who ... moi?

a social butterfly: scared of much, but not of many. never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. not a fan of acronyms, snakes and angelina jolie. a HUGE fan of Fathead.

this blog is black for ENERGY-SAVING reasons.

thanks for your understanding.
if it's too dark, put your glasses on old one.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

the story of a genocide

you can't escape the past - especially in a place like cambodia where everything about it has been directly shaped and informed but its troubled and violent past.  so, that said - herewith, a brief post-angkorian, modern history lesson: 

cambodia has a monarch, called king norodom sihanouk.  you'll see on the map i posted a while ago, that the coastal strip is named "sihanoukville", after him.

indochina was given independence from the french, and when this happened, cambodia lost it's hold over the mekong delta, which was given to the vietnamese.

as the vietnam war flourished, king sihanouk declared his position as fence-sitter (although he was considered a communist sympathizer).  anyway, he's in beijing on a visit, and a military coup (with the backup of the USA) hop onto his throne and over-throw his rule. 

the king appeals to his followers to assist in overthrowing the overthrowers - and this ignited the first sparks of civil war.  shortly thereafter, a rebel group called the khmer rouge began to use the king and his cause to gain the support of the people.

unfortunately, the khmer rouge were a bunch of racist, power-hungry madmen - which gave the US a fantastic excuse to get involved, as they do, and bomb the shit out of the country, as they do, in order to flush out the anti-american communists, as they put it. 

cambodia was now to suffer relentless bombings and invasions from the vietnamese and US forces, from 1969 - '73.  around 2million cambodians became refugees as they fled their home, phnom penh.  the attacks created a rebellion / unintentional recruitment drive for the khmer rouge.  so ironically, the very movement that the US were so aggressively trying to quash was infact spurned in momentum and supporters, by the US.

when the war came to an end, in 1975, the country was in famine.  75% of it's livestock had been destroyed and any agricultural repair and renewal was left to be done by a nation too malnourished and physically disable to labour. 

 in a US aid report:
"without large-scale external food and equipment assistance there will be widespread starvation between now and next february ... slave labour and starvation rations for half the nation's people (probably heaviest among those who supported the republic) will be a cruel necessity for this year, and general deprivation and suffering will stretch over the next two or three years before cambodia can get back to rice self-sufficiency".
the capital at its weakest, the khmer rouge pounced on phnom penh and took full power.  they changed the country's name to "democratic kampuchea" and invaded all major cities, driving every last person out to the rural areas for forced labour.  this is when the crazies really started to come out:

as they attempted to rebuild the agriculture, they based in on the model and practices of the 11th century - discarding any modern knowledge or technologies that had been tried and perfected since then.  they refused western medicine and aid - and any other artifact that resembled the west..  they torched every collection of literature, historical records and archives.  they pulled the temples to the ground.

of the 8 million cambodians that were left after the war, around 2million were killed during this rule of the khmer rouge - through disease, malnutrition, torture, punishments, executions and exhaustion from forced labour.

during this genocide, the killing fields were named - a cite that we visited during out stay in phnom penh - several mass graves which were filled to the brim with broken bodies - of men, of the elderly, of women and of children.  no one could escape the brutality of this ruthless regime.  a source of this slaughter was the tuol sleng prison (now a museum, which we also visited).  the prison is notorious for its mass executions and one of the most disturbing parts of the museum's exhibition was the millions and millions of mug-shot photographs on display.  these were the faces of the victims - a sadistically pedantic system the khmer rouge used to document those they put to death.

further examples of the craziness can be seen in the types of people they were targeting.  firstly all minority groups - vietnamese, chinese, muslims.
then all of those really useless public servants - you know, like all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, trained professionals and anyone with a tertiary education.

i found this quote, made by a man called robert d. kaplan and thought it very fitting:  
"eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star, as they were seen as a sign of intellectualism."

anyway, in '78 cambodia was invaded by the vietnamese and this pushed the khmer rouge to establish their own state of pro-soviet crazies, called the people's republic of kampuchea.

after three years of invasion, cambodia was further split into three divisions:  the khmer rouge, the group still led by king sihanouk, and the khmer people's national liberation front.

in the years that followed, the US controlled certain areas, as did the UK.  there were major economic sanctions, which crippled the country's recovery even further.  the result: a badly wounded, exhausted, diseased nation, crippled and weak, defenseless and senseless, poor, impoverished and uneducated.

by 1989 the world assisted in peace efforts, which took two years.  finally a settlement was reached in '91 and the crazies were disarmed by the UN.

old king sihanouk had his throne returned, and has been ruling cambodia since '93. there've been a few hiccups since then, but ultimately this country has made incredible stride to full recovery.

knowing this history puts an incredible perspective on a visit to cambodia.  and understanding the kind of torment and genocide it has seen, only makes the progress, the growth and the people's temperament all the more awe-inspiring.

what an incredible country.

all factual information sourced via www.wikipedia.com

more happiness in PP

we decided the next morning that it was time for some culture, which led us to the royal palace in the middle of this cool city.

phnom penh is a colourful fabric made from the grandeur of an ancient kingdom, interwoven with the modernity of a world city. it's not your sky-scraper landscape either, but rather has an olden-day charm much like cape town's.

the wats (buddhist temples) and palaces have been immaculately preserved, the grounds manicured and kept pristinely clean. it was such a pleasure to view such ancient monuments that had been cared for with such respect and appreciation.

the entrance fees were a little steep and after viewing the royal palace (including the silver pagoda which we so unimpressive that i had no idea we had already been inside it, by the time we left) we decided to give the wallets and culture dose a rest for the day.

back in town, we stopped at the pink elephant for some happy pizza and watched cambodia go about its day. the street that followed the river bank was bustling with happy herb street cafes, hawkers and food vendors kept the sales soundtrack on repeat and then out of nowhere, a mahout and his elephant strolled down in the slow lane.

it's not that cambodia wasn't as poor as people had said, or that the country's scars from the khmer rouge genocide were not still very fresh. they were all there.

but then so were the breathtaking sights and the cheap beer and great food and the amazingly friendly people, and the electric energy and the exoticism of it all with its wats and highway hephalumps.

and of course, there was happy.

and all this together meant that instead of the depression and anxiety we had been told to expect, we felt nothing but utterly happy, really.

happy in phnom penh

after an hour and a half on the floating customs house of the cambodian border, we finally docked in the river port of phnom penh.

a short tuk-tuk drive later and we were in the heart of the city's backpacking district.

it was here that one of our traveling traditions would be born, one that remains in practice even today:
one person from each couple would stay with the bags, while the remaining two would split up and go forth in search of our new home. this began with dan and i winning the rock-paper-scissors competition, meaning we got to sit back in the fat elephant pub and enjoy an ice cold klang beer, while Fathead and brodes were sent out into the night.

a pretty splendid setup, we both agreed.

(from this point forth, dan and i engineered it so that we were continuously useless at our investigations, and eventually had this authority revoked from our hands, which again, we both agreed, was a pretty splendid setup).

(back in phnom penh): a few beers later and dan and i had bonded over our similarities and become charmed with out differences.

i learnt that they were newly weds and had been together for over 5 years.
he learnt that we were not-yet-weds and had been together for over 6.
they too had done vietnam, and were planning the same route through cambodia and laos as we were.
they liked temples as little as we did, liked beer as much as we did, liked sheesha more than any sane people probably should, and were as daft and batty as we were.

it was a match made in heaven.

i discovered that dan is a fireman (that's right kids, we're that cool: we made friends with someone from the london fire brigade!) and brodie the driving force behind one of london's most successful pubs, Fathead got to know brodes in much the same way.

a few beers down and the room-scouts returned with triumphant news of their accomodation find. just across the road, down a small alley was a backpackers with a large wooden deck afloat on the river. a pool table and internet station occupied the one corner, while the rest was filled with lounge pockets, a big screen tv, hammocks, more hammocks and one long, cheap bar.

happy hostel thus became our new home away from home, and as the name suggested, we were soon to discover just how happy cambodia would make us.

that night we settled down to a few dozen games of cards, shared happy pizza's and mint sheesha, laughed harder than i can ever remember doing and eventually fell into bed with pure contentment: we had met the most fun and entertaining couple, had shared a really good evening with them, had done the kind of laughing that left us gasping in pain and all-in-all were about as happy as we'd ever been. yup, this was the sign of things to come ... cambodia was a truly happy experience for us, in deed.