Cambodia was not really on my radar before my trip here, as I mentioned in a previous post. My visit was such a surprise to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the sights, the people and the culture, there is a richness and soulfulness that I didn’t expect. The most compelling aspect, though, was Cambodian history, the living history of stories of the people who lived through the recent revolutions.
On the tour that I joined with my colleague Reid Coen’s company, Imprint Tours, we had an excellent local Cambodian guide named Keung. His name is a little hard to say and I’ve probably misspelled it, so we generally called him Ken. He was an excellent story teller, sharing his love for the temples at Angkor Wat and his sly sense of humor. What made this trip extraordinary for me, though, was his personal account of life during the revolutions from 1975-2001.
I must admit some ignorance on the subject of Cambodian history. I knew they were involved in some way with the Vietnam War, but it was not something I’d spent time considering. The Vietnam War is a scar of my parents’ generation, much as World War II was the scar for my grandparents’ generation. I’ve watched some documentaries on it, but it’s never connected with me on a personal level.
There is no way I can adequately explain the history of the country to you, it is absurdly complex. I’ll give you the main idea, though.
Cambodian History Timeline
800-1500, Distant past, the Angkor Kingdom as I described in my last post. A glorious and sophisticated period that produced the largest civilization that the world had seen.
1863-1953, French Occupation: Nationalism in Europe created the race for colonies around the globe. France colonized parts of Asia, including Cambodia, which they called French Indochina.
1953-1969, Cambodian Kingdom, an independent nation after French occupation
1969: Secret bombings of Cambodia by the American government to fight North Vietnamese guerrilla troops based in Cambodia.
1969-1975: Civil war between royalists and Khmer Rouge communists and Vietnamese guerrillas. Power vacuum and confusion.
1975-1979: “Year Zero” as proclaimed by the new despot, Pol Pot. Massive movement of population begins, forcing people out of cities and into the country to create a new agrarian society. Intellectuals are rounded up and killed. Families are split so that no allegiances can exist. 2 million people are killed or disappear, representing 25% of the population.
1979-1991: Pol Pot goes into hiding, civil war, political unrest and an exiled government. No local government is internationally recognized, which keeps aid from reaching the desperate population. Refugee crisis.
1991-2001: UN intervention to establish a new government. Kingdom of Cambodia eventually restored after coups and continuing violence.
What does it Mean?
Reading a history timeline gives you a sense of what happened in the country, but it doesn’t give you the full story. How did these events shape the lives of the people who lived through them?
The concept of “Year Zero” is the most important piece. Pol Pot was a revolutionary and Marxist. He had dreams of creating the perfect society and saw modern, western-style life as the enemy. He sought to go back to the time when people lived on the land.
Money and property were outlawed. All social and political structures were to be destroyed and started over, from Zero. Anyone who was educated, anyone who could present a roadblock to this vision was eliminated. Families were separated to keep resistance from forming. The effect was devastating, as documented in the movie on recent Cambodian history by John Pilger – Year Zero – The Silent Death of Cambodia .
This horrifying social experiment went farther than you could imagine. Ken was a product of it, and his personal stories tell the story of Cambodia’s turbulent recent history. As he shared with our group, he was a product of a forced breeding program. The government was purging society of unwanted elements, and at the same time, breeding a new generation without any memory of what had been.
Between 1975 and 1980, people across the country were forced to relocate and mate with total strangers, assigned by the government. This included people who were already married. The babies produced were taken away immediately and put into camps to be raised by the government.
This is how Ken spent the first two years of his life. Records of births were not kept at the time, so he actually has no idea of how old he is, he can only estimate. His parents were strangers from different ethnic groups.
Luckily, Ken’s grandmother accepted a job at the camp, working with the babies. When the regime toppled, his grandmother grabbed the children she knew to be her grandchildren and ran away with them. He was lucky, he was able to be reunited with his family, but many others were not so lucky. After being forcibly displaced, the population walked on foot back to their original villages to find their families, often finding that the village was no longer there.
Couples who were forced to have children were allowed to separate and go back to their villages. They had not been allowed to reveal their marital status before the regime change, but once they could, many people returned to their former spouses. In Ken’s case, his parents were not married to anyone else and decided to stay together. They are still together, although they never married.
After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, the turbulence in Cambodia continued with civil wars and unrest. Ken told us that he was taken from school one day, he guesses he was 13, by armed men. He was taken into military service and given an AK47 that he says, jokingly, was his first toy.
Ken’s teen years were spent as a child soldier. His assignment was to work at the Angkor Wat site, which was being used as a military base. The city nearest Angkor, Siem Reap, was the place that the very first battle of the civil wars took place, and it was the last part of the country to experience violence. All of that violence in the beautiful and spiritual ruins of the ancient Angkor society. He recalled that the bored teenage guards would use the carvings on the temples as target practice.
When the political situation settled down, Ken took a job at a bed and breakfast, for a Belgian man. He learned to speak English and eventually became a guide at the site that he once guarded as a soldier.
All of this turmoil in a single lifetime… and he’s still so young. He estimates that he may be about 35 years old. What I found extraordinary about him was his gentleness and kind soul. Despite growing up as a witness to violence and horror, he has an unmistakable sweetness.
Ken’s life story was so stunning, and the way he talked about it, with humor and grace, was extraordinary. I found it to be very moving. It’s a story everyone should hear, but the people that need to hear it most will not. He told us that the people who lived through the terrible years do not speak of it. He, himself, only does a couple of tours per year because it is hard to continue sharing his story. Half of the population of Cambodia is under 18. The genocide and civil war history is not taught in schools, meaning that half of the population has no memory of what happened.
The dichotomy is palpable. The young generation is modern, carefree and westernized, tapping on their iPhones and eating KFC. The older generation carries a dark history which they do not share. I can understand why they choose not to share their experiences, but without an education on recent Cambodian history, what will that mean for the Cambodia of the future?
For my small part, I wanted to document a bit of Ken’s story. He agreed to sit down with me and my colleague for a small interview. He recounted some of the main stories of his life, with his usual gentleness and grace. Maybe it’s not much, but perhaps can serve as a document for the future. You can find our conversations on YouTube: https://youtu.be/J9b4i3jyU3Q and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WyWxp_ecLI
Does this sound like your kind of adventure? Then come along with me in 2018! I’m guiding a tour of Thailand (with an extension to Cambodia) with Imprint Tours, more information here: http://imprinttours.com/tours/2013-tantalizing-thailand/