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.
Since 1994, I have returned to Cambodia numerous times. But only on a recent visit (2014) did I finally set off to explore the Khmer Rouge legacy in north-western Cambodia.
My start point was the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, near 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 moto-taxi to take me into the Dangrek mountains on the Thai border.
First stop was the easily accessible spot of Pol Pot’s cremation site. And then, we continued into the jungle along rough trails passing army sandbag positions.
In reality there was very little to see. But I wanted to visit all the same.
I felt weird. Even a little apprehensive about this exploration.
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.
On this day, the dark edginess of my experience in 1994 was juxtaposed with the safety and sunshine of Cambodia in 2014. Confused feelings. And the reality of what had happened to Cambodia during the darkest of Rouge Rouge days.
Why is human evolution tarnished by so much murderous insanity?