My original plan was to venture from Vietnam to Laos, however because of various reasons I have decided to go to Cambodia instead. Before my travel buddies started talking about it, I had hardly any idea what was in Cambodia. All I really knew was that it was underdeveloped and very rural. After listening to the history a bit I learned that in the 1970’s there was a huge genocide of the Cambodian people after a dictator came to power. I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of this holocaust of an entire country, and I don’t think many other people have. I will give a brief overview of what happened, of course from my perspective, because I can’t represent a whole people’s history in my words.
In 1975 a group of revolutionaries came to power, the same year the Vietnam War officially ended. I’m not positive, but this dictator may have been able to come to power due to the destruction caused by the Vietnam War right next door. The Americans and Viet Cong often bombed Cambodia and Lao in an effort to thwart efforts of the enemy to get behind the lines. These revolutionaries claimed they would restore Cambodia to its year zero glory. The revolutionaries valued their roots in farming and thought the ideal would be to have a completely agricultural society. Although this may sound pure and as though the revolutionaries were making Cambodia great again, this vision turned into genocide.
Most people in Cambodia felt the new regime would improve Cambodia so they welcomed the troops to Phenom Phen, Cambodia’s capital city. The soldiers said they were going to save the people from the bombing that were occurring in the rural areas and would soon hit the major cities. The people believed them and packed up their belongings to travel to what they believed was a safe haven. In reality, the citizens were forced to walk on foot, even the elderly, sick, children, pregnant, and disabled. Many died in the journey to the countryside. Once these people reached the rural areas, they were forced to work in agricultural camps for up to 12 hours a day in the heat. City people, who had no idea how to grow rice, were expected to yield great amounts of rice each season. Some of the land was arid and unable to be farmed, but the revolutionaries forced them to. Those who did not comply were punished.
Another aspect of the revolution was to “cleanse” Cambodia of intellectuals. Anyone who was perceived as clever, wore glasses, had an education, or simply got in the way of the regime would be brought to Prison without trial. One such prison was named S21 prison, a former school, which was shut down, along with all other educational facilities. This prison was used as a torture facility for Cambodians for the full 4 years of the regime. The interrogators would torture the people until they would write extensive confessions to their crimes. The Cambodians wanted them to say they were in communications with the CIA, FBI, and other governments from abroad trying to meddle with the government. These of course were almost all false confessions as it is highly doubtful that hundreds of thousands were CIA spies. It is not known how many people were tortured and died in in these prisons because after Vietnamese forces quelled the revolution, most records were burned and the facilities abandoned. It is estimated that around 1.7 to 2 million people died during the Cambodian genocide while the international community watched.
After visiting the S21 prison today, I am horrified that I had no idea this event even occurred. In a mere 4 years, up to 3 million people were killed out of 8 million. That’s about 1 in 3 people being murdered. For comparison, Hitler came to power in 1933 and WWII ended in 1945 (12 years), killing around 6 million people, not to mention those who passed on the front lines. At this rate, the Cambodian genocide would have killed 9 million people if it had lasted as long as the Hitler’s Holocaust. That’s the entire country and more. Luckily this cruelty was stopped before the dictator wiped out the entire country, however, it took intervention from neighboring countries, not the West, to end it. This type of devastation seems like it should have taken place hundreds of years ago, but in reality it’s been about 40 years. What were you doing from 1975-1979? I wasn’t born yet, but my parents were in high school and college. How different was your life while Cambodian people your same age were being put into work camps and tortured? I don’t mean to make anyone feel bad about not knowing this genocide was occurring, simply thinking about how different lives were lived. While you were wearing mini skirts to the movies, life guarding by the country club pool, or working at the grocery store during your summer break from school, someone your same age was separated from their family and forced to work in a labor camp. Sounds like two different worlds, but unfortunately these two groups live in the same world.
When the Hitler’s Holocaust ended, the world vowed “never again.” But alas, we have let it happen so many times over. So many of these injustices are unknown to the international community. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that until destruction and death affects the West, it is not a priority. To take this a step further, until tragedy or terrorism affects white people, the world will stand by and watch. If we think of the Jewish population in Germany as an ethnic group, this holds true. Looking at the Rwandan Genocide, Colonialism, and many more, the world doesn’t do anything until it is too late, but when westerners are involved, the story changes a bit. This is a big generalization, however, I ask you to think about past wars, conflicts and abuses. Even think about the state of the world right now.
There is currently a genocide happening in Syria and other areas of the Middle East. Only when these extremists spill into the West, do people start to become provoked. Remember when the shootings and terror attacks in France took over the news? Remember when multiple American and other international citizens were beheaded on camera? Remember when the Boston Marathon was bombed killing 7 people and injuring more? I recall the international community giving condolences to each country or community affected. I remember my friends changing their Facebook profile picture to show support of each country when an act of terror was committed. This is a great gesture of support, I will agree with that. But where are the profile pictures dedicated to Aleppo? Where are the protests, memorials, and tears for the affected? It is mainly the media who is to blame for choosing to play news that is either more appealing or will benefit their sponsors. People continue their daily lives while innocent people are being murdered, mainly because it doesn’t impact them directly and they are not told by the media. These people are being killed or hurt simply because they just happened to be born in a place of conflict. I won’t claim to be above my own criticism. I go about my daily life sometimes without a thought for others suffering, but that doesn’t make it okay.
The people of Aleppo and the rest of Syria are not living in a different world. It is still 2017. In this day and age, how can it be that a war so cruel is happening? The same way it happened in 1933 and 1975. I won’t blame the EU, UN, and world powers for the wars occurring in other places of the globe. These groups and countries might have played a role, however the actual genocide is not always their fault. I will however put blame on these countries and organizations for not stepping in. If a country or person is committed to liberty, justice, equality, and human rights for all, how does it follow that it is okay to turn a blind eye to breaches of these ideals abroad? Some might say that these countries are thinking of themselves first and others second. Valid. But say that out loud and listen to how selfish it sounds. “I support freedom, liberty and justice for all! But only if you live in my country.” We must further dissect that claim and look at who in your country actually lives these ideals to their fullest? Is it only men, women, wealthy, poor, white, black, old, young, abled, disabled? The list goes on. The pool of those living the ideals each country is founded on decreases by the second. Really what I’m trying to say here is that words are meaningless unless you support them with actions. If you agree that your core beliefs should be granted to everyone, you must support that with your actions (and sometimes your vote), otherwise you are misrepresenting your beliefs.
Okay now take a step back from my words. This wasn’t meant to accuse anyone of anything or shame anyone for his or her actions or beliefs. These are purely my thoughts and beliefs regarding what I have experienced and learned in my life. It’s okay if you don’t agree. I only ask that you take my words into consideration. I think integrating actions to support your beliefs is a simple concept to grasp, however harder to accomplish. Please think about this in different areas of your life, as I will be doing and consider taking small daily actions to help others experiencing injustices abroad or at home.
If you would like to know more about the Cambodian Genocide please take a peek at this link here.