Although I was still nursing my cold, I knew by the afternoon I would have to press on and join the rest of the group when they visited one of the Killing Field memorials. I had already missed a full day of activities, I surely was not going to miss learning about this.
To understand the horrors which took place in Cambodia during “year zero” would take the breadth of a novel to explain. The true evil behind the communist and totalitarian Khmer Rouge reign is astounding. The dreadful reality that many in Cambodia had to go through is terrible, yet they always seem to be smiling. I really take pause and thank my lucky stars for the good, safe life I’ve lived.
Here is a quick run-through of the chronology of events similar to what our guide described to us. The event details below are largely pulled from and can be found in greater detail at the BBC News website.
1965: Prince Norodom Sihanouk breaks off relations with the US and allows North Vietnamese guerrillas to set up bases in Cambodia in pursuance of their campaign against the government in South Vietnam.
1969 – The US begins a secret bombing campaign against North Vietnamese forces on Cambodian soil.
1970 – Sihanouk is deposed in a coup while abroad. The prime minister, General Lon Nol, assumes power. He proclaims the Khmer Republic and sends the army to fight the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. Sihanouk – in exile in China – forms a guerrilla movement.
Early 1970s – Cambodian army faces two enemies: the North Vietnamese and communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Gradually, the army loses territory.
Cambodia Year Zero: 1975 – Lon Nol is overthrown as the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot occupy Phnom Penh. Pol Pot has been described as “the Hitler of Cambodia” and “a genocidal tyrant.”
All urban dwellers are forcibly relocated to the countryside to become agricultural workers. Money becomes worthless, basic freedoms are curtailed and religion is banned. The Khmer Rouge coin the phrase “Year Zero”.
Over the next 4 years, hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes are tortured and executed in special centers. Others starve, or die from disease or exhaustion. If you had glasses, you were killed. If you were a professional or had an ethnic background not accepted by the Khmer Rouge, you were killed. The forms of torture were vast, including pulling out of nails or teeth everyday to get confessions out of those suspected to be connected to the former government. The government knew that if people know what’s happening, if they’re educated, they will fight back, which is why they preemptively killed anyone who could do more than farm work. Many bodies were thrown in mass graves, now called the Killing Fields. The total death toll during the next four years is estimated at about 2 million.
1976 – The country is re-named Democratic Kampuchea. Sihanouk resigns, Khieu Samphan becomes head of state, Pol Pot is prime minister. 1977 – Fighting breaks out with Vietnam and the following year, Vietnamese forces invade in a lightning assault.
January 7, 1979 – The Vietnamese take Phnom Penh. Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge forces flee to the border region with Thailand. The
People’s Republic of Kampuchea is established. Many elements of life before the Khmer Rouge take-over are re-established. People celebrate!
Bunthin described for the group in excruciating detail his own story while I was nursing my cold in bed. I asked for him to repeat it to me on the bus after we left the killing fields, to which he agreed. In 1967-69, his father was one of the soldiers supported by the U.S. to fight against North Vietnam (I thought “My God, his dad could have fought alongside my own!”). When Bunthin was only 6, he and his brother watched as the Khmer Rouge murdered his parents. They went into the jungle where they hid to escape capture by the Khmer Rouge government. In the coming years, they would feed on bananas, bugs, frogs, and, at times, dirt to survive. Neighbors searched for them to help them hide. Bunthin joined the guerilla forces to fight, while his brother ended up in the Army for the Khmer Rouge. At times, they were literally fighting each other. In 1982, Bunthin and his troop were offered the chance to get an education, only he and one other in his group decided to go, so he left the country and joined an Army education camp for 3 years. There he learned to speak English, which would be a key to his future. In 1993 he worked as a UN Peacekeeper for a year.
Later down the road he was over heard speaking English and offered a career as a tour guide. At the time, he didn’t even know what that was, but after some observation he realized he could do the job well, so he studied up on the Angkor Temples and has been a tour guide ever since.
“Peace is a good choice,” Bunthin said to us. Buddhism, practiced by 95% of Cambodia’s population, teaches tolerance. There is an in-between to issues most people in the country practice. Despite this, the corrupt government in the country still maintains and desires a great deal of control over the people.
About 40% of the government today is still Khmer Rouge. Ever since Pol Pot died in 1998, the Khmer Rouge remnants in power blame everything solely on him. Anyone who disputes this openly has a way of disappearing. The king wanted to cremate and destroy the skulls and evidence of this event, but the UN interjected – We never want to have this happen again!
The people of Cambodia are really quite amazing considering what life has handed to them. Bunthin has a incredible level of optimism about his country, which is actually very inspiring. People in America take a great deal for granted and complain about the most minute details when life for us really is wonderful. There are so many who will never have all we do. 😦
There is still much this country needs, arguably the most important is better education for the children, the future of Cambodia.