Thursday, December 4, 2014

Phnom Penh to Yangon: From One Bustling Metropolis to the Next

On Monday, we returned to the hectic streets of Phnom Penh from the tranquil beach of Sihanoukville.  With one full day to explore the city before our flight to Yangon, we had decided on a slightly more harrowing itinerary than our prior afternoon in the city.  In the morning, we planned to visit the Killing Fields and the afternoon would be spent at S-21, an old Khmer Rouge prison.

In addition to repeated queries as to what exactly Angkor Wat was, Giorgio had also been perplexed when Stephanie told him that we would be visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh.  He was further perplexed when she explained that we would be visiting the Killing Fields to learn more about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge.  Other than discussions in international law lectures about setting up international tribunals, Stephanie also knew less about the Pol Pot regime than she should.  Clearly, we both needed a history lesson.

For those interested in the details, here are some cliff notes.  When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they methodically began creating an entirely agrarian economy.   Initially, citizens were urged to temporarily relocate to the countryside based on false claims that the US was about to bomb the city.  This was reasonably plausible given Cambodia’s very recent experience during the Vietnam War when American planes continuously bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other parts of Cambodia and Laos.  The temporary evacuations became permanent as Khmer Rouge soldiers forced citizens out of their homes to work as peasants, leaving cities like Phnom Penh almost entirely empty.  Those who objected were killed on the spot.

At the same time, any members of the opposition, intellectuals (really, people with any level of education whatsoever), and members of the upper class, were systematically exterminated.  In the meantime, citizens in the countryside were separated from their families and forced to labor in the fields for hours.  Many died from starvation when the rice they grew was exported to China in exchange for firearms and ammunition instead of being used to feed the local population.  Others were executed at one of many Killing Fields where prisoners were killed with bamboo sticks, machetes or shovels -- there weren't enough bullets to "waste" on such executions.  Researchers estimate that about 2 out of 7 million people died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.

The Choung Ek Killing Fields that we visited were just one of hundreds dispersed throughout the nation.  Today, the fields are an unexpectedly beautiful and somewhat peaceful place outside of the city.  A stupa has been erected near the entrance to house the skulls excavated from the mass graves as a reminder of the recently committed atrocities.

Security Prison 21, more commonly known as S-21, was originally a high school in the center of Phnom Penh, but was converted by the regime into the country’s largest prison and detention center.  After being tortured, the Cambodians it housed were typically brought to the Killing Fields.  When the Vietnamese liberated the capital, only seven prisoners remained alive.

Not surprisingly, it is difficult to adequately describe a visit to such horrific sites.  Prior to our visits, Stephanie had been reading a book about life under the Khmer Rouge, but was unprepared for the reality of actually going to the Killing Fields and S-21.  Looking at the walls of photos of both the victims and soldiers at the infamous center for torture, what struck us the most was how young both parties were, as if the entire war were fought by children.  Furthermore, it turns out Pol Pot was not a calm and controlled dictator.  He was actually quite paranoid – towards the end, many of the victims were actually Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials suspected of treason.  The guidebook had also noted that at Choung Ek, teeth and strips of clothing were still emerging from the mass graves.  It is difficult to explain what it's like to actually wander the paths bordering the graves and step on the frayed edges of fabric.

As a further historical note, our guide at S-21 and the audio tour at the Killing Fields both noted the extensive US bombing campaign in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot’s assumption of power.  What neither guide detailed was the extent to which this bombing campaign created support for a radical group with previously limited reach.  Stephanie found the summaries provided in various articles online to be particularly illuminating – click here for one example.  Many of these articles also provided the same quote from Henry Kissinger describing US support for the repressive regime once it had come to power: “[T]ell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them.  They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

With a better grasp of both the current (and ancient) history of a country we had spent two weeks in, it was time for our flight to a new locale: Myanmar.  On Wednesday morning, we left Cambodia behind and were in Myanmar (via Bangkok) by early afternoon.  Despite being practically adjacent, it is already clear that the two countries are vastly different.  For one thing, Myanmar runs on a clock set thirty minutes earlier than its Southeast Asian neighbors.  That’s right, we are actually in a weird Chavez-esque fantasy time zone.  That should make it easier for Myanmar to open its doors and do business with the rest of the world…

Driving to our hotel from the airport, we were struck by the absence of tuk-tuks and the clean, non-crowded sidewalks.  Rows of leafy trees overhung the busy roads.  Passersby almost all wore traditional dress, which includes a longyi, or long wrap skirt, for both men and women.  Many women also had thanaka, a homemade paste, on their faces to act as an all-natural sunscreen.

For the next few days we will be busy exploring the cities of Yangon and Mandalay!


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