Cambodia has a dark modern history and I always knew that. That knowledge did not bother me much previously because I did not really relate to it. Cambodia despite being so close to Malaysia appeared farther away from me than, for example, the United States where I spent my undergraduate years.
Cambodia was some land far away from my consciousness. Farish Noor once lamented that Malaysians knew more of New York, London and Paris than Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila. I am guilty of that.
My travels to Cambodia, specifically to its capital Phnom Penh, were my effort to turn his statement untrue. I started out in Siem Reap up north trying to relearn my Southeast Asian history. It was an adventure, going through and climbing all of the famous Angkor temples and more, and then getting lost in the obscure ones, which were no less impressive than Angkor Wat or Bayon. Only the fear of landmines prevented us from being too adventurous, on top of constraints involving time and money.
Warnings of landmines are a stark reminder of Cambodia’s dark past. Too many landmines were planted across the country by participants of the Cambodian civil war. While the war has long ended, efforts at clearing up the mines are still under way and there are new landmine victims every day. The past will not just go away quietly.
Even in the capital Phnom Penh, time passed slowly. I felt as if I was still living in colonial times during my stay there. French influences are remarkably strong still. There are many French tourists and expatriates even. It was as if they refused to leave in the first place.
That is understandable. The capital, located at the meeting of Tonle Sap and the fabled Mekong rivers, is beautiful. Rows of old buildings stand along the banks, providing a lively waterfront. If it wasn’t for the devastating civil war, Phnom Penh would have been one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
The city was emptied during the communist Khmer Rouge regime. It is hard to imagine the beautiful Phnom Penh devoid of life but it was a ghost town in the 1970s, as were other towns in Cambodia in the same period.
The communist Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975. They had a terrible idea of equality and wanted to create a classless society. But more than that, they did it in a hurry. Their solution was to turn everybody into a peasant overnight.
To do so, they forcefully relocated urbanites to the countryside. There were no doctors, engineers and other professionals under the Khmer Rouge. All were peasants. Peasantry, in reality, was a euphemism for forced labor. Many realized that. Those who questioned the Khmer Rouge were tortured and killed. The intelligentsia were murdered to protect the communist revolution, before Pol Pot turned on the Khmer Rouge itself in the name of power and ideological purity later in the late 1970s.
The failure of China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, which aimed at creating a communist society quickly, was unheeded. The Khmer Rouge thought they were a better implementer of communism than their Chinese counterparts.
Well, judging by the result, maybe they were. According to the World Bank, there were more than seven million individuals in Cambodia then. By the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, between two million and three million were dead according to the United Nations. That was a significant proportion of total Cambodian population.
Yet, statistics are just cold numbers. It is always hard to humanize numbers that run to the millions. Being in Cambodia gave me the chance to understand exactly those numbers.
I visited the Tuol Sleng museum while I was in Phnom Penh. The museum was formerly a school, which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and a torture house. The turning of a school into a prison more than symbolized what the Khmer Rouge and, really, what communism in practice is all about.
Despite the purpose of the museum to remind us all of the past, entering that museum felt like an act of trivializing history. It cost two US dollars to enter the museum. There was something sacred about the museum that I could not explain. Yet, here, like many places in Cambodia, history had been commercialized. Past pain has been repackaged as a product of tourism. It was about making money. It felt wrong.
As I was about to condemn the commercialization as a scam, what I saw inside prevented me from protesting after all.
The first building was where the last tortured prisoners were placed in, and died. There was an empty rusty metal bed frame in each cell, with photographs of the last victims hung on the wall by the curators. The photographs were not pretty. The photographs were shot by the invading Vietnamese army as the Khmer Rouge regime fell. The Vietnamese came too late to save anybody. They found only rotting bodies bound to metal beds in the torture house.
The next two buildings had even punishingly smaller cells. It was much smaller than my bed at home. Judging by the condition of the cells, one could imagine the impossibility of life during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was a kind of environment that if I were put inside, I would die almost immediately out of sheer despair. Out of the thousands who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng, only a few survived it. Most were destined for the infamous Killing Field located a number of miles outside of the city, if they were not killed here.
What made the visit to the museum unbearable for me were pictures of hundreds or thousands of victims pasted on countless boards. Many prisoners were clearly scared of things that were to come. One particular face was on the verge of crying. That particular image haunted me throughout the day.
I decided I could not stand it anymore after seeing all of the photographs. I could not explore the rest of the museum to make good of the two dollars. It was then that I made an emotional connection to Cambodia.
As I sat on a bench outside in the open space, disturbed at the capability of the Khmer Rouge to do what they did, I became angry. Just before I exited the building, I spotted some writing on the wall. A visitor had penned that no God would have let this happened. I understood that person.
I came to think of the two-dollar entry cost. During the communist rule, this would have been illegal. Commerce in general would have been illegal. There was only one profession in the name of equality. The peasantry produced for the benefit of the communist state. That policy of unreasonable equality produced famine and exacerbated the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.
Only now are Cambodians coming out of the shadow. They are eager to do commerce and improve their lot, something that was not possible under the communist Khmer Rouge.
The two-dollar entry cost is only part of the effort to come out of the hole that communism created. If the commercialization of the dark past brings about a brighter future for Cambodians, then let it be. Nobody, foreigners the very least, has the right to condemn the commercialization.