The Ugly Side of History

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When taking a break from seeing Angkor Wat, the first thing any tourist goes to see in Siem Reap is the Cambodia Landmine Museum.  If you think this sounds depressing, well, first of all of course it is but second of all everything relating to modern history in Cambodia is going to be depressing.  This is the country of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge after all, who killed 800,000- 2 million people (25% of the population) in the late 1970s through forced labor, starvation, and blunt extermination.  Compared to other countries in the region, I had to look hard in Cambodia to see anyone who looked qualified to be a grandparent or even my parents’ age.

So where did the landmines come from?  A lot were from the Khmer Rouge during their regime.  A lot more were laid by the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia in 1979- the Khmer Rouge fled into Thailand so a lot of mines were laid on the Cambodian-Thai border.  All in all it is estimated that up to six million landmines still exist in Cambodia, and several thousand people are still maimed or killed each year.  They organize into bands playing Khmer music around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap (not much dignity in being an ourtright beggar) and trust me, if you are around here and never find yourself parting with a few dollars I’m pretty sure you have no soul.

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The Cambodia Land Mine Museum was founded by a former child soldier recruited both by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army who laid landmines, and is now devoted to the arduous task of de-mining. (It should be noted that all tourist areas of Cambodia have been very thoroughly de-mined years ago, and no forgein visitor has ever been killed by a landmine while in Cambodia.) The museum is mainly a collection of old defused mines from all over Cambodia, which originate from all corners of the globe.

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I spent a long time looking at this picture, depicting scenes of fighting around Angkor Wat in 1985.  I mean, I was just shy of existing in 1985, yet you walk around Angkor today and would never guess this was happening just a few years ago where all the tourists are today.  I made a mental note to keep this in mind when my future kids someday tell me they want to backpack through Iraq…

It should be noted by the way that Angkor Wat was the scene of some of the most intense fighting by the Khmer Rouge- Pol Pot held it up as an example that Khmer people are capable of doing anything.  Apparently the irony of using a masterpiece of religious architecture as a reason to promote your atheistic farming commune was lost on them.

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And last but not least a bumper sticker you see a lot in Cambodia these days saying “I support the KR trials.”  While the brutality of the Khmer Rouge was primarily in the 1970s there were still some strongholds up until the late 1990s in Cambodia- Pol Pot died a natural death in 1998- and UN-backed trials to address the genocide are just beginning.  The first trial is set to begin in April and naturally dominated the headlines of the English newspaper every day I was in Cambodia.

The trials are not without controversy for several reasons, the main one being that they are proceeding at a very slow pace.  Most of the defendants are getting up there in the years and there are still a lot of Cambodian politicians who think it would be best to let them quietly pass away.  We’ll see what happens.

Needless to say, you brood a lot over tough topics when visiting this country, and pray such things will never happen again.  But for now in this part of the world all one can do is wait for the wheels of justice to turn and try and make things safer, defusing one landmine at a time.

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