simply, so that others may simply live?’”
“This is not just some bumper-sticker adage … it could very well mean the difference between life and death for many of the people you see around you.”
“There is one thing you can do,” he concluded. “You can inform yourself about these issues, and you can vote.”
March 18-29, 2007
Mileage log: 14,750-14,902
Elevation: Sea level-75 ft.
Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sinahoukville
“It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
– John Steinbeck
“We need to publish a catalog of global carpetbaggers, entrepreneurs eager to profit on misery. We should name names and illustrate the book with the shocking examples of what these people and their uncontrolled multinationals have done to the earth.”
– David Brower, Earth Island Journal
“What I’ve come to understand and appreciate is that expressing feelings to trusting people is both a public act and a responsibility. It is cleansing, healing and critical to our own growth and to those around us, including our families and communities.”
– Jo Singel