Saturday, March 17, 2007

"To keep you is of no benefit, to destroy you is no loss"

Almost 3 million Cambodians perished under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. It is also one of the poorest countries on the globe with 35% of the population living below the poverty line and sits in twelfth place on the United Nations list of world “hunger hotspots”.

However the unfiltered smell of poverty is a lot more shocking than the above statistics that usually appear in the European press along with some descriptive journalistic prose. The truth is that when actually here one simply cannot escape the sad and stark reality that presents itself on every potholed street of Phnom Penh and beyond. Nonetheless in spite of such hardship it is also humbling to see that the populace remains so upbeat, polite and to my astonishment, grinning. Indeed this basic ability to smile seems a super human feat as the nation has suffered enough hardship to send Cambodian smiles into extinction for another one hundred years. Still and all, I cannot help but ask myself how such an apparently gentle people could do the things that they did to each other?

Most of you will be familiar with the fact that the living conditions under the Khmer Rouge were absolutely horrific with the main causes of death being execution, work exhaustion, illness, starvation and displacement. Furthermore slave labour of 12 to 15 hours a day was enforced and acts such as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as private enterprise and hence punishable by immediate death. Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign authorities were likewise deemed enemies of the state and therefore brutally tortured and killed. So too were intellectuals, professionals and most absurdly, people wearing glasses. Meanwhile anybody lacking agricultural ability, usually the city folk, were executed for “economic sabotage”. Naturally those who did survive could only have done so by hiding their past and pretending to be of peasant rearing. In the book, ”First they killed my father”, writer Loung Ung vividly recalls her childhood experiences under the Khmer Rouge and tells of entire families disappearing over night, teenage girls being raped, and how one man was executed for killing a dog and not sharing the meat with the rest of the village. Loung also recounts mothers running out of breast milk and entire families dying of hunger in the space of a month. Such starvation was often due to rice shortages that occurred whenever the soldiers needed extra rations, or as was more often the case, when the crop was sent to china in exchange for arms.

Having said that, travelling through present day Cambodia is at times not much rosier than journeying through their past. Nowadays it is not only tragic poverty, hunger and apparent lack of justice that one finds extremely frustrating but also the incredible number Cambodians who are missing limbs. I required no explanation whatsoever for me to recognise the legacy of the world’s largest minefield courtesy of English SAS expertise. Depressingly, it is said that on average 35 people a month are maimed by mines in Cambodia though it was only 5 years ago that a staggering 400 victims a month suffered the same tragic fate. The vast majority of the mutilated and now stigmatised have to survive by begging. For them the memory and legacy of the Khmer Rouge is not as easy to forget as it has been in the United Nations, Thai Governments and Cambodian parliament.

Another less spoken about consequence of the Cambodian nightmare is the absolute absence of grandparents. They are the missing generation that was swallowed up by the civil war and the regime to follow. However it is clear that a people who lost everything and who were even banned from the simple act of loving their own kin have come to treasure their infant offspring like I have never before seen. Eyes light up and mouths hang wide open while entire families or even markets are spell bound by the mere magical presence of a single toddler. But yet again that same question pops into my head…is this really the very same race of people?

Everywhere you go you still feel the dark shadow of the Khmer Rouge looming over a country that did not even regain the ability to produce enough rice for its own needs until the mid 1990's. Nevertheless having said that, the future augurs well for Cambodia as only last year oil deposits were discovered beneath Cambodia's territorial water and when commercial extraction begins in 2009 or early 2010, the oil revenues could have a phenomenal impact on the future of Cambodia. That is of course if the proceeds are not swallowed up by the endemic corruption that is presently causing radical thinking youths to talk to me of the need for a return of the Khmer Rouge. After all, when in recent history have the Cambodians ever enjoyed true justice?

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