observations and opinion
When in 1975, the Khmer Rouge (KR) seized power in Cambodia; one of its many revolutionary acts was to declare “the Year Zero” – a symbolic erasure of the past, making way for a new communist society untainted by the sins of the past. Among the practical measures of that revolution was the forced evacuation of cities, pushing urban dwellers out into the fields to join the agrarian masses in scraping food from the countryside. City dwellers weren’t very good farmers, unfortunately, and the whole endeavour only aggravated widespread hunger and death – as the KR intended.
Another KR rule was the elevation of children to a higher level of esteem, owing to their purity from the past; concomitant to that was the denigration of the aged, the learned, the skilled, the urbane, the sophisticated. Thus was spawned a program of mass murder, which twinned to privation and slavery, extinguished at least two million Cambodian souls (a quarter of the population, perhaps more). When it was over, thanks to a Vietnamese invasion and some local insurgency, it was a graveyard orphanage.
The KR were uprooted from real power by 1979 but clung to official authority for years to come. The trauma of the genocide did not soon pass. It had been a goal of the KR to eradicate the older non-agrarian population and hand the country over to a pure new generation. Ironically, they succeeded in that – by killing so many people and by destroying normal life, the Cambodian population shrank and did not grow for many years.
As hope returned in the 1990s, so did marriage and family-making. Today perhaps half the Cambodian people are in their twenties. You see it in Phnom Penh, where young people vigorously spend their hours working, working, working. You can see it and feel it at Siem Reap, the epicentre of the Angkor Wat tourist industry, where young people have surged to the forefront of commerce and life. Those people, the orphans of the KR, have inherited the ancient kingdom of the Khmers.
Angkor Wat, as the ancient ground near Siem Reap is popularly known, was the capital of a civilization born before the 5th Century C.E. By the early 9th Century, the Khmers had coalesced into one empire under a series of ridiculously ambitious kings, who for four centuries went about the business of winning wars and memorializing their glory through building projects. Their works were lost to time for centuries, until re-discovered and slowly unearthed since the 1860s.
A few hours at Angkor Wat temple itself, or the many smaller but extraordinary other stone structures still standing, is to be left slack-jawed. The scale, the intricacy, the heft, the durability, the sophistication of these buildings – among the oldest and probably the grandest things ever built – is overwhelming. This is one of the great human creations.
What humans created in Cambodia a thousand years later was different. The ruins of the Khmer Rouge regime are harder to see – they are embedded in the ground, a national graveyard, and embedded in the soul – a silent, haunting ghost of mass treachery, fear and despair. Millions died, all murdered one way or the other, in a few short years. Then began a twilight where the new government of Cambodia sought recognition from the outside world but were denied it, primarily for “geopolitical reasons.” For some years after the brutal KR regime, the orphans of Cambodia were left to pull themselves (with little help) out from the mud and blood and grief of their civil war and holocaust.
One of the steps they took, as you can see by looking at their new flag, is to rally round the ruins of the ancient Khmer civilization. Both as a symbol of Cambodian talent and as a practical tool for igniting a modern economy, the Angkor Wat industry has made Cambodia one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. With it, a whole local economy has begun to take root and blossom. Haltingly, but in a tangible way.
Cambodia is still poor and struggles with its historical burdens, including a shocking legacy of unexploded mines and bombs that litter the countryside. The help of foreign countries and NGOs has done much to salve the wounds and begin to nurture the young country. Indeed, even private enterprises, such as the Common Grounds coffee shop where I first began to write this, have committed themselves to hiring and training people. With the giant magnet of Angkor Wat just a few miles away down the road, the whole world is coming (with its money) to Siem Reap.
As with any natural resource housed in a poor, unlucky country, Angkor Wat has been exploited by foreigners and elites – the Vietnamese who invaded and turned-out the crazy KR regime now dominate the scene and profit by its touristic success. This was equally true of the oil beneath the ground in the Mid-East in the early 20th century. It will change. That is not an apology for exploitation, but recognition that capital is as invasive (and hungry) as an army. One hopes that if democracy can gain a stronger foothold in Cambodia, as its governments and home-based entrepreneurs gain more confidence, they will assert greater control and achieve a better distribution of the proceeds.
In walking the vast, heavily-forested precincts of the old Khmer kingdom, it is impossible not to imagine the relentless, likely brutal labour invested by the people (and slaves) of the empire, digging canals, hauling stones for miles from quarries, erecting massive edifices that stare out haughtily at the verdant land. Life must have been hard indeed for those people, at least as hard as it was for their 20th century descendants under the shackles of many despots, including the murderous KR.
Life is still hard in Cambodia. Construction crews clamber over scores of dilapidated buildings, clear ground and build anew. Thousands of motor bikes tear down the main boulevards of Phnom Penh, young people racing to jobs and friends. Hours are long, wages are meagre, no doubt hope is too often hard to find. But we see more kids in school uniforms, marching off to school in the morning, and it looks like everyone is working or looking to work harder. The monuments of the Khmer Empire were shrouded in jungle for centuries, only to be discovered by European travellers. One hopes those huge and ancient stones are some kind of foundation for the orphan heirs of Cambodia, to build some sweeter and happier new civilization.