When I flew from capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Pen, to the town of Ban Loeng, lying in the east of Cambodia, it was with a simple aim in mind: I wanted to see the jungles where during the 1960´s a small group of young idealists forged their blueprint for one of the greatest acts of genocide ever committed…..
The story of how the core members of what later became known as the ´Khymer Rouge´ had developed their murderous ideology fascinated me. It was as unique as it was perverse: living in the jungles of north east Cambodia, they drew their inspiration from a tribe of jungle dwellers – a people living next to nature – and then applied their ideas on an entire nation.
What a bizarre scenario!
A small group of Paris educated intellectuals living in the wilderness with a tribal people called the ‘Loeng’ – along with wild animals, dangerous reptiles and insects. In sweltering heat and stifling humidity.
In the way of life of the Loeng, the members of the Khymer Rouge saw their ideal society right in front of them: the Loeng knew nothing about the modern world. They shared everything. There was no private property, no possessions, no consumerism, no money, no individualism. They hunted with cross bows and blow pipes.
Here was the blueprint for Utopia.
Which when applied, became Hell on Earth.
My flight to Ban Loeng was in a small, Russian-made twin prop plane. It took me across vast swathes of eastern Cambodia, where I got my first premonition of the futility of my journey. Looking down from the small plane, I was expecting to see some wild country.
Instead, what I saw was a scene of destruction: a barren, arid landscape, devoid of life.
Here and there I saw the remains of forests, trees dead and lying on the ground like corpses on a battlefield. In other places I saw fires and plumes of smoke rising into the air. The illegal logging industry, run by Chinese criminals, had removed thousands of square kilometres of forests. No doubt the corrupt government in Phnom Pen (headed by Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge turned ‘democrat’), had been handsomely bribed.
The small plane skidded to a halt on an unsealed airstrip, leaving behind it a long thick plume of dust. Initially, on alighting, I was amused by the sight of that long plume of dust settling back on to the runway.
My amusement didn´t last long.
Several main roads intersected in Ban Loeng. None of them were sealed and none of the roads in Ban Loeng itself were sealed either. Anything which moved along these roads, be it a Honda or a truck, a car or a four- wheel drive, a person or an ox or a dog, stirred up a thick, billowing, cloud of red dust. And everything in Ban Loeng was covered in this red dust: the shops and houses, the signs, the electricity posts and wires, the trees – even the public billboard featuring a large hand painted image of Cambodia’s national symbol, Norodom Sihanouk and his wife, Monique.
From the second story of my hotel I looked out over the town and saw a mass of corrugated iron roofs – dark red, not from rust, but instead, dust.
The whole town covered with a thick layer of red.
It was March, and there were still a few months to go before the monsoon. It was hot and the soil, once held together by a riot trees and plant life, was now dead. All that was left was a red powder.
The hot dry air was sometimes so thick with dust that visibility extended no more than a hundred meters or so.
My introduction to town life was memorable.
I went to a large, busy restaurant. It was a big wide place with a low ceiling and lots of wooden support posts. On the support posts were the trophy heads of wild animals killed in times gone by when there were still jungles around: deer like creatures with horns and bulging eyes.
There were heavy wooden tables and at each of them sat a big group of locals. Many of the people in Ratnakiri were not Cambodians but instead belonged to one or another local tribe including the Loeng. But this wasn’t obvious because they had given up wearing their tribal clothing and ‘modernised’. The benefits of modernisation weren’t apparent. From different areas of the ceiling were suspended T.V.’s – five in all. People sat in front of the TV showing the programme they wanted to watch. On the TV sets there were: Chinese Kung Fu movies, American Big Time wrestling, Indian Bollywood movies, European football, and a Thai soap.
The noise was almost deafening.
Six kilometres outside Ban Loeng was a national park.
My plan was to spend some time in the jungle and get a feeling of what life had been like for the members of the Khmer Rouge.
I went out there on the back of a Honda Motor bike. The road was busy and the dust was so thick it was like smoke. I was amazed that my driver could see his way. At the centre of an intersection we came to was a big concrete statue of two tribal people, the woman with a wicker basket on her back and the man with a cross-bow in his hands. Both were encrusted in red.
Inside the park there was jungle and a volcanic lake and near the lake, a hill tribe museum and some examples of hill tribe houses on stilts. You could arrange to visit a village. Somehow, I didn’t have much interest in that. It seemed pretty contrived. On the other hand, if these survivors of the original indigenous peoples could make a living from tourism then it was a good thing; anything was better than ending up in Ban Loeng breathing dust, drinking, and falling under the spell of the soap operas and big time wrestling.
Out here they had a chance of preserving some vestige of their identity, although it was difficult to work out what that meant now. The jungles which had once covered all of eastern Cambodia and which had been the abode of wild animals – including monkeys tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses – which had been the birth place of their language, culture and their identity – had vanished.
In its place was a desert.
I was content to wander around the lake and find a spot in the surrounding undergrowth and sit and luxuriate in being in a dust free environment.
All around me were trees and creepers and thickets of bamboo.
The water in the lake was clear. I could see fish.
The Khymer Rouge had fled to the jungles of eastern Cambodia to avoid being pursued by the Cambodian police. But their real problem was disarmingly simple: no one in Cambodia, either the farmers or the city dwellers, were interested in revolution. They worshipped Buddha and their King Sihanouk; they wanted peace and stability. The Khymer Rouge failed to win any adherents. Life in the jungles, in their self- imposed exile, was hard. Without the help of the Loeng indeed, they would have died of starvation.
Then external events miraculously led to small band of psychopaths able to put their murderous ideas into practice. With the American defeat in Vietnam and the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese People’s Liberation Army, the Khymer Rouge found themselves on the side of history.
The Khymer Rouge were hauled out of obscurity by the Vietnamese and fronted up as ‘representatives of the Cambodian masses’.
Catapaulted to power, the Khymer Rouge set to work to put their vision into practice. In the small oasis of jungle still remaining, I tried to summon up the bizarre image of an indigenous tribe – and mass genocide. From a population of 7 million, 3 million were murdered. A nation was destroyed and its infrastructure: hospitals, schools, shops, roads and businesses obliterated.
The word ‘genocide’ was created after the Second World War in the wake of the Holocaust. Genocide involved extreme racism.
But what happened in Cambodia changed the definition of that grim word. Racism wasn’t involved here. One lot of Cambodians had murdered another lot.
How could this be explained?
The answer lay in the jungles which once covered most of eastern Cambodia and an indigineous people dwelling in a time before the invention of agriculture.
And in Paris, where a group of Cambodian students imbibed grandiose ideas of Utopia from their Marxist academics.