Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A little bit of history

Independence Monument Phnom Penh

Around 1st century BC the heavily Indian influenced Funan Kingdom was busy shaping Cambodia’s history. It’s remnants can still be seen in Cambodia’s art, alphabet, religion and architecture. There is also archaeological evidence of a commercial society in the Mekong Delta from the 1st to the 6th centuries. During the 9th to the 14th century Cambodia enjoyed relative prosperity and growth. A huge number of temples were built including, Angkor Wat (more on that later I hope), and by the 12th century Cambodia had spread into what is now known as Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and the Malaysian peninsula.
Then things began to get tough. From the 14th century right up until the 19th century Cambodia was repeatedly ravaged by Vietnamese and Thai invasions. A war that began in the 1830's almost destroyed Cambodia so the then King Norodom signed a treaty that enabled the French to become a protectorate and, for the next 90 years, France had the final say on most matters.
In 1953 Norodom Sihanouk petitioned France for independence and, when he was ignored, went into voluntary exile until the French finally conceded and Sihanouk came home to an independent Cambodia. The Geneva Peace Accords proclaimed Cambodia would be guaranteed the right to remain neutral and non-aligned and committed Cambodia to a constitutional monarchy with elections open to everyone. Despite his popularity Sihanouk worried the republican-minded Democratic Party, who were determined to abolish the monarchy, would win the next election. His strategy was to abdicate the throne, announcing that he would establish a truly democratic party, ending the rule of privilege. He formed a political movement called the ‘Sangkum Reastr Niyum’ (the People's Socialist Community) and because he had the support of the peasant majority and several other political parties, who feared annihilation at the polls, in 1955, Prince Sihanouk was elected premiere.

Photographs of prisoners at Tuol Sleng or S-21

In the 1960s, Sihanouk tried to remain impartial during skirmishes in Laos and Vietnam despite Nixon’s frequent carpet bombing to it’s border villages. The United States, believing that the North Vietnamese had communist strongholds in Cambodia, conducted bombing raids along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, slaughtering an estimated 600,000 people. Many were Cambodian peasant farmers. The US were also attempting to shift Sihanouk's loyalty, using offers of aid, from pro-communist neutrality to pro-American. The United States tried to pressure Sihanouk into joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an organisation they believed would help keep Communist China in its place. Sihanouk refused because of his pro-communist neutrality. He also caused alarm in Washington by establishing relationships with the USSR and Poland and accepting aid from China.

In March 1970, while Sihanouk was in Paris, General Lon Nol used anti Vietnamese sentiment inside Cambodia to overthrow Sihanouks government. He pledged to remove foreign communist forces and appealled to the United States for military aid. It worked, the cabinet cabled Sihanouk in Paris announcing a radical change in military and foreign policy. Sihanouk's efforts to escape the imminent coup failed and on Wednesday, March 18, 1970, the assembly met to vote Sihanouk out of office.
Meanwhile a man called Saloth Sar (or Pol Pot from the French ‘Politique potentielle’ as he became known) had become the acting leader of the largely underground communist party. In March 1963, Saloth went into hiding after his name was published in a list of leftist suspects put together by the police for Norodom Sihanouk. He fled to the Vietnamese border region and made contact with Vietnamese units fighting against South Vietnam. Sihanouk formed a government in exile with Pol Pot’s communist party, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and called it the Khmer Rouge.
Soon civil war raged between General Lon Nol’s government, whose control had been limited to a few enclaves, and the now more powerful Khmer Rouge. The embattled people of Cambodia, who were fearful of the repeated American bombing and the warring Vietnamese, were easily swayed by the communist policies of the Khmer Rouge.
On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge won and initiated its plan to create a collectivist, agrarian society, effectively forcing Cambodia back to ‘year zero.’ Banking, finance and currency were all abolished, all religions were outlawed, and the traditional social structure was destroyed. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, attempted to create a classless agricultural society by forcihng the withdrawl from urban areas such as Phnom Penh and Battambang to try and eradicate trade and business. The educated, religious, non Khmer, people who had contact with western countries or with Vietnam, the disabled, even those wearing glasses were targeted. Over 3 million people were marched out of cities and forced into labour camps to be ‘re-educated’ or they were never seen again. The labour camps were terrifying dismal places, where if people struggled to survive torture, disease and starvation which would leave them barely alive. Many died at the hands of cruel soldiers some hardly more than children. Some were put in S-21 for interrogation involving torture in cases where a confession was useful to the government. Many others were summarily executed. Survivors were traumatized by over hearing people, often family members, beaten to death, seeing bloodied clothing and smelling dead bodies. Children were punished or killed if they showed emotion.

Peace sign in Cambodia (Photo from onemillionpeacesigns.blogspot)

The Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979 after nearly 3 and a half years of terror. Cambodians flooded into refugee camps on the border with Thailand where the Thai soldiers could be almost as cruel as the Khmer Rouge. The US, who opposed the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, approved 5 million USD in aid to the pro Sihanouk Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front but the Khmer Rouge were receiving funding from China. In December 1984, the Vietnamese launched a major offensive and overran most of the Khmer Rouge positions. Pol Pot fled to Thailand and then to China. In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge established a new stronghold area in the west near the Thai border and Pol Pot relocated back into Cambodia. He refused to cooperate with the peace process, and kept fighting the new coalition government. Eventually the Khmer Rouge disintegrated and Pol Pot was placed under house arrest in the North of Cambodia where he died while waiting to be tried for his war crimes.
Today, The Killing Fields and S-21remain as testimonies to the unimaginable cruelties of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University reports that at least 20 percent of the population, or 1.7 million people, died during the Pol Pot regime. The people of Cambodia are still living with the effects of the years under Pol Pot. In this century, there has probably been no other revolution which so completely altered the lives of an entire population. Literally overnight, entire cities were emptied, property abolished, money rendered worthless, homes and familes destroyed. Every aspect of every life was suddenly and completely dictated by the new government. There was no transition period; hundreds of thousands of people... store clerks, factory workers, taxi drivers, cooks were forced to become farmers. Thousands were executed immediately. Overnight, Cambodia became a nation of slaves. For every Cambodian old enough to remember the events of 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge reign would mark a turning point in their lives. The hustling, bustling developing economy of today’s Cambodia is evidence of their ability to endure and to thrive. We feel very privileged to be able to be a part of this beautiful country and guests of its friendly, smiling people for a few years.


Verity said...

Wow, that was well put and really interesting. I had learnt about the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields before but didn't know much about the before and after. It really makes me think how my own daily difficulties are so insignificant and makes me appreciate what we have. Thanks.

Simple Answer said...

I am so amazed what people can/do endure. I am so glad you are enjoying the country where you landed.

Tanya said...

Thanks for the kind complement Verity! I agree it really does put everything back into perspective.