Siem Reap and ancient Angkor

It was March 2014 and I was lounging on a couch in a hotel named Indochine, in the small town of a Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was sipping a drink by the hotel pool after a day spent visiting ancient Angkor archeological site and, as I often do on a trip, I was reading about history of the place on the internet, when suddenly the cruelty of mankind struck me, like a punch in the stomach.

Siem Reap is known to South East Asia travelers for being the closest town to Angkor, the ancient capital of Khmer empire. Its streets are not paved; dry heat and wind raise dust clouds and make breathing difficult for those venturing out in the hot hours. Besides Angkor Wat, the town has a charm of its own and among its landmarks, I noted the French market, with its typical colonial layout, now lined up with tourist restaurants and the old market stalls where dried fish, colored vegetables, spices and Kampot pepper can be bought for as little as 1 USD.

Siem Reap is crossed by the river that bears the same name. The river banks host terraced restaurants where travelers and locals mingle and dine. While going for a stroll by the river banks at sunset, dim electric lights appear here and there while daylight goes down and the town finds itself floating in an uncommon darkness, reminiscing Indochine French colony times.

Ancient Angkor area is a place that forces Westerners, born and bred in a culture of European cultural supremacy, to reconsider their beliefs about art, religion and many other things.

Angkor Wat site plan

While the archeological site is often referred to with the name of the most well-known temple, it encompasses a wealth of other amazing heritage buildings.

Angkor Wat temple initial design and construction took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Khmer king Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king’s state temple and capital city. Toward the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu center of worship to Buddhism.

Thanks to Naomi Leeman for her sketches above.

The outer gallery of the Angkor Wat temple measures 187 x 215 meters (614 x 705 feet). On the second level, it measures 100 x 115 meters (328 x 377 feet). The inner gallery is a 60 x 60 meter (197 x 197 feet) square area. The tower above the central shrine rises 65 meters (213 feet) above the ground. These dimensions bring Angkor Wat to top the ranking of biggest religious buildings in the world.

Despite the fact that the temple of Angkor Wat was never abandoned by the Cambodians and continued to be an important spiritual center for hundreds of years after Angkor capital city and Khmer empire collapse, a widespread belief wants that French explorer and researcher Henri Mouhot, “discovered Angkor” in 1860.

I smile thinking of Monsieur Mouhot, in 1860, “discovering” the biggest temple in the world and I like to imagine this happening in the middle of a worshipping ceremony; once again, well done the Colonial history-makers!

I leave to Alison Carter and her well-documented blog the easy task to demonstrate how the notion of “discovery” is usually associated to previously unknown things.

Like everybody else, I was in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.

And here comes the part that is hard to swallow, that I re-learned by the hotel pool in that March afternoon, thanks to modern technologies and Wikipedia that gives you access to instant knowledge about everything, everywhere. I say re-learned because, while reading, childhood memories awakened and I remembered how words “Khmer Rouge” often resonated in Italian TV news on in the late seventies and sounded tragic and mysterious back then.

All facts below are quoted from “Khmer Rouge” Wikipedia page.

Also, the movie The Missing Picture by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities of Khmer Rouge and won the  Un Certain Regard section top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Where Khmer Rouge came from

During the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement, which had little, if any, connection to the hard-pressed party in their homeland. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot, who rose to the leadership of the communist movement in the 1960s, was born in 1928 (some sources say 1925) in Kampong Thum Province, northeast of Phnom Penh. He attended a technical high school in the capital and then went to Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics (other sources say he attended a school for printers and typesetters and also studied civil engineering).

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge remained largely unchanged from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. The leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities.

The Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge’s Central Committee during its period of power consisted of:

  • Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) (died 1998), “Brother number 1”, General Secretary from 1963 until his death, effectively the leader of the movement
  • Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot), “Brother number 2”, Prime Minister, arrested in 2007, high status made him Pol Pot’s “right-hand man”, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ieng Sary (Pol Pot’s brother-in-law) (died in custody awaiting trial for genocide, March 14, 2013), “Brother number 3”, Deputy Prime Minister, arrested in 2007
  • Khieu Samphan, “Brother number 4”, President of Democratic Kampuchea, arrested in 2007, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) (died July 21, 2006), “Brother number 5”, Southwest Regional Secretary, final Khmer Rouge leader, died in custody awaiting trial for genocide
  • Son Sen (died 1997), “Brother number 89”, Defense Minister, Superior of Kang Kek Iew. Assassinated on Pol Pot’s orders for treason.
  • Yun Yat (died 1997)
  • Ke Pauk (died 2002), “Brother number 13”, former secretary of the Northern zone
  • Ieng Thirith, (died 2015) arrested in 2007, sister-in-law of Pol Pot, former Social Affairs Minister, deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012.

Destruction of a country

Khmer Rouge, captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 marking the beginning of their four years rule on Cambodia.

  • During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, while executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state.
  • Estimates as to how many people were killed by the regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of Cambodia population).
  • Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into “Old People” through agricultural labor.
  • In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about “two or three kilometers” outside the city and would return in “two or three days”. Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the “threat of American bombing” and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would “take care of everything” until they returned. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people.
  • The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population (“New People”) into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labor camps. Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare.
  • Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries were seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death.
  • The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.
  • They did not believe in western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead; because of the famine, forced labor, and the lack of access to appropriate services, there was a high number of human losses.
  • Commercial fishing was banned in 1976, resulting in a loss of primary food sources for millions of Cambodians, 80% of whom rely on fish as their only source of animal protein.
  • Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity
  • Schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.
  • Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments was executed.
  • Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.
  • Deaths during the Khmer Rouge era reduced the Vietnamese population in Cambodia from between 250,000 and 300,000 in 1969 to a reported 56,000 in 1984.
  • Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were not ethnic minorities but ethnic Khmer.
  • People perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses which, according to the regime, meant that they spent too much time reading books instead of working, would be killed. Ironically, Pol Pot himself was an educated man with a taste for French literature and spoke fluent French.
  • Many artists, including musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Serey SotheaPan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands were persecuted.
  • “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.
  • Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, were targeted.
  • People would be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.
  • All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs.
  • The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
  • Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other.
  • Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately.
  • Almost all freedom to travel was abolished.
  • Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy; instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune.
  • All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with.
  • In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.

Fall of Khmer Rouge

On April 18, 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages, mostly in the border town of Ba Chúc. Of the 3,157 civilians who had lived in Ba Chúc, only two survived the massacre. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.

By December 1978, due to several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Kampuchea, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed.

On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members, invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade

Despite its deposal, the Khmer Rouge retained its United Nations seat, which was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old compatriot of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary from their student days in Paris, and one of the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name “Democratic Kampuchea” until 1982, and then under the name “Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea“. Western governments voted in favor of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea retaining Cambodia’s seat in the organization over the newly installed Vietnamese-backed PRK, even though it included the Khmer Rouge. Margaret Thatcher stated: “So, you’ll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea.”

Sweden, on the contrary, changed its vote in the U.N. and withdrew its support for the Khmer Rouge after a large number of Swedish citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives demanding a policy change towards Pol Pot’s regime.

Across the years and until 1998, Khmer Rouge remained active, thanks to military and political support from China, U.S., Great Britain and many others.

By 1980, Eastern and central Cambodia were firmly under the control of Vietnam and its Cambodian, while the western part of the country continued to be a battlefield throughout the 1980s and millions of landmines were sown across the countryside.

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force behind the Khmer Rouge insurgency.

In 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990 and it did so in 1989, having allowed the government that it had installed there to consolidate its rule and gain sufficient military strength.

After a decade of inconclusive conflict, the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government and the coalition of rebel forces opposing it signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament. In 1992, however, the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting, boycotted the election and, in the following year, rejected its results.

There was a mass defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, when around half of its remaining soldiers (about 4,000) left. In 1997, a bloody factional fighting among the Khmer Rouge leaders exploded, ultimately leading to Pol Pot’s trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in April 1998. Khieu Samphan surrendered in December.

On December 29, 1998, the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the 1970s genocide. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured.

Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era. Nonetheless, their generation is affected by the traumas of the past.

Members of this younger generation may know of the Khmer Rouge only through word of mouth from parents and elders. In part, this is because the government does not require that educators teach children about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools. However, Cambodia’s Education Ministry started to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009. China has defended its ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “The government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than 70 countries”.

End of the story

This is the end of the story: in just four years of ruling, Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate one fourth of Cambodia population. They left a nation inhabited by ghosts and orphans, where men and women bringing the scars of landmines are not an uncommon sight. Still, sun rises and sets every day on the timeless beauty of ancient Angkor stones and kids play up and down those stones and have beautiful smiles on their faces.

I wish Cambodia a future that smiles as brightly as those kids. I hope men will not reach similar levels of cruelty again. I hope things like these will never ever happen again.



Alison in Cambodia (by Alison Carter): a blog about archaeology and related issues in Cambodia

Naomi Leeman: design and illustration

Reuben Teo photography: for the beautiful image of sunrise at Angkor Wat opening this post





2 thoughts on “Smile Cambodia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s