Monday, April 9, 2012

Phnom Penh's S21

5th - 7th March 2012

Driving into Phnom Penh, the term ‘in your face’ comes to (my) mind. It’s part in ruins, part being built/rebuilt and part new. She’s a bit smelly, colourful, struggling to survive, hoping for a better future, and writhing with life. Her scars are very evident,  and some of her wounds are still healing, and it’s no wonder why.
The history of Cambodia is fraught with internal uprisings and invasions from way, way back. More recently, enduring the terror of the Khmer Rouge. If you want to skip my condensed over simplified version of a little prior history...scroll past the purple bit.

But, before that and after the foundation of the Khmer Empire, they survived a Thai/Vietnamese tug-o-war, which had carried on for over 400 years. During those times Cambodia forfeited large areas of land to both countries and suffered massive amounts of damage. 
Really great bread!
Then, the French came on the scene offering an alternative option for the country’s security.

Although the French brought development, nice bread and pretty architecture with them, they also brought hefty taxes, rule by decree and the appointed their own to positions in high places. After 80 years or so, the natives were getting restless, thoroughly pissed off, I’d say. WWII was just around the corner and that’s when the Japanese showed up. They left the ‘French rule’ intact, until they realised they may have been losing the war, and thought they’d better get the Cambodians onside.

The Japanese promptly began to arrest French officials and gave Cambodia its independence back…but, as we all know, they did lose the war and the French regained power. 

However, this time they were more generous, allowing Cambodians to form political parties and a constitution. Nearly ten years passed and the country regained it’s independence! 
Monument of Independence
Long story short, a series of political events and the war in Vietnam allowed the communist party, dubbed the ‘Khmer Rouge’ to evolve and gain power. The Cambodian Army was no match for the communist party and North Vietnamese forces. In 1975 Pol Pot’s people captured Phnom Phen. We were told it became almost like a ghost city. 

 ...and this, unfortunately, lead to the sickening transformation of Chao Ponhea Yat high school into the Security Prison 21 (S21) or Tuol Sleng, meaning "Strychnine Hill".

Stray at the entrance of a former classroom, come torture chamber. The sign above his head indicates no smiling/laughing.

One of many toilet cubicle sized cells
An estimated 14,000 to 20,000 people were held prisoner, tortured and executed at S21.
Graves of the last 14 victims

Once a swing set,  then 'The Gallows', a torture device.

Paradoxically, in 1979, Vietnam became so fed up with the maniacal shenanigans (massacring, disregard of borders, invasions, sending a stream of refugees their way) of Pol Pot, that they launched a full scale attack, once they new that the Chinese had their back. It took them 17 days to take Phnom Penh out of the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Hundreds of photographs of the those who died at S21 are on display, but it felt just ‘wrong’ (to me) to take photos. We spent more time walking around, looking and reading, than I had expected. We opted out of visiting the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng was more than enough.

Previous Cambodia related posts


biervoormij said... Best Blogger Tips

I also enjoyed the bread in Cambodia. Strange what you miss when you are on the road.

I took some pictures of the pictures at S21 and it was the part that really got to me. I just can not understand how anyone could do these type of things to children. I felt the same way that S21 was enough for me and skipped the Killing Fields.

Snap said... Best Blogger Tips

@biervoormij It never ceases to amaze (probably not the right word)me how cruel mankind can be and that we seem to learn nothing from history. Repeat, repeat.

I count my blessings for never having to face such horrors.

From R.J. Rummel, the political scientist - "Out of a 1970 population of probably near 7,100,000 Cambodia probably lost slightly less than 4,000,000 people to war, rebellion, man-made famine, genocide, politicide, and mass murder. The vast majority, almost 3,300,000 men, women, and children (including 35,000 foreigners), were murdered within the years 1970 to 1980 by successive governments and guerrilla groups. Most of these, a likely near 2,400,000, were murdered by the communist Khmer Rouge."

I'd add disease to those causes of death too, as 'self sufficiency' was part of the KR's rant = no medicine.

Catherine said... Best Blogger Tips

Good post Snap. Depressing, but interesting to read. What drags me down about Cambodia is the western involvement in the mess. Years back, when I first started learning about it all, it sickened me to discover how cruel and misguided my own country has been (and continues to be).

Snap said... Best Blogger Tips

@Catherine I do wonder what's in store for Cambodia in the future...there's oil in them thar hills! Well, in the sea actually. Oil always seems to be a good incentive for foreign countries to stick their noses in. I don't think (m)any of us come from a country which can throw stones at another, with a clear conscience.

Martyn said... Best Blogger Tips

Snap - It's rather ignorant of me but I'd never heard of S21 before. I really don't know too much about Cambodia either. The Security of Regulation photo says it all. What those poor people must have went through can't be described with mere words. The transformation from a school to a security prison says it all really. From happy kids to torture and murder. That's bad and sad.

Snap said... Best Blogger Tips

Martyn, until now, I must confess all I knew about Cambodia was Angkor Wat, and the names 'Khmer Rouge' and 'Pol Pot'...nothing about them, jus, many deaths.

The people are obviously very resilient and deserve a bright future.