A Somber Day

Since I had been away in Siem Riep, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kep in previous weekends, I had not yet had an opportunity to explore Phnom Penh.  So, I spent my last weekend doing just that.

Understanding Cambodia begins with understanding and appreciating its recent history. In the late 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. They wanted to establish an agrarian, Marxist society. They forcibly evacuated the cities, marched people to the countryside, and forced them to work as rice farmers. The Khmer Rouge were brutal. They executed anyone they perceived as intellectual: lawyers, teachers, people with glasses (so far I would be 0 for 3!), doctors, musicians, and foreign workers. At detention centers, they tortured people into giving false confessions that implicated others.  Estimates are that about one-third of Cambodia’s population was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, somewhere in the order of 1.7-3.0 million people. The regime was eventually driven out by Vietnamese forces.

Again, this happened only 40 years ago.

The effects of the genocide will be felt for generations. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill people, they eradicated institutions: family, law, education, art, music, and commerce, to name a few. I’ve been struck by how few elderly people I have seen during my month. The other day, I saw one man in his 60s.  He was missing two limbs (most likely from torture or encountering  a landmine) and was begging for food on the side of the road. Cambodia is a young country, and their young people don’t have institutional history to rely upon.  In law, estimates are that the Khmer Rouge eliminated all but a handful of law-trained individuals.  How does a legal system rebuild when it has no leaders?

On Saturday, I visited two sites.  The first was Choeung Ek, also known as the “Killing Fields,” located just outside of Phnom Penh.  It was very moving.  Choeung Ek was one of several places were people would be taken to be killed.  Throughout the visit, one is reminded that the genocide occurred very recently. I was particularly struck by the strips of clothing and blindfolds that are still on the ground in the site.  Note that some of the photos below may be difficult to view. They include a memorial with hundreds of skulls that were reclaimed from the site.

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Afterwards, I visited the infamous Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh.  Tuol Sleng, also known as “Security Prison 21” or S-21, was a school that was converted into a torture facility.  Picture-taking was not permitted inside the cells—probably for good reason. It was very graphic and upsetting to see the tools of torture in-person.

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About Larry Cunningham

Law professor and Vice Dean at St. John's Law School. Former prosecutor and defense attorney.
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One Response to A Somber Day

  1. Pingback: Perspective | My Fulbright in Cambodia

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