Cambodia after the killing fields

Special to the Los Angeles Times

A muddy, weed-choked field in the hills of northern Cambodia is the last resting place of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, chief instigator of a communist regime that enslaved a nation, dismantled its social and cultural institutions and took the lives of 2 million or more people. In life, he was a cipher, known only to a handful of confederates. He died of a reported heart attack in 1998, with his revolution collapsed around him.

While United Nations-backed war crimes trials of surviving Khmer Rouge henchmen drag on in Phnom Penh, and another strongman, Hun Sen, also considered oppressive, rules the country, the Cambodian people go about their business. In a country where almost everyone lost family members — and in many cases entire families — no one needs to be reminded about the catastrophe.

Tourists are a different matter, especially those who do not remember or may never have known what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. Even now, travelers usually visit Cambodia for one reason: to see Angkor, a vast complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples built by the Khmer Empire, which ruled most of Southeast Asia from about 800 to 1400.

On a trip to Cambodia last fall, I visited Angkor, of course. But I went primarily to see places where the story of the Khmer Rouge era played out. Journeys Within, a small tour company with headquarters in Siem Reap, in the north-central part of the country, helped me find them in the capital of Phnom Penh and along rutted roads and in dirt-poor villages at the back of beyond.

My aspirations were modest: to learn, if not to understand, how the unthinkable happened in Cambodia. Like the Holocaust, evil on this scale confounds human understanding.

The nightmare began April 17, 1975, when Cambodian communists defeated the nationalist forces of U.S.-backed dictator Lon Nol and entered Phnom Penh. Like phantoms, they came out of the countryside where they had waged a five-year-long guerrilla war, most of them hardened teenagers wearing sandals made of tire rubber, baggy black shirts and trousers and red-and-white scarves still sold as souvenirs.

By that time, war refugees from the provinces had streamed into the city, swelling the population from 600,000 to as many as 3 million. Food, housing and medical supplies were scarce. People welcomed the Khmer Rouge, never imagining that in a matter of days they would be herded onto roads with only what they could carry.

The mass evacuation of Phnom Penh, a Khmer Rouge “extraordinary measure” intended to expedite the country’s transformation into an agrarian communist state, took the lives of 20,000 people and left the capital a ghost town.

The journey begins

On my way into Phnom Penh from the airport my car passed the French Embassy on Monivong Boulevard. The walled compound has been reconstructed since 1975. But at the gate I heard echoes from “The Killing Fields,” a 1984 movie based on a celebrated New York Times Magazine article by Sydney Schanberg, about the fate of foreign nationals and officials from the fallen regime who sought shelter at the embassy when the communists took possession of Phnom Penh. Most foreigners were allowed to leave the country, but the French were forced to surrender the Cambodians, including Schanberg’s research assistant Dith Pran, to all but certain death. (Pran escaped, later moving to the U.S., where he died in 2008.)

Only the misinformed come to Phnom Penh expecting the charming capital that grew up around the confluences of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap rivers during the French era (1864-1953) and the freewheeling ‘50s and ‘60s under playboy-king Norodom Sihanouk.

A surprisingly canny politician, Sihanouk led his country to independence from the French in 1953 and sought to maintain its neutrality while war raged in Vietnam, winking at the use of border regions by communist guerrillas and the dispatch of American B-52s to eradicate them. The U.S. bombing campaign, begun in secret in 1969 by President Nixon, ultimately spilled a half-million tons of munitions over Cambodia and drove peasants into the open arms of the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh has a jerry-built air, as if it materialized overnight. In recent years stylish cafes, restaurants and hotels have begun to return to the city center, including the Quay, where I stayed in a room high over a boulevard along the Tonle Sap River.

The standard sightseeing itinerary is short, usually ending with a pilgrimage to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, established after the 1979 Vietnamese occupation. The museum was a school before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a detention center for purported enemies of the state. It was run by Comrade Kang Keck Ieu, alias “Duch,” who had been a math teacher at the school. Purges that filled Tuol Sleng began almost as soon as the communists took power, inspired partly by the paranoia of leaders such as Pol Pot and partly by the Cultural Revolution in China.

There were no trials for the men and women imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. All Duch’s staff had to do before packing the prisoners into trucks, headed for the mass graveyard in the nearby village of Choeung Ek, was to get them to admit their crimes and name fellow saboteurs. Mug shots and detailed, largely fabricated confessions kept by prison clerks are displayed in cellblocks, along with forensic reports on skulls unearthed nearby.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia, a research institute founded in 1997, estimates that the Khmer Rouge regime operated 189 similar prisons around the country, filling 380 mass graves.

I next visited the most infamous of these killing fields at Choeung Ek, where about 20,000 prisoners from Tuol Sleng were beaten to death and dumped in trenches across the soggy plain. The biggest trench contains 450 victims, another has 166 headless corpses and another was reserved exclusively for the bodies of women and children. In all, the remains of about 9,000 people have been uncovered at the site, though more bones and teeth turn up almost every time it rains.

The small museum at Choeung Ek has a display on Duch. Brought to the killing field while awaiting trial by the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2008, he reportedly cried for forgiveness.

Two years later he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, murder and torture, then sentenced to 35 years in prison. There he remains, the only high-level Khmer Rouge official brought to justice to date.

I flew to Siem Reap the next morning, a quick hop over green, waterlogged central Cambodia, to the amiable tourist trap that has grown up since the late 1990s when sightseers began to return to Angkor. Now a city with a population of about 100,000, Siem Reap has a new branch of the national museum, an international airport, resplendent resort hotels and a flush economy driven by tourism, which accounts for one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

It is easy to visit Siem Reap without understanding the significance of bullet marks on the lintels at Angkor Wat; the limbless beggars around the downtown market; and the poverty, waste and deprivation left on the back streets in the wake of the civil war.

With Khmer Empire architectural glories nearby, it would be easy to skip the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center about 20 miles northeast of town. When I visited, I met its founder, Aki Ra, who at the age of 10 was given a gun by the Khmer Rouge and sent into the rice paddies to set explosives. After the war he devoted his life to dismantling 50,000 land mines left in the countryside and to raising maimed and orphaned children, work that last year won him nomination as a CNN Hero.

Later, sitting with a group of young people who received scholarships from the nonprofit development organization created by Journeys Within, it was easy to read promise in their bright eyes and smiles, to forget why a third of the Cambodian population is under the age of 15. Yet it was teenagers even younger than these who were raised by the Khmer Rouge to kill with clubs and knives.

The dark pages of Cambodia’s recent history are not taught in schools, the Journeys Within young people said, because former Khmer Rouge cadres are everywhere — working at the post office, driving cabs, living next door. Older people want to forget the horror, though it comes out in odd ways, accounting graduate Sophary Sophin said. When she was a little girl, her grandmother used to tell her, “If you are lazy, you will die.”

Into the heartland

After that, I left with a driver and guide on a two-night road trip into the countryside, the long-lost heartland of Cambodia centered on village, temple and field. Once, most of the population lived on the land, where peasant farmers harvested three to four rice crops a year, revered their king, lighted candles at Buddhist shrines and raised big families with scant hope of betterment but enough to eat. Ideology had little to do with the role they played in the civil war; they joined nationalist troops or communist guerrilla bands depending on which side entered their village first.

When the Khmer Rouge took charge in 1975, moving city people to communal farms and construction projects in the country, peasants who were already there were somewhat favored by communist ideologues. But they, too, suffered starvation, disease and summary execution.

All this played through my mind as we headed north along dirt and single-lane roads toward the Dangrek Mountains on the Thai border where communist holdouts went to ground after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979.

On the way to Pol Pot’s last lair and cremation site near the town of Anlong Veng, we passed rickety houses built on stilts, boys fishing for dinner in drainage culverts, card games in front of country stores selling gasoline in recycled Johnnie Walker bottles. As little as a dozen years ago, the area was still in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, scattered but not gone.

Anlong Veng has the insubstantial look of a Wild West town, with a single basic guesthouse, a few cafes and street carts heaped with tiny freshwater clams, a popular snack food. Its hospital, dike and dam were built by Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge official nicknamed “The Butcher” who died in prison in 2006, awaiting trial. His former communications aide Mork Dett showed us the way to Ta Mok’s lakeside villa, where Khmer Rouge adjutant Son Sen was killed along with 13 family members in 1997 on the orders of Pol Pot; and finally to Comrade No. 1’s grave.

Even now, little is known about Pol Pot, except that he was born in 1925 with the name Saloth Sar and educated at a Catholic school in Phnom Penh. As a young man he traveled to Paris to study electronics and join the political underground, imbibing communism from tomes by Marx and Lenin he once admitted he did not fully understand. No one can say what turned a revolutionary into a mass murderer. Nor do all historians think that he was chiefly to blame for the Cambodian holocaust.

Standing at Pol Pot’s grave, I mentally retraced the road I’d taken through Cambodia, showing how all the conditions were present that had allowed the Khmer Rouge to take power: poverty, ignorance, misgovernment, radical ideology, foreign intervention. The only additional element needed was the psychopath buried at my feet.