Friday, January 28, 2011
Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. Six million, possibly as many as ten million landmines are still active, remnants of years of conflict, claiming new victims daily. Forty thousand Cambodians live as amputees. The country has one of the highest disability rates in the world. Landmines and unexploded ordnance kill or injure hundreds of people in Cambodia every year. Most of the problem is in the north-western provinces. The cost of removal is one thousand US dollars per mine or more.
The country is littered with unexploded ordnance, or UXO.
It is nearly impossible to see the mines obscured by heavy vegetation.
Detonated when tripped, landmines send shrapnel everywhere. The pressure of an unlucky footstep can trigger a mine Most landmines are designed to maim, not kill.
Cambodia has made strides in clearing land and the number of casualties has been greatly reduced. But the problem remains massive and a major impediment to development. Cambodia needs international support.
The Mine Ban Treaty bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines.The United States has yet to sign the Treaty.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
No punishment is equal to the crimes committed in Cambodia.May justice help with the healing process.
A Cambodian court has been set up to bring former senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge to trial. The UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is prosecuting officials most responsible for planning and directing the horrors of the killing fields. As many as three million people died at the hands of the murderous communist regime. The court outside of Phnom Penh is open to the public and thousands of visitors have attended the proceedings.
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, headed the infamous S-21 torture prison, where more than 14,000 people perished. The court sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia reconvened for Kaing Guek Eav's appeal.
Prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Duch, contending the court showed leniency with the original sentence. They say he should be found guilty of enslavement, imprisonment, torture, extermination and other inhumane acts, and be tried for each crime individually.
The defense argues that the court did not have the jurisdiction to try him because he did not serve as a senior leader. They say Duch just followed orders.
Some victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime express outrage at any sentence that would let Duch one day walk free.
Hundreds of Cambodians traveled to the court for the opening of the trial. Indictments against Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, "Brother Number Two," include crimes against humanity, genocide, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention and murder, torture and religious persecution. They all deny the charges against them. The accused appeared in court, looking old and frail. Judges declared Ieng Thirith unfit for trial after experts diagnosed her with dementia. The others are being held in provisional detention. Nuon Chea spoke to the court, laying blame on Vietnam and expressing no remorse. The procedures are expected to take years. The maximum sentence is life in prison.
Two suspects have been put forward for investigation in this highly controversial case. PM Hun Sen and some Tribunal officials object to the case going forward. The suspects have not been named.
In 1979, the People's Revolutionary Tribunal held a genocide trial and found Ieng Sary and Pol Pot guilty of genocide. Neither appeared in court or served any sentence. Pol Pot died in 1998.
I hope the tribunals will bring closure to the victims, like my friend Chanra, and the families who have waited so long for justice. Let the process shine a light on the tragic history of Cambodia and send a message to cruel regimes worldwide.
I scribbled out this post one night, planning to enter it the next day. I wrote it from a journalists point of view. In the morning I received a wake-up message from another killing fields survivor friend of mine overseas who is still struggling with the memories, more than 30 years later. I know that I have no right to tell a story about something I can't possibly understand without having lived it. I have never even been hungry. But I'll do what I can to contribute to a better understanding of what happened in Cambodia. I gave the novel my best effort. Reporters sometimes have to ignore the true atrocities of a story to deliver it. I feel bad about that.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
“Think happy thoughts, Chanra,” she said.
“Tell me about the God city,” I asked, resting my head in her lap.
“Deep in the jungle sits the sacred temple of Angkor Wat, the largest shrine in the world,” she began, her angular face and close cropped gray hair illuminated by candlelight. “The temple was once the heart and soul of the most powerful empire in all of Southeast Asia, a monument to the power of a king, made into stone. It was an expression of devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu. The sanctuary once held a gold statue of this eight-armed God, mounted on a garuda, a half-man, half-bird creature. From there, the mighty Khmer empire was ruled. May you one day climb the immensely steep stairs, as if to reach the kingdom of Gods. But only those who are meant to will ever see this sacred place.”
I closed my eyes. I pictured myself standing at the top of the temple with towers like lotus buds. I memorized the lessons Grandmother Sei shared with me, like no cheating, lying, stealing, or harming people or animals.
“Let the kindness and honesty in your life be what helps you one day ascend the mountain,” Mai added.
“I believe I will,” I told her, and I felt a connection to the ancient people of Angkor.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
King Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne with Cambodia under French rule, and he remained Supreme Commander until the country was drawn into the American war in Vietnam. His socialist economic policies, and his siding with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in the south, led to political dissent from both the right-wing army and the left-wing rebels. The Khmer Rouge communist revolutionaries gained support in some remote provinces. They recruited the poor people and peasants, who “went to the hills” to join them. Though Sihanouk tried to remain neutral, the conflict grew more serious. Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia.
In March 1970, Cambodia’s Premier General, Lon Nol, deposed the king. He succeeded in taking power with American backing. Sihanouk fled to China and declared support for the Khmer Rouge, who exploited that and drew new recruits to fight for their king. Others joined because they thought Americans were imperialists. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops attacked North Vietnamese militants operating in Cambodia. People moved into the cities as the Khmer Rouge seized outlying provinces.
The Khmer Rouge dropped bombs. On April 17, 1975, they took over Phnom Penh. In the holocaust that followed, two million Cambodians died of starvation, torture, and execution.
“We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.”
War and Peace
Friday, January 7, 2011
The Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh
January 7th is the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Yes, the day also marks the start of Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. So, it's a day of commemoration, rather than a celebration. A day to mark the crimes committed by Pol Pot's regime. Here is an excerpt from my book about that time in history:
Nearly four years into the Khmer Rouge nightmare, in what I guessed to be early 1979, I found hope. It started as a small seed, and it grew. I heard the old familiar sounds of war from far away. I would be turning sixteen that year, but an explosion or buzzing airplane always flashed me back to my life as a child, cowering under the tamarind tree. I was still small; my starving body had not developed at all. But inside I had grown up. I became aware that the dark times of my life might not last forever. I noticed subtle indications that Angka could indeed weaken. The ugly overseer did not care so much what we did anymore, her mind wandered elsewhere. She argued with the other leaders who came around. They still kept the fear of Angka in the front of my mind. But they did not watch us as intently. Or was I just imagining that? The ugly overseer confirmed my suspicions.
“We have enemies!” she barked at us one morning at the work site. “You will prepare to battle for Angka!”
Our numbers had diminished. Those of us who remained stood shaking and emaciated, far too weak to fight anyone.
“If they attack us, we will kill them,” said the ugly overseer, grabbing the hoe I was digging with out of my hands and raising it in the air. “Kill them with this!”
Everyone stared at the ugly overseer in disbelief. I wondered what foe could be worse than Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
The ugly overseer brought the hoe down forcefully. “The Yeuns have crossed our border! They will die!”
“The Yeuns!” I thought. The Vietnamese were coming!
“Listen only to Angka!” cried the ugly overseer. “Long live Angka!”
We echoed the call three times.
The ugly overseer put the hoe back in my hands. I hacked at the ground, mimicking her actions, crushing an invisible enemy. I was not sure if I should be afraid of the Vietnamese or not. We had always been not-so-friendly neighbors. It was a development I had never considered.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
Doorways hold a certain mystique, an invitation to venture through, to explore. If it's a door in a wall, there may be no other choice but to move forward. A doorway that stands alone will make you think.
The arcaded passage at the Temple of Angkor Wat represents a journey in life or time. It is straight and narrow. You can't see what is at the end of the tunnel of doorways, as is usually the case. It's the unknown. A path of discovery.
It is an open door. It is a choice.
The photo is a study of perspective. Apsaras, or celestial dancers, beckon one to enter, to step inside and transition to a new place.
The way out of the killing fields led to safety and freedom, and an escape from enemies.
Standing at the threshold of the doors and looking in from the outside, you may see obstacles or infinite opportunity. Or you might just see a doorway like any other that we come across in our lives. Or a piece of art?
Throughout history, doorways have symbolized such things as a portal out of the earthly realm, a crossing between two worlds or another level of consciousness.
Let the doorways represent a gateway to peace. Dare to make an entrance.
"I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it." ~Morpheus in the Matrix.