Competing for the highest grades of brutality and stupidity in societal experiments of the 20th century must be the notorious Khmer Rouge.
This Maoist inspired return to Year Zero flipped Cambodia on its head. Suddenly a society without money, private ownership and urban living; replaced by an agrarian peasant society which saw cities evacuated and forced rural communes of slave labor. Extermination of intellectuals, monks and artists. And the country’s borders closed to the outside world.
During this heinous social experiment an estimated 2 million people died from KR brutality and malnutrition. Big numbers when you consider the KR only ruled Cambodia during the years 1975-79; ousted from power after they antagonized Communist Vietnam into an invasion of Cambodia that forced the KR into a decades-long insurgency. The civil war and the KR only ceased to exist after the death of it leader, Pol Pot, in mysterious circumstances in 1998.
As a young backpacker I first entered Cambodia in 1994. Khmer Rouge guerillas actively targeted foreigners; killing 7 that year. Only a handful of cities were securely under Cambodian Army control and much of the countryside was off-limits. It was an edgy place to travel.
I recall back then at Angkor in 1994 – gunfire across the rainforest. And later in the evening, learning that KR guerrillas had attacked at the Roluos group of temples. Murdering a number of Cambodian kids within the army perimeter of the Angkor temple zone. (The full Angkor story may emerge in an ebook later. Meantime here’s an archive from that era: The killing of a country – Phnom Penh in 1994).
Since 1994 I have returned to Cambodia numerous times but only on my most recent visit (in 2014) did I finally set off to explore the Khmer Rouge legacy in north-western Cambodia.
My start point was the former Khmer Rouge town of Anlong Veng, not far from a remote stretch of the Thai border.
Today ex-Khmer Rouge and their descendants still dominate the area. The town is quiet, with some modern facilities. There’s no tourists, traveller cafes, souvenirs stalls or even a 7-Eleven store. Locals stare at the stranger. Kids gather. Adults seem shy. But they are friendly when I say, “Hi”, smile and wave. I am a novelty.
Beyond Anlong Veng I hired a motorbike taxi to take me into the Dangrek mountains on the Thai border to visit Pol Pot’s cremation spot. Then into the jungle along rough trails passing army sandbagged outposts towards the remotest KR sites, including the ruins of Pol Pot’s mountain hideaway.
There was not much to see. But I wanted to visit all the same.
I felt weird. Even a little apprehensive about this exploration. Here I am making a journey to the resting place of
Brother Bastard #1.
Yet, I felt compelled.
Partly it was historical interest. Partially also, the fact that if the KR had caught me in 1994, they would have surely murdered me. So on this day, the dark edginess of 1994 juxtaposed with the safety and sunshine of 2014. And I stood at Pol Pot’s cremation site: bewildered, empty, astonished, angry, sad, numb.
And I ask myself … Why is human evolution tarnished by so many examples of murderous insanity?
Travels in Cambodia – 2014