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Cambodia after the killing fields

Yes, you want to visit Angkor. But for a more complete understanding of the Southeast Asian nation, also include visits to Khmer Rouge-era sites.

May 15, 2011|By Susan Spano | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Angkor Wat, where bullet marks from Cambodia's long war are still visible.
Angkor Wat, where bullet marks from Cambodia's long war are still… (Susan Spano )

Reporting from Anlong Veng, Cambodia — — A muddy, weed-choked field in the hills of northern Cambodia is the last resting place of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, chief instigator of a communist regime that enslaved a nation, dismantled its social and cultural institutions and took the lives of 2 million or more people. In life, he was a cipher, known only to a handful of confederates. He died of a reported heart attack in 1998, with his revolution collapsed around him.

While United Nations-backed war crimes trials of surviving Khmer Rouge henchmen drag on in Phnom Penh, and another strongman, Hun Sen, also considered oppressive, rules the country, the Cambodian people go about their business. In a country where almost everyone lost family members — and in many cases entire families — no one needs to be reminded about the catastrophe.

Tourists are a different matter, especially those who do not remember or may never have known what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. Even now, travelers usually visit Cambodia for one reason: to see Angkor, a vast complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples built by the Khmer Empire, which ruled most of Southeast Asia from about 800 to 1400.

On a trip to Cambodia last fall, I visited Angkor, of course. But I went primarily to see places where the story of the Khmer Rouge era played out. Journeys Within, a small tour company with headquarters in Siem Reap, in the north-central part of the country, helped me find them in the capital of Phnom Penh and along rutted roads and in dirt-poor villages at the back of beyond.

My aspirations were modest: to learn, if not to understand, how the unthinkable happened in Cambodia. Like the Holocaust, evil on this scale confounds human understanding.

The nightmare began April 17, 1975, when Cambodian communists defeated the nationalist forces of U.S.-backed dictator Lon Nol and entered Phnom Penh. Like phantoms, they came out of the countryside where they had waged a five-year-long guerrilla war, most of them hardened teenagers wearing sandals made of tire rubber, baggy black shirts and trousers and red-and-white scarves still sold as souvenirs.

By that time, war refugees from the provinces had streamed into the city, swelling the population from 600,000 to as many as 3 million. Food, housing and medical supplies were scarce. People welcomed the Khmer Rouge, never imagining that in a matter of days they would be herded onto roads with only what they could carry.

The mass evacuation of Phnom Penh, a Khmer Rouge "extraordinary measure" intended to expedite the country's transformation into an agrarian communist state, took the lives of 20,000 people and left the capital a ghost town.

The journey begins

On my way into Phnom Penh from the airport my car passed the French Embassy on Monivong Boulevard. The walled compound has been reconstructed since 1975. But at the gate I heard echoes from "The Killing Fields," a 1984 movie based on a celebrated New York Times Magazine article by Sydney Schanberg, about the fate of foreign nationals and officials from the fallen regime who sought shelter at the embassy when the communists took possession of Phnom Penh. Most foreigners were allowed to leave the country, but the French were forced to surrender the Cambodians, including Schanberg's research assistant Dith Pran, to all but certain death. (Pran escaped, later moving to the U.S., where he died in 2008.)

Only the misinformed come to Phnom Penh expecting the charming capital that grew up around the confluences of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers during the French era (1864-1953) and the freewheeling '50s and '60s under playboy-king Norodom Sihanouk.

A surprisingly canny politician, Sihanouk led his country to independence from the French in 1953 and sought to maintain its neutrality while war raged in Vietnam, winking at the use of border regions by communist guerrillas and the dispatch of American B-52s to eradicate them. The U.S. bombing campaign, begun in secret in 1969 by President Nixon, ultimately spilled a half-million tons of munitions over Cambodia and drove peasants into the open arms of the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh has a jerry-built air, as if it materialized overnight. In recent years stylish cafes, restaurants and hotels have begun to return to the city center, including the Quay, where I stayed in a room high over a boulevard along the Tonle Sap River.

The standard sightseeing itinerary is short, usually ending with a pilgrimage to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, established after the 1979 Vietnamese occupation. The museum was a school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a detention center for purported enemies of the state. It was run by Comrade Kang Keck Ieu, alias "Duch," who had been a math teacher at the school. Purges that filled Tuol Sleng began almost as soon as the communists took power, inspired partly by the paranoia of leaders such as Pol Pot and partly by the Cultural Revolution in China.

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