We can’t be in Phnom Penh for a month and completely bypass the mention of its tumultuous past. After visiting the S-21 museum yesterday, it’s time we shift our tone, and talk about the Khmer Rouge:
Backtrack to 1975, when the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a totalitarian ruling party, took over Cambodia. On April 17, the party’s members, known as the Khmer Rouge, seized Phnom Penh, capturing its inhabitants and instigating a mass genocide in a former high school: the S-21 prison.
The Khmer Rouge threw 20,000 Cambodians into the prison, where they were confined to cells roughly four feet long and three feet wide, and shackled to the concrete floor. They were not allowed to speak to other inmates. But that was the least harsh of their restrictions.
Of the 20,000 prisoners at S-21 over the course of 4 years, only 7 survived.
We’ll spare you the details as to the
gruesome conditions under which these prisoners lived, or the torture they endured. We’ll say we were very shaken up, and seeing the prison was an emotionally taxing experience.
Our tour guide escaped from the Khmer Rouge regime as a child with her mother, finding refuge in Vietnam. Her father, siblings, and the rest of her family, though, were captured and killed.
The effect of the Khmer Rouge is still at the forefront of the country’s politics today, with the trial of one of the party’s leaders taking place in the next couple of weeks.
It only takes a day in Phnom Penh to see the lasting effects of the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh has been recovering for just over a decade. We note the tuk-tuk drivers not knowing where they’re going, the grave disparity in infrastructure, and the thousands of displaced people not knowing where they stand in society, (the girls trafficked and prostituted at the women’s shelter, and the abandoned kids at the orphanage).
We don’t need to delve into history books to find out about the situation; we get a first-hand account simply by speaking to anyone over 40, (Chloe’s bosses, Mama Tat—the woman who runs our guesthouse), who were all personally and very seriously affected by the regime.
Everyone is struggling to bring Cambodia back. What remains is the people’s positive attitude towards their future, and their pride in calling themselves Cambodian.
Contributing Writer: Chloe (can you tell?)