What would set things right in Cambodia?

As we complete our 30 day visit of Cambodia, I’ve had time to reflect on what can be learned. It would be quite a list, if I were to explain every complicated feeling I have on the subject. My time in Cambodia has not been long enough or with the focus required, to truly understand the country of the people. That might take a lifetime. Instead, I’ll try to summarize what I think my biggest revelations are. 

JUSTICE, or lack thereof

When I learned that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, managed to cling to power as part of a coalition that was internationally recognized as the rightful government of Cambodia, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Adding further insult to the story was that this coalition held the Cambodian seat at the UN. The International community didn’t respond appropriately in 1979, when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the heinous crimes against humanity waged by the Khmer Rouge.

There are many reasons that the international community didn’t respond appropriately. Journalists who were invited into Cambodia from both Sweden and the USA were sympathetic to the socialist goals of the Khmer Rouge and carried that message to their home countries and then broadcast it to the world. They even discredited the escaped refugee accounts of the horror in Cambodia at the time. (For more on this, here is one of many sources – Forbidden Thoughts).

Even, I was old enough to know more about this, back when I began my Asian travels. I made my first trip in 1994 at the age of 24 with a small group of Americans I was working with. I only made it as far South as Thailand, but it would be within the 1990’s that I would visit Vietnam. My mission was to do my job and I didn’t give a moments thought to learn more about the countries I was visiting. Only so far as to think about my personal safety, aka ‘did I have the proper health insurance?’ Not once did I consider what was going on, next door to Vietnam, in the up and coming garment producing region of Cambodia.

It is only now, 23 years after I first touched down in Hong Kong, as I walk the streets of Cambodia, do I start thinking about what really happened to the people of Cambodia. When the facts start coming into clear view for me, the solution seems simple enough. The guilty people of the Khmer Rouge should be made to pay for their crimes. 

It is one of the saving ideas of our times–the hope that international criminal tribunals can punish atrocities, deter warlords and provide closure for victims–remains burdened by serious limitations. “Cambodia is a complex, mostly Buddhist country,” said Peter Maguire, the author of Facing Death in Cambodia. “The idea that Western outsiders can transplant Western modes of conflict resolution is incredibly naïve.” (excerpt from, How a Brutal Khmer Rouge Leader Died ‘Not Guilty’, written by Sebastian Strangio on April 1, 2013)

DON’T be so naïve

There is an extreme ignorance and a misplaced faith in Western society beliefs that prescribe their use in all cases. I have been guilty of thinking this way for most of my life. When I was young, I would often say, “why don’t you do it this way?” Or what I really meant was why don’t you do it our way? As time went on, I would think it, instead of say it. Then I came to Cambodia and got a clear picture of the fact that I have been thinking about this all wrong. What I should have been trying to do, was seek to understand and then ask, what can I do to help?

First, seek to UNDERSTAND

When we dig into the heart of an issue, there is always a sense of not being properly heard, from both sides. I think this is the most valuable lesson I am taking away from Cambodia. While the genocide, the torture prisons, the killing fields and the long-lasting terror of the Khmer rouge, have happened to the people here, it is ultimately their choices for rebuilding Cambodia that matter most. How they want to do that and at what pace is going to be their legacy. Whose help they ask for, if anyone, is also up to them. We can’t atone for what happened here, we cannot change the past. We can only stand beside the people of Cambodia with the deepest of empathy for what they have survived. 

What can be done?

Every tourist who visits Cambodia, every expat choosing to live in Cambodia and every entrepreneur who creates a business in Cambodia, – do so with the best intentions. Let’s leave our ideas of what Cambodia should do aside. We can support a more prosperous future with our investment. As well as, not forgetting. It is what the commentator asks for at S-21, ‘make your visit here part of the lasting memory.’

If the numbers of people killed in Cambodia, during the reign of terror and those who died later due to their poor treatment, don’t appropriately shock us, then we need to look a bit deeper. The killings were not random. The Khmer Rouge systematically took Cambodia back into the dark ages. The financial markets were ruined, all currency was destroyed. All intellectual people were killed, anyone who was a professional, in any sector. Religious order was abolished, even monks were killed. Whole families were accused and put to death even if only one person was a suspect. Confessions were created after horrible torture sessions, killing en masse wasn’t good enough. Anyone involved in the arts was killed. What was left, was a complete return to an agrarian society where the many took care of the needs of a few. This was, in part, one of the factors involved with the fall of the ancient Angkor society, centuries earlier.

How does a country recover from this? Slowly, I guess. There is so much work to be done. The whole fabric of society needs to be made anew. The arts need to be revived. Education needs to be reformed. Infrastructure, public works and even the running of the government, no part of life in Cambodia has fully recovered. As well, given the systemic poverty, if the international community stands by, once again, the recovery may never occur.

I leave Cambodia with a deep respect for the resilience of the human spirit. One of the surviving women talked about the PTSD and her path to recovery through meditation. Loung Ung spoke about a deep sense of abandonment she felt for years after her Mother sent her and her siblings away from their camp, in order to save their lives. Loung spent years thinking her Mother hated her, when it fact it was because of her Mother’s deep love that Loung survived the work camp experience.

I have much to learn. I have even more to be grateful for. I hope to not take so much for granted. I have my health, my family, my friends and I am lucky enough to travel the world with a Canadian passport. At any time, I can go home to a country with a stable, social democracy, with universal healthcare. Just to name a few of the benefits of my home. Words don’t do justice to how amazing my life is. I’ve not always been smart enough to realize this, but I am slowly waking up to that fact. 

Until next time, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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