Walking in Phnom Penh, Part Two

Continued from part one.

As I walked the streets of Phnom Penh this past month, I often thought about the Western news media reports Obama’s visit to Cambodia for the ASEAN Summit was rocky. The U.S. isn’t in Cambodia’s cheering section at the moment. Cambodia isn’t on the verge of reform like Myanmar, and the President made it clear he would not have come if it hadn’t been for the ASEAN summit.

Media reports on the President’s visit reminded readers that Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s autocratic leader in one form or another for almost 30 years, but failed to mention what was going on here before Hun Sen came to power. They reported that villagers were forcibly evicted in advance of the summit, and that protestors were arrested, and that over the years, Hun Sen’s rivals have been silenced in nefarious ways. They also reported that Obama did not make his comments to Cambodia’s prime minister public—any admonishments about Cambodia’s current situation happened behind closed doors.

And that made me think.

I wonder if critiquing Cambodia’s leader publically would have forced the news cycle to discuss Cambodia a little more. Then, the media would have had to remind us all that there was a genocide here that completely destroyed the country, already ravished by war and revolution. And then the media would have had to remind us that the West did not recognize Cambodia’s Vietnam-backed government in the years following the genocide, and by default gave Cambodia’s seat at the U.N. to Pol Pot, the very man responsible for said genocide and the destruction of Cambodian civilization.

It’s a complicated history, and it was a perfect storm of politics. But the short version is that in the post–Vietnam War era, the U.S. and other Western powers were done with Southeast Asia. We looked the other way during the genocide and after Vietnam invaded—and instead of throwing Pol Pot in jail and providing aide to the people of Cambodia, we left it to Vietnam and Khmer Rouge defectors. Civil strife continued until Pol Pot’s death 20 years after he was ousted. By any measure, it was a foreign policy disaster, and the effects are evident today. It’s hardly surprising Hun Sen is an autocrat—he is a former Khmer Rouge commander himself who defected to Vietnam.

So it would seem that anything keeping Cambodia in the news—such as public criticism from the president of the United States—would have lead to an embarrassing public history lesson. And there’s only so many “lessons” we can handle at once. We’re very busy with the history of other parts of the world right now. It’s easier to just shake our finger at Hun Sen and leave it at that.

But at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the audio guide bids us remember the Cambodian people’s past as we look to our future, because genocide can happen anywhere.

And, after walking the streets of Phnom Penh, I wonder if we shouldn’t be taking our cue from the Cambodian people. They don’t hide the truth of their internal genocide—tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh make a living taking tourists to the torture prison and execution grounds of their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers (or the places where their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters tortured and executed their fellow Cambodians), and they do it with a smile.

Granted, the strong anti-Pol Pot rhetoric of these places helps set the current leaders apart from their Khmer Rouge beginnings. But still, humanity cannot recover from its past without owning up to it, and Cambodians have finally been given the chance to do so.  Despite their poverty and precarious political environment, they do it with an honesty and humanity that is overwhelming.

Photo displays at Toul Sleng prison museum

The former classrooms-turned-cells at Tuol Sleng Prison are now lined with the photos of victims. This historical site of genocide is now a museum.