Posts Tagged ‘genocide’

Remembering the Past

Monday, January 7th, 2013

January 7th is a national public holiday in Cambodia. Victory over Genocide Day, is an annual reminder of the ouster of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime on that day in 1979.

For Cambodians, the three years, eight months and twenty days that the Khmer Rouge were in power, forever changed their lives. Everyone was affected. The old and young, the rich and famous. Small ceremonies take place around the country on certain days of the year in remembrance of those that lost their lives, 7 January is one, 20 May is another which used to be called the National Day of Hatred, as well as at Pchum Ben, aka All Souls Day, in September.

Pan Ron

Pan Ron

The Khmer Rouge spared no-one. Pan Ron is one of the country’s most famous names. Alongwith Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth, she was at the vanguard of Cambodian rock and roll music in the 60s and 70s and wrote and performed hundreds of songs that have become classics of her generation. She rose to prominence by dueting with Sisamouth in 1966 and there was no stopping her after that. That is until the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and tragically cut short her life, and that of as many of Cambodia’s artists in all genres, as they could find. For Pan Ron her death came quickly after the guerrilla force took over in April 1975. She was soon identified, which was inevitable considering her stardom, driven to a pagoda in Bati district and murdered. That pagoda is Wat Troap Kor in Takeo province, a site some 30-odd kms outside of the capital, Phnom Penh. According to eye witnesses, Pan Ron was taken with her two small nephews, blindfolded and marched behind the pagoda and murdered. The site, with its own small memorial stupa, is believed to have contained upwards of 40,000 people in a series of mass graves, victims of the Khmer Rouge’s killing frenzy. Pan Ron, like Sereysothea and Sisamouth, didn’t survive the Khmer Rouge regime but their legacy and their memory lives on in their timeless music for Cambodians today.

The memorial at Wat Troap Kor in Bati district - the resting place of Pan Ron

The memorial at Wat Troap Kor in Bati district – the resting place of Pan Ron

The Legacy of War in the Mekong Delta

Monday, May 21st, 2012

The memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at Ba Chuc

Re-visiting the horrors of the late Seventies in the sleepy Mekong Delta.

Memorials in honour of those innocents slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the late Seventies aren’t confined to the fields of Cambodia. In the sleepy Mekong Delta village of Ba Chuc, a glass tomb, an ossuary or the bone pagoda of Phi Lai, as it is also called, stands as a reminder of the death and destruction visited upon this small village in April 1978. Of the village’s population at that time of 3,159, only two people are known to have survived the massacre, one of a number of incursions into Vietnamese territory made by the Khmer Rouge forces along the nearby porous border that eventually goaded the Vietnam authorities into invading Cambodia, or Democratic Kampuchea as it was known, and driving the Khmer Rouge out of power in early 1979. But that came too late for the inhabitants of Ba Chuc, some of whom were disemboweled, raped and decapitated as they sought refuge in the pagodas of Phi Lai and Tam Buu. Ba Chuc was one of five villages attacked by the invading killers, who burned and looted as they went, leaving four thousand dead in their wake. The hexagonal, glass-windowed memorial was erected in 1984. Inside, 1,700 skulls of the deceased are classified according to age and sex including one sign that poignantly reads ‘Baby of Ba Chuc under 2 years old (29)’. Behind them, in the centre of the monument, a pile of bones are heaped up randomly, unclassified. There was a long line of people visiting, lighting incense and saying silent prayers as I walked around the stupa during my visit. The Ba Chuc memorial is not a quiet place when a coach party arrives. A few steps away, in a large room that is part of the Tam Buu pagoda, black and white photographs line the walls, detailing how the villagers met their gruesome deaths in the fields and buildings of the hamlet. Ba Chuc is firmly on the tourist map, as Choeung Ek is just outside of Phnom Penh, and now that the roads in this part of the Mekong Delta are improving, more and more visitors are finding their way to the memorial, to learn more about the shocking massacre that wiped out a whole village.

Ba Chuc is located close to the Vietnam-Cambodian border; to reach it, follow the road that runs along the canal from Ha Tien to Chau Doc. Turn off this main road onto Highway 3T and follow it for 4kms.

Narrowcasters Audio Tour of the Killing Fields

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Learn about the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and their role in the Khmer Rouge genocide with a poignant audio tour

Visitors to the Killing Fields can now explore the site at their own pace with an audio handset. The broadcast is superbly produced and comes with an accompanying map of the site. Hanuman suggest using this audio tour in conjunction with your local tour guide for the best experience. Let your tour guide introduce the site and share some of their own experiences of the Khmer Rouge with you before commencing the audio tour.

The tour begins with a general history of the Khmer Rouge rise to power and takeover on 17 April 1975. It continues with an intense interview with Chief Tuol Sleng interrogator Him Huy recounting his actions at the prison. Other sections deal with mas grave sites around the site and the foundation of key buildings that existed at that time. The podcast includes some harrowing survivor stories, including a lucid account from Youk Chhang, the Cambodian-American Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam).

It is possible to listen to highlighted sections of the tour and complete the moving experience in about 30 minutes. Visitors who choose to listen to the complete audio tour will need to set aside about one hour. It is possible to pause and rewind at any time if you want to hear something again or share some thoughts with a partner or friend. The audio tour includes music from renowned Cambodian composer Him Sophy.

Hanuman recommends this audio tour as an impressive addition to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek experience.

Vann Nath’s Last Wish

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Tuol Sleng artist Vann Nath had a dying wish, namely to have a memorial stupa in his home province of Battambang. 66 days after his death at the age of 66, the Hanuman team is committed to helping his family make this wish possible.

On 11 September 2011, the painter from S-21, Vann Nath, was cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Hanuman Director Kulikar Sotho joined the traditional procession to pay her respects to Vann Nath and his family. Hanuman Films Production Manager Robin Waldman filmed the event for the family and you can see this video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHG4AVZzBRg

Vann Nath's paintings from Tuol Sleng

Hanuman plans to help Vann Nath’s family raise money to construct a stupa in his memory. We had the privilege of knowing him well, as we worked with him on many television documentaries about the Khmer Rouge and their terrible legacy. An ambassador for the Cambodian genocide and its countless victims, we mourn his passing and all that he did to ensure the innocent were not forgotten as Cambodia moved forward. Dignity personified, his memory will live on long with all those who were fortunate enough to meet him.

If you would like to contribute to the funds to help raise a memorial stupa for Vann Nath, please contact Kulikar Sotho (kulikar (at) hanumantourism.com) or Andy Brouwer (andy (at) hanumantourism.com) at Hanuman who are supervising the collection.

Audio tours at the Killing Fields

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek

There are changes afoot at one of the most popular tourism sites in Cambodia, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, the final resting place of more than 9,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, located just outside the confines of the city. A visit to this historical reminder of what befell Cambodia in the 1970s is on the schedule of most first-time visitors to Phnom Penh. The private Japanese company that took over the management of the site in 2005 (for a term of 30 years) have just announced that from 1 January 2012 the admission fee for foreign visitors will increase and will also include an audio tour of the center, in various languages, whether you use it or not. The audio tour will be available on a voluntary basis from 1 September before becoming compulsory at the turn of the year.

Kulikar at Duch’s trial verdict

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Kulikar Sotho waiting to hear the verdict outside the Tribunal courtroom

Kulikar Sotho (right) waiting to hear the verdict outside the Tribunal courtroom (pic Dave McKee)

Kulikar Sotho, the Executive Director of Hanuman, attended the verdict reading in the judgement day of the first trial, that of former S-21 commander Comrade Duch, under the auspices of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh Monday. This historic event, taking place more than thirty years after the Khmer Rouge regime came to an end, was personal for so many Cambodians, including Kulikar, who lost her uncle at Tuol Sleng prison.

The outcome of the verdict has shocked many people here in Cambodia. Comrade Duch (pronounced Doik) admitted responsibility for the prison activities which tortured and murdered more than 13,000 people in the late 1970s. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison. However, with time already served and another period taken off for illegal imprisonment, he will now serve just another 19 years behind bars. This has been greeted with dismay by many Cambodians, who recoil at the thought of Comrade Duch ever being able to walk free from his prison cell.

Kulikar too found the sentencing hard to stomach. “I can understand the reasoning of the judges but in my view it doesn’t bring any justice to the justice system and to Cambodians affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. There was a lot of anger when the sentence was announced. 90% of the Cambodians at the court were crying. One lady fainted on my shoulder. Others were wailing and screaming and very distraught. The whole process has reopened up the past for many and the fact that Duch may walk free in the future, it’s just not justified in the eyes of Cambodians.”

She continued. “99% of Cambodians will not accept this sentence. It’s too little. And I agree, it’s not justice for what he did. The people will lose belief in the justice system of the tribunal. For crimes against humanity, 19 years is simply not enough.” In addition, she said that the verdict was not explained clearly at the court which just made the situation a lot worse. “I think the court has made a mistake in not educating the Cambodian people properly, before the verdict and sentence were given. They don’t really understand the idea of reconciliation or mitigating factors and now no-one understands why Duch, a confessed architect of so many deaths, may one day walk free, when so many Cambodians will never be able to be free.”

“I’m not even talking about fairness, because being fair would be to treat him as he treated so many others, imprisoned them, tortured them and killed them. I can’t expect that to happen or want it to happen, as we would be just the same as him and history would repeat itself. What I am talking about is acceptance and the level of acceptance. Duch sent more than 13,000 people to their deaths, that’s 13,000 life sentences he imposed on them. So only a life sentence for Duch is acceptable for me,” she said.

Also at the court was a documentary team following former Olympian rower Rob Hamill, from New Zealand, as he uncovers the truth about his brother Kerry, one of the handful of westerners killed at the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Last year Rob Hamill gave testimony at the trial of the S-21 chief Comrade Duch and was back in Phnom Penh this week, to attend the trial verdict. Find out more about the documentary, Brother Number One, at http://www.brothernumberone.co.nz/index.htm.

Remembering Cambodia’s genocide at Tuol Sleng

Friday, July 31st, 2009

The Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
is a shrine to suffering under the Khmer Rouge

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng Prison

Tuol Sleng, or S-21 Prison, in Phnom Penh is an open wound for many Cambodians. My wife, Kulikar, shivers at its mention. Her uncle, Ang Choubee, was incarcerated there, tortured and executed.

Kulikar flipped through Choubee’s folder, scanning the record of his arrest and execution, and broke down in tears. All that remained of her uncle was the mangled frame of his spectacles, a telling symbol of the communist regime in the Seventies that targeted intellectuals.

Nothing prepares you for an encounter with Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the original Khmer Rouge security prison: the rusty manacles spattered with the stains of suffering; the graphic photos of the last victims bludgeoned to death. This is a walk on the dark side of humanity.

Wandering through room after room of black-and-white photographs of the anonymous victims of a revolution, some faces are defiant, some terrified, while others are bemused. All look imploringly at their audience; they seem silently to utter the same question: why?

Haunting images implant themselves in the mind. A young woman, Chan Kim Srung, holds her newborn baby. They were “smashed” soon after May 14, 1978. A popular Khmer Rouge slogan was to “pull the roots when cutting the weeds”.

It’s hard to imagine this place, which was built as a high school, as a playground. There are a few clues in the courtyard, including some climbing bars, but our guide, Chamreoun, soon shatters any illusions of normali-ty. “Here is where they tied the prisoners upside down and dumped their heads in jars of water,” he tells us.

One of the rooms is lined with primitive paintings depicting the brutal forms of punishment meted out for disobeying the rules. As many as 17,000 prisoners passed through the gates of this prison and were later executed at the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Driving out towards the killing fields, it is almost impossible to make sense of the violence unleashed in this indolent land, to square the heavenly vision of rural Cambodia today with the hell of the past.

Prisoners arrived at Choeung Ek under the cover of darkness and were executed with hoes and spades to save precious bullets. Many of the mass graves remain undisturbed, fragments of bone poking through the baked earth. Clothing fragments are mixed into the soil as if the ground opened up and swallowed the living. The remains of 8,985 bodies that were exhumed are on display in a memorial stupa. We burn incense to remember them.

The killing fields of Choeung Ek were one of hundreds of mass grave sites scattered throughout the country. In Battambang province in the west of the country there were widespread killings. The holy mountain of Phnom Sampeau is littered with shrines and stupas.

This brutal civil war rumbled on until 1998. After 30 years of turmoil, if any country has a shot at making a success of its history, drawing in visitors to teach them vital lessons about its terrible past, surely it is Cambodia.

But it’s not just “war tourism” that is bringing people to the country. Angkor has a spectacular collection of temples, the south coast conceals tropical beaches and the forests of northern Cambodia are home to rare wildlife and dramatic waterfalls.

However, more than its culture and nature, the Cambodian people are the national treasure. The Khmers may have been to hell and back, but somehow they returned with a smile.

As we cruise down Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh’s lively riverside boulevard, in the back of a tuk-tuk, we pass designer restaurants on every corner, bars packed with bon viveurs and the beautiful people parading the latest selection of designer mobile phones. Blending in are cyclos that double as family saloons carrying up to six people, an elephant sauntering along the promenade on the hunt for bananas, and pigs and chickens dangling off motorbikes on their way to market.

Old Asia meets new Asia and it makes for a dizzying ride. The past has not been buried, it has been disinterred and dragged up for all to share, lest the world forget. But the new Cambodia is looking forward to a brighter future with open arms.

Nick Ray