Scarlett Hawkins travels to Cambodia, and finds the promise of future change is shackled to the ghosts of the past.
The signs are impossible to miss. They are dotted along country roads in lieu of distance markers. They are emblazoned across shopfronts, restaurants, even the faces of domestic homes. They proclaim the legend in English, with only a footnote in Khmer: “The Cambodian Peoples Party”. It troubled me from almost the first instance I saw them. They were so official – biting into the earth on sturdy poles, and with a consistency that seems dissonant with a landscape of untamed earth, hungry jungle and cramped commerce. Such consistency implies governmental funding. Governmental funding for one party defies the democratic political process where an incumbent party should not be able to promote itself through governmental funding. And yet, here we are.
Cambodia’s fraught history is known, but to walk its streets and talk with its people, the realities of the genocide that took place here is reflected in all and sundry.
The footnotes are straightforward: the Khmer Rouge was a political group that advocated for Communist ideals in Cambodian society. Headed by a posse of intellectuals and educators whose resumes all boasted foreign education, the regime ordered the massacring of its own people within days of taking Phnom Penh. In three years, eight months and twenty days of governance, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, had haplessly slaughtered some three million of Cambodia’s modest population of eight million. No family or individual was exempt from the caress of trauma, and the echoes of those dark days are etched in the features of many – not just those alive during the era, but those affected by the traumas that afflicted their parents, grandparents, and friends.
The Khmer Rouge fled Cambodia in 1979, leaving the country to the similarly Communist Cambodian Peoples Party, which had been largely comprised of Khmer Rouge defectors. Families returned to their homes in pursuit of loved ones who never reappeared. An exhibit in the former prison, S21, where torture was administered wholesale to those baselessly accused of being either CIA or KGB, informs the viewer that the display of prisoners’ mugshots against the walls of the former cells are a stark reminder of all that has been lost, and a saving grace for some.
One Cambodian, visiting the museum for the first time, was able to recognise an unknown family member in the images. Whilst the ultimacy of that person’s death was likely in a prison where a (disputed) figure of seven survivors emerged from a place that funnelled through some 20,000 prisoners, closure in the form of grief is perhaps a greater weight from one’s shoulders than the uncertainty of never knowing what happened to a friend or loved one.
The horrors of the deaths that took place in Cambodia are omnipresent. The country was, during the Vietnam War, subject to several millions of tonnes of land mine dispersal at the hands of the USA. Many of these bombs have not been found, rendering the countryside and even some small pockets of towns perpetually risky to traverse. Panhandlers short of various limbs roam the streets of Phnom Penh, their injuries on display for the world to see, to pity, to pay in greater coin than in penance.
But the ghosts are not all that haunt the country’s political spectrum. The existence of the Khmer Rouge may be, in effect, neutralised, but the unavoidability of its thrall persists. The Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) continues to rule the nation, as it had done for several decades. Headed by the dictator Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian population – which still reels from the mercenary culling of its intellectual and skilled working forces during the ’70s – are largely subject to manipulation by a government that has not, and likely will not, secede its power even if toppled through democratic election.
Hun Sen, who has consistently positioned himself within the upper echelons of the CPP over the last thirty-odd years in Cambodia, has famously declared that to be averse to the CPP is to be pro-Khmer Rouge. This is because the CPP claims responsibility for the ousting of their predecessors, though Vietnam was a sizeably involved. However, a large majority of the existing CPP leadership base derives from the wrong side of history during the genocide, which renders the political spectrum murky at best, and goes a great way in explaining the reluctance of the Cambodian Government to expedite the trials of the surviving handful of Khmer Rouge leaders who headed the genocide of the 1970’s.
In 2013, the oppositional Cambodia National Rescue Party – whose advertisements are, to this author’s eye, borderline invisible if in existence at all – was revealed to have won at least 50 percent of seats in Government. However, the ruling class has forfeited no such seats and it appears that the reported figure is more modest than in actuality. If so, then it follows that Cambodia never truly has been able to shake the power-hungry parasites from its political process – rather, human lives are merely given a modicum of sanctity in not being robbed by the Government, but even so, the hyper-controlling, undemocratic death grip upon power remains.
The next national elections for the nation of Cambodia are slated for 2018. If history is an accurate projection of results to come, its results will be lacklustre in both the realms of change, and of honesty. The chief issue is, however, that when human governance has stooped to the merciless slaughter of millions, apathy to the political process in modern times can become pervasive. So long as the skeletons of the past are acknowledged, people do not have much desire to dredge up more demons from the present. Whilst all else pales in comparison to genocide, the erosion of the right to fair election in a country that proclaims to be democratic is in itself a slippery slope of dubious intent. When political discourse is narrowed down to “with us, or against us”, binaries are formed and radicalisation breeds.
And a country like Cambodia, still bleeding from old wounds, simply cannot bear the burden of any further extremism.
The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, its location more colloquially known as The Killing Fields, summarises it most efficiently when it reminds the people walking through that such genocides have been a constant throughout human history, and will thusly be inevitability somewhere else, one day. We are bidden to remember the realities of such atrocity, and practice kindness and compassion for whichever group may, in turn, be unduly targeted next. To fight for good values such as equality, diversity and legitimate governance.
One can only hope that the Khmer people will remember when election time comes around once more…and that they will do more than shrug if the results are, as projected, not as their votes have willed.