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A Bleeding Heart Liberal in Cambodia

Warning: this is not a pleasant read, but I felt that I needed to share these thoughts.

sunny 35 °C


Cambodia is such a land of contradictions that it is mind boggling. It is a land full of some of the friendliest people I have met and some of the most sophisticated examples of art and architecture the world has ever seen. In Cambodia are the ornate royal temples and palaces of Phnom Penh and the stunning temples of Angkor including the worlds largest religious building, Angkor Wat itself and the Tao Phrom, right out of Indiana Jones and where portions of the 2000 film Tombraider were filmed.

These sights and many that I did not see make Cambodia an amazing place to visit and one of my favorite places in the world.

Then there is the tragic legacy of Cambodia, three decades of strife and war beginning with the American bombardment of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and lasting through the utterly brutal Khmer Rouge regime which ruled the country from 1974 to 1979 and oversaw the extermination of over 2 million people (10%) of the population. The government of Vietnam then drove out the KR and occupied the nation during the early 1980's and the KR conducted a guerilla war until its final defeat in 1998. The KR left the rural countryside rife with landmines and there are some 3 million plus mines still in the ground today.

Thankfully joint international/Cambodian mine clearing teams have made many areas safe to return to, but the progress is excruciatingly slow and the task monumental and far, far from over.

All of this has had a devastating impact on Cambodia's economy and population which I was able to experience first hand in the hundreds of poor children hawking everything and anything at Angkor, the many, many beggars in the streets of Siem Reap and the countless landmine victims on the streets. It is the mine victims that are the most heartbreaking. Thousands of innocent people have been maimed, mostly the rural poor, and with a health care system unable to deal with them many of these victims are unable to obtain employment and are left to beg in the streets. I witnessed many, many amputees at the border, crossing into Cambodia, on the streets of the cities and just about everywhere.

On the border I witnessed many farmers riding modified bicycle powered carts pushing the pedals at chest height with their arms as they were all missing one or both of their legs. I also saw a prison truck, deporting what I assume were illegal Cambodians from Thailand back into Cambodia. It was right out of a movie with people crammed inside gripping the bars and staring forlornly out of the truck.

All of this was painful enough to see, but there were two sights on top of this which have burned their way into my mind forever. The first was visiting the S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. S-21 is a former High School that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as an internment camp and torture center. Thousands of men, women and even young children were taken here and never seen again. The classrooms were used as cells and people inside were subjected to inhuman and unspeakable acts of violence. Inside the rooms are pictures of the victims broken, starving and bleeding and in one room there are even bloodstains on the 20 foot high ceiling. The presence of pain and suffering still permeates the place and I could not enter the rooms for more than a second.

As a stark contrast to this dark past, there were many people playing volleyball or football just behind the buildings, laughing and joking while children played in the dirt. It was all rather surreal and to me seems like another testament to the strength of the Cambodian people to survive despite such pain in their lives.

The museum is all there to be a reminder of what happened while most of the world remained silent or tacitly supported the Khmer Rouge regime as a barrier against the Communist government of Vietnam. It is also there to help prevent such things from happening again in the future. As we witness war and chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq and genocide in Darfur I wonder how much we have learned.

The final image which I will never forget from Cambodia was a severely deformed child on the street of Phnom Penh. I only saw the child for a second as I was walking down the waterfront promenade, but it was more than enough. As I was walking my attention was drawn by a small group of people standing around a woman with a small bundled figure in front of her. I looked and to my horror saw that the bundle was a child with its head the size of the rest of its body, like the pictures of alien children in the supermarket tabloids. I was not even aware that a human being could remain alive with such severe deformities and I had no idea what could have caused it. Another friend of mine saw a man whose face had a growth extending halfway to his waist which he was just holding as he walked down the street and people stared.

It was not until two days later when I visited the War Museum in Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City), Vietnam that I found out the cause. Agent Orange and numerous other defoliants that the US military used during the Vietnam War still severely contaminate much of the countryside in northern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia and Laos. Thousands of children such as the one that I saw are being born every year in Vietnam alone. The American chemical legacy of the war will remain in Southeast Asia for years to come. While it is well known that many US veterans have suffered from Agent Orange exposure I had no idea of the severity and extent of the contamination until seeing it first hand.

These are the realities of life for many people in Southeast Asia, and while I am not writing this to condemn the US government, I am writing it to condemn the acts of horror and violence that inevitably accompany any war, be it the Vietnam War or the War on Terror. In the US we are isolated from such realities and I think this is something that must change as we move into the 21st century.

Witnessing this, more than anything else drove home to me the true costs of war. All sides commit atrocities in war, there is simply no avoiding it.

Posted by Andrew995 06:25 Archived in Cambodia Tagged backpacking

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