When I first visited Phnom Pen, it didn´t make a great impression on me.
The main tourist attractions – the Silver Pagoda, the Royal Palace on the Tonle Sap River, and the gruesome relics from the notorious reign of the Khymer Rouge (the S21 torture prison and the Chou Ek ‘killing fields’) could easily be seen in a day or two.
For the rest it just seemed like another sprawling, polluted Asian city.
On future visits, I changed my mind.
There was something unique about Phnom Pen which I liked but I didn´t know what.
The arrival of Khymer Rouge arrive in Pnom Pen in April 1975. This photo appeared in the international news services all over the world – afterwards, nothing was reported. Cambodia was cut off from the rest of the world for 4 years during which a paranoid, maniacal regime turned an entire nation into one big killing field.
One afternoon during one of my regular visits to Phnom Pen between the years 2004 – 2009, I sat in a cafe and watched film clips of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Pen. These were shot by French photographers who were still in Phnom Pen at the time and got out shortly afterwards. They had more luck than an Australian journalist who was captured and tortured to death.
In the city built by Sihanouk and Van Molyvann, I watched long lines of dour boy soldiers clad in the traditional black pyjamas worn by the peasants, marching through the streets carrying rocket launchers and automatic rifles…..
I flew from capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Pen, to the town of Ban Loeng, lying in the east of Cambodia with a simple aim in mind: I wanted to see the jungles where during the 1960´s, a small group of young idealists lived and forged their plan 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.
In theory they were inspired by ideology of the great architect of Chinese communism Mao Zedong. Mao’s brand of communism was rooted in the identification with the peasantry, by far the largest class of people in China and who, suffering from centuries of exploitation at the hands of a privileged class of landlords, were ripe for the appeal of revolution. Mao was able to hitch his brand of communism onto a broad social vehicle of upheaval – and political power.
In the case of the Khymer Rouge however the Maoist logic was turned upside down. They came to identify with a tiny minority of jungle dwellers – a people living next to nature – and then applied their ideas on seven million people. There was nothing even remotely like this in the history of communism.
What a bizarre scene it was: a small group of ideologues living in the wilderness with a tribal people called the ‘Loeng’; living like aesthetes in primeval jungles filled with wild animals, dangerous reptiles and insects; in sweltering heat and stifling humidity; residing in thatch huts and following the ways of their pre-industrial allies. In the way of life of the Loeng, these fanatics saw their ideal society right in front of them: the Loeng knew nothing about the evils of the modern world. They shared everything; there was no private property, no possessions, no consumerism, no money, no individualism: it was one for all and all for one. There, in the jungles of eastern Cambodia, Evil gestated as the city bred and Paris educated ideologues rubbed shoulders with a people who hunted with cross bows and blow pipes and hadn’t discovered agriculture.
It was here that the Khymer Rouge forged their revolutionary theology embracing a utopian vision based on an indigenous people.
The 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 paid-off.
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.
Did the people who live here, I wondered, get used to the dust and after a while, no longer see it?
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 province were not Cambodians or ‘Khmers’ as they were known, 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.
I plonked myself down in the area where there was a large group of people gathered around the TV which showed a Thai soap. I tuned in. Two young women, who I presume were arguing over a man, started abusing each other. They must have been the worst actors I ever saw; they could have learnt something from the American wrestling. Their faces remained impassive, like masks of stone. There was not the slightest trace of emotion. Only from the looks on the faces of the people watching the TV was it possible to see that this was a tense scene: people sat there at their tables, mesmerised.
Breathing dust all day every day could not have been very good for the health. It wasn’t coincidental that there was a surfeit of pharmacies – and also, shops selling strong drink. Cough medicines and permanent inebriation was probably a good way to get by.
Even a short walk outside my hotel was enough to see me covered from head to foot in dust and the dust, as I discovered, was hard to get rid of. There was a whole ritual involved with leaving and departing my hotel room. I’d come back from a trip outside covered from head to foot in red, slip into the bathroom – thankfully next to the door – take off my ‘dust clothes’ and place them in a corner, take a shower – and then put on my clean ‘room clothes’.
Any kind of excursion outside, never mind how small, necessitated putting on my ‘dust’ clothes and on returning, going through the process of ‘de-dusting’.
What was I doing here?
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 an intersection we came to, there was a big statue of two tribal people, the woman with a wicker basket on her back and the man with a cross-bow in his hands. I don’t need to mention that they were red coloured.
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; I had nothing against it. I mean 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 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 blitz bombing of eastern Cambodia and the coup the CIA organised against Sihanouk – undermining every vestige of stability – and the invasion of the Vietnamese Communists, the Khymer Rouge found themselves on the side of history.
In the wars against the demoralised Cambodian forces, it was the Vietnamese army which did the fighting. The Khymer Rouge were hauled out of obscurity by the Vietnamese as fronted up as ‘representatives of the Cambodian masses’.
Catapaulted to power by the fall-out from the Vietnam War, Khymer Rouge hungered revenge. Revenge on the Cambodian people for not supporting them. Revenge for the years of living in the jungles and suffering the heat, the starvation and the malaria.
In the small oasis of jungle still remaining, it was possible to summon up the bizarre image of an indigenous tribe – and mass genocide.
And the tragedy of Cambodia.
Wrong place, wrong time.
The values of small jungle tribe were inflicted on 7 million people resulting in the death of 3 million of them and untold human suffering, along with the total destruction of the infrastructure: hospitals, schools, shops and businesses.