Some dirty politics

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

 › entry 51 of 86 › view all entries

As we finally cycled into Phnom Pen Cambodia had, to us, become a place were traditions are strong. Adults and children kneel  before the monks as they pass on their rounds. Sacrifices are made and incense smells fill the air round the temples. Politeness and humility is firmly set in the people and even the smallest child will barely ever forget to bow its head and fold its little hands when saying 'thank you'.  Everybody needs a buisness and life in Phnom Pen seems to evolve around busy markets, caffees', food stands and tuc tuc driving.

But a buisness woman in her late twenties broke that picture: "Be careful of the people in the country side" she said when she heard we were heading north. As we shrugged off her worries, her smile faded. "No seriously! Even I'm scared of them"

Pol Pot created this deep divide.

Before Pol Pot under the rule of ex-king turned prime minister Sianoukh, Cambodia managed to remain neutral in the indochina wars well into the sixties. But as the vietnam war raged and the viet cong sought refuge further in Cambodia it laid the foundation for a government coup by US friendly General Lon Nol. This spelt an end to neutrality and in a desperate attempt to beat the Viet cong, America carpet bombed northern Cambodia. There are no records of how many thousands were killed and how many were displaced.  The farmers resented Lon Nol, and Sianoukh, who was exciled in Vietnam took advantage and formed the khmer rouge.

1975 Phnom Pen surrendered to the Khmer Rouge but as people celebrated in the streets it became clear that the Khmer victory had a high price: It was to be a peasant ruled state. All focus was to be on rice growing and everybody was to work for the 'Angkar' -Literally  the 'organization'. Cities were to be emptied and 1975 became year 0 in Pol Pots calendar.

Here, our friends mother would have been forced to go to the countryside. With public transport abolished, money abolished and any work outside the Angkar abolished, there would have been no way back for her. Together with the rest of Cambodias' population she was to become a prisoner to the utopian dream of a paranoid regime. Being from the city she was to become a second class citizen...

There was nowhere to go physically and even mentally the Angkar took everything. Temples became prisons, monks were killed. Intellectuals were killed and even people wearing glasses were killed. All education apart from Ankar-education was forbidden. Families were broken up and children, mothers and fathers sent to different cooperatives. Ankar arranged mass weddings with life partners not for love, but for reproduction for the Angkar. Everybody wore a black uniform, all women had short hair, everyone was to be equal. No one was to have an identity or family outside the Angkar. The angkar was everything and it was everywhere. Paranoia was systematically cultivated with the mass murders of families deemed unsuitable for the Angkar. If suspected an official would knock on the door, announcing "The Angkar invites you for further education"

Rarely it was. Mostly it meant prison and torture or immediate death at one of the many killing sites. Toul Sleng - S-21 - now a genocide museum was one of many places were people were sent for interrogation and torture. Here the hells depicted on Angkor Wats walls became reality and the cruelty is unimaginable. But the Angkar documented every step of torture in detail as it systematically killed a quarter of Cambodias population.

1979 in response to an attack from the increasingly paranoid Khmer rouge, the Vietnamese ended the cruel regime and established a Cambodian Vietnamese supported government (The PRK). This government consisted mainly of Cambodians that had fled to Vietnam in recent years and was led by former khmer rouge member Hun sen.

In the aftermath of the Khmer rouge regime famine hit Cambodia and another 650000 people died. Help was only available outside Cambodias borders as the international community, in fear of 'vietnamization' refused to recognize the government inside. Instead the international community kept Khmer rouge leaders in their UN seats and installed a government in excile, consisting of former khmer rouge leaders, some royalists and some smaller parties. The main goal of the international community was to remove the PRK from power. The PRK in turn planted landmines all along the Thai border....

In the mean time the PRK broke up old cooperatives and reintroduced free religion and a socialist system in Cambodia; Small private business was allowed whilst large scale government industry and agriculture was maintained. Schools and medical systems were reintroduced and by the mid-eighties families were farming small private plots of land again. At the same time, in anticipation of possible future elections in a bid to regain popularity, the PRK ended cooperatives officially, made buddism the state religion, treated the chinese community better and changed the name from Peoples Republic of Kampuchea to the state of Cambodia. (PKR now became CPP Cambodian peoples party) Nevertheless Hun Sens regime had become oppressive and violence was used against opposition.

Only as the cold war ended positive changes were made possible in Cambodia. The western international community withdrew support for the excile government and the Sovjet union withdrew support from the CPP.

The UN and international community now set about making the way for democracy in Cambodia but as a majority of the people voted for the royalist party FUNCINPEC, the CPP refused to hand over power. Eventually a corrupt two prime minister system started with both sides negotiating for the support of the Khmer rouge fractions in the north east.  1997 FUNCINPEC won the Khmer rouge support and moved troops to Phnom Pen, but the CPP got there first and removed the FUNCINPEC from power. Hun Sen denied there had been a coup. 1998 the ever power hungry Khmer rouge changed alliances and Hun Sen, like the international community had done for the excile government,  installed gruesome but powerfull Khmer rouge generals in his government.

Only in 2003 a international Cambodian court was established to bring the most senior leaders to justice. Although Pol Pot died of old age in the northern provinces without ever being charged for genocide some of the other senior generals in Hun Sens government are now imprisoned and awaiting trial. However the human rights watch report for 2010 says the trials are increasingly being hampered and delayed and that increasing power is used against people opposing the government. 

Cycling through the country we saw signs outside house claiming sympathy for either FUNCINPEC or the CPP. Every so often there would be a sign for the human rights party but reality here is that the CCP and still holds control over most of the government, the khmer rouge still has a stronghold in the north and that underneath the democracy label it appears to be a country like guines bissau in Africa, run by the ruthless and the power hungry for the sake of the power and not the people.



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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk