CAMBODIA: history of a non-place as long as you don’t get there


Filippo Paggiarin

Filippo Paggiarin

The streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, make visible that Cambodia is in the middle of Thailand and Vietnam: its traffic jams are dense, and people drive on the right side, but it is nothing compared to Vietnamese streets with their continuous flow of motorbikes running and parked everywhere. Being a point in the middle, however, does not make Cambodia a meeting point. This place has its own identity, or, to put it better, it is imprisoned in its own identity. The streets are clean and here and there are trees and lawns. No, it is not Switzerland, or maybe yes it is, but only if compared to Asian standards… This also makes Cambodia a very particular place out of time, if it is also compared to the south-east Asian region. Cambodia, stopped belonging to the world as we know it during the 70s and now it is coming back to the world due to the indirect effects of globalization. Only lately, Japanese and Russians are starting to invest in the country that is long-affected by a deficit of infrastructure, such as the lack of roads that link the nation: the only pro actually is the very low cost of labor (the average wage is around 100$). 

The effects of what happened during the 70s still last, and to dig up on it and why it is still lasting is not an easy job: to talk about late Cambodian history it is more than just a taboo, it is a real risk. It is possible to get information about it only leaning on the courage of someone like the person I met. Someone who, still sheltered by safe and hidden places is available for talking, someone who is wary of doing it in public places: if the wrong person, like an officer, listens to someone talking about the Khmer Rouges or about the government, there can be serious consequences.

This tension is visible not only in the harshness of officers of the airport (there is no welcome courtesy in their behaviour at arrival), but also in the blue banners of the ruling People’s Party of the president Hun Sen (that in the 70s used to join the Khmer Rouges) and in the flash in the eye of the people when you talk about it.

What has happened in Cambodia during this time?

As with most of South-East Asia, Cambodia has been a French colony, being part of Indochine (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) until after the Second World War, when it became part of the independence of the region and touched by the Vietnam war being bombed by Americans.

The sad story of Cambodia had just started, but the worst was very soon to come. It came in 1975, after of Vietnam war. Supported by the winning Vietnam that had just been liberated from the American invader, and with which they shared the communist ideology, the Khmer Rouges led by Pol Pot easily came to power in the country.

What happened between ’75 and ’79 is something unique in history: a dystopia that brought about a self-genocide: in few years, 1.6 million Cambodian met their death: a quarter of the population. The new ruling ideology was driven by the ideal of returning to a rural life, dividing the population into “old people” (bonded to traditions and country life), with the opposing “new people” that was living in the cites, with modern lifestyle and considered not accountable: even wearing glasses was considered as proof of allegiance to the new people and could lead to imprisonment. The consequence of this was not only the mass murder, but also the annihilation of that stratum of population made of literates, entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers etc. that could have been the engine for the country’s development. In 1975, after Khmer Rouges conquered it, the capital Phnom Penh, the largest city of the nation, where the majority of this part of population was living, was evacuated on the pretext of the risk of American bombing. They were sent to the countryside, where the collectivization of fields led to a famine with diseases and deaths as consequence. The only rules applied were to dress in black, a ban on complaining about hunger and the blind obedience to Pol Pot’s authority. Khmer Rouges sowed mines all along the border with Thailand: officially against capitalism, the truth is they wanted to prevent Cambodians from escaping from Cambodia.

I am aware that what I am saying might seem all a sad drama, something that has not really happened and never could, and I actually find it hard to realize that something like that could really happen, but even more sadly incredible is what I saw in Tuol Sleng.

Tuol Sleng used to be a school in Phnom Penh. Palms stands in the garden surrounded by buildings that once hosted classrooms, the light of the sunny afternoon and gym tools seem to make the place a normal place, there is almost serenity, but actually those walls hid a horrible reality.

These buildings got emptied and were made into S-21: the concentration camp for political prisoners. The rooms of the first four-floor building still host iron studded bed, where prisoners were fastened and tortured. These prisoners were not allowed to die until they had provided a confession. Tormentors were forbidden to kill before receiving information: if that had happened they would have become themselves prisoners. Hence, confessions were untruth, invented involving relatives also in order to make their words reliable and let the victim gain death. Involved relatives would have later been arrested and brought here. Once the confession happened, prisoners could be executed by other prisoners forced to do it or, if the convicted were too many, they were taken in one of the many places in Cambodian countryside where mass graves were ready to host their corpses.

On the walls are pictures of death bodies laying on these beds in the moment had set free. Their memory make still hard to me have dinner while I write weeks later having got back from Cambodia.

The other buildings of the school are not such better places: as one gets out of the first building can see a notice with clear rules stated on it, as “it is forbidden to scream during interrogation”. A bit further instead, there is a bar that before was used by students for gym exercises, then for tortures and executions (I will not explain here the way to do these executions, it is far beyond the easiest one to imagine). The other buildings hide truths that are not less disturbing, mitigated only by explanation notices and pictures of prisoners from camp archive. Among Cambodians there are some Westerners too, guilty of entering the Cambodian sea with their boat and suspected of being CIA agents, beside them also children, guilty of being sons and daughters of other prisoners, bearers of their same blood. Pictures show cells that used to host convicted, on the walls of those that used to be classrooms they created openings allowing to see from one side of the building to the other one. You go on towards the next building and something baffles you: why are there nets coming down from the top of the building? It is a concrete evidence of the measure of this terrible situation, so terrible to make death become a desire: these were there to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

Once at the end of the visit there is only bewilderment left, it is hard to believe what I have just seen.

The madness of this suicide lasted from 1975 to 1979, the period in which Pol Pot led Khmer Rouges to take power in the renamed Democratic Kampucha. This period ended only after a war with Vietnam, that same Vietnam that few years earlier helped Khmer Rouges to take power in Cambodia. This new war was due to Pol Pot’s paranoia, afraid of Vietnamese intention to conquer Cambodian territories, from these frictions the Cambodian-Vietnamese war broke out and took Hun Sen, former Khmer Rouge now against Pol Pot, to take power with the help of Vietnamese. Since then, the name changed to Popular Republic of Kampuchea, but even still it did not mean that the war had ended: a long lasting civil war between Hun Sen’s govern and Khmer Rouges went on intermittently until 90s, when the last Khmer Rouges left were convinced to leave arms in exchange of places in the government. If that wasn’t enough, one of the indirect consequences of this war was also a HIV epidemic brought to Cambodia from UN soldiers in the early 90s that affected the country with the effect of taking diseases and deaths from one side and consistent aid and medicine from USA from the other.

What about Cambodia today? Nowadays Cambodia claims to be a democratic State, but elections that take place at the presence of UN soldiers, are affected by riggings that make president Hun Sen stay at his place since time immemorial. But one cannot talk about the government, banners in favor of the party placed all along streets are enough.

Cambodia is a country that is very behind compared to the rest of the world, corruption is visible and occurs in the incredible inequality among population: in Phnom Penh Lamborghinis and Ferrari run a few meters from mothers sleeping on a sidewalk with their babies. In the rest of the country beautiful red ground, ancient temples as Angkor Wat, the largest archeologic site in the world, children and mothers that run behind you to sell pineapples and postcards for one dollar. Everything costs one dollar here, because local currency is far weaker and unstable, so the dollar is a second currency for Cambodians. In this country, children are a precious resource for their family for they can earn more money from tourists: I have heard smart 5-6 year old kid saying numbers in English, Italian and Japanese according to the origin of the tourist.

Kids that swear to tourists that they are attending school. Kids that will grow up and decide to emigrate to Isan, the closest and poorer region of Thailand. Still, seen from here, Thailand is a rich country.

from Venice, Italy, but currently in Rayong, Thailand,

Filippo Paggiarin

Suggested readings

Pin Yathay, Tu vivras, mon fils, l’Archipel


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