In 1975, Phnom Penh, a city of now 3 million, was completely cleared out in 3 days by the Khmer Rouge. The efficiency and efficacy of which they carried out plan to deindustrialize in attempts of becoming an agricultural, entirely self-sufficient society is both astounding and terrifying. Prior to coming to Phnom Penh, I was unaware of the history or magnitude of genocide that would result in the deaths of a third of the population in Cambodia. We visited the Killing Fields near the capital, one of the many of such fields where thousands were murdered. The layout and audio tour narration was informative and the most chilling track was the one that recreated the last sounds many of the prisoners would hear. The motor of the generator plus propaganda music blasting from a loudspeaker hanging from a tree were meant to drown out the screams.
Growing up in the US and being insulated from such atrocities on this scale, it is difficult for us to fathom both the type of suffering the prisoners had faced nor understand what conditions could have caused the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge regime to trespass such atrocities on fellow Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge was driven out of power in 1979. The most unsettling to me, was that Pol Pot continued to lead the Khmer Rouge even after leaving Cambodia, ordering executions as late as 1997, and died while under house arrest without ever having to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. Matt noted that I was naïve in not realizing this happens more often throughout history than I want to believe.
For Matt, it was a reaffirmation of the very real dangers to liberty and freedom which can quickly turn a peaceful society into a living nightmare. There are many examples throughout modern history of genocide and crimes against humanity (including the ones that are still a reality e.g. North Korea and in Africa), the lessons learned from Cambodia are very real. In a short period of time, a simple guerrilla army was able to imprison a nation and convince its countrymen to murder their own relatives and friends. The notion that this could not happen at home seems ignorant, especially with the realization of how powerful the NSA and CIA have grown in post 9-11 America.
And then comes the awareness that everybody we passed in the street over the age of 40, younger than my own parents, were victims and witness to such atrocities. The survivors cook our street food, eat dinner in the park with their families, and sell vegetables at the market. Witnesses to human nature at its worst, yet here they are, living their lives among us. Phnom Penh left me both shocked by how monstrous and ruthless people can be, but more so amazed by how people can survive and overcome.