Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cambodias' Latest Killing Fields

The chaotic streets of Cambodia’s capital give a sense of the turbulent history of this land of contradictions and surprises.
As our car nudges its way inch by inch through the melee, where motorbikes and luxury cars jostle with heavily laden bullock carts at the point where Charles de Gaulle Boulevard intersects with Mao Tse Tung Road, an emerald Buddha reigns with sublime benevolence from the sanctuary of the gold and gaudy Royal Palace of King Sihamoni.
Phnom Penh is a city that bears its history with a very oriental equanimity; there is little point, says the average Cambodian, in agonizing over things of the past. The future is on the doorstep and they want to grab it with both hands.
There is no doubt that the Cambodians are an industrious people, a mere thirty years after the soldiers of Pol Pot forced the evacuation of the city and marched the entire population into what is now known as the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is as bustling as any other Asian metropolis, albeit as contradictory.
We are searching for Tuol Seng, formerly the Khmer Rouge S-21 prison, now a genocide museum, where over twelve thousand people were detained, tortured and eventually killed by the Pol Pot regime. Even the name connotes a terrible meaning in itself. Literally, the ‘poisonous hill where those who bear or supply guilt’, Tuol Sleng Prison was established in 1976 specifically designed to detain and exterminate anti-Angkar elements.
Previously a high school, the buildings were shut of from the world with sheets of corrugated iron reinforced with electrified barbed wire. The classrooms were converted into prison cells and torture chambers. Victims were taken from all walks of life and many different nationalities (New Zealanders included) were also interred there before being exterminated. Only seven people are known to have survived Tuol Seng.
The Khmer Rouge, with a weird attention to the imperialist bureaucracy they so despised, took photos and details of all the detainees. Today their faces stare back mutely in row upon row of photographic evidence of a world gone mad. Every face demands a witness but one stands out above all, a woman with her eyes firmly closed against her impending doom.
The Khmer Rouge managed to exterminate over two million of the citizens of Cambodia, turning the entire country into a concentration camp where everyone was forced to participate in the agricultural reform that was designed to liberate Cambodia or die.
The regulations still posted outside the gallows in Tuol Seng give instructions for behavior under torture.
“Do not try to hide the facts by making pretext of this and that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me,” advises the caution. “Do not tell me about either your immoralities or the revolution”, and “While you are getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all”.
I declined to visit the Killing Fields further out of the city, where the blood and bones of hundreds of thousands more victims of Pol Pot fertilized the rice paddies now brown and barren in the pre monsoon heat. Instead we made our way to the Killing Fields of modern day Cambodia and one where the same rules for behavior under torture still apply.
This South East Asian hotspot is attracting the latest threat to the new generation of Cambodians; it has become both a destination and a transit point for sex tourists and pedophiles seeking immoralities that are literally robbing Cambodia of its young and vulnerable, who also must not cry at all.
Svay Pak is easy enough to find, directions to it can be found on the internet. A rough dusty street, no longer than 100 metres jammed with perhaps twenty or more brothels is the latest gathering place for pedophiles from abroad. Accents from all over the world can be heard as men take a beer after their activities in ramshackle buildings made chillingly from the same kind of cheap air bricks that were used in cells in Tuol Sleng.
This is where life is worth no more than a three American dollars, where foreign men refer to child sex slaves as ‘players’ and where even police, with an average wage of $US25 a month, can be bought off to avoid prosecution. Despite the recent law changes in Cambodia which make this kind of traffic illegal, often raids to the red light districts are advertised well in advance giving the brothel owners time to flee across the border to Vietnam with their child slaves or move them into other cities such as Siem Reap, the service town for the Angkor Wat temples.
My driver, a young Cambodian man in his mid twenties is nervous, almost speechless with embarrassment. Suddenly aware that I am in a red light district with a boy half my age, I agree with him. We have seen enough. But unlike the woman at Tuol Sleng whose defiant eyes remain sealed shut, once your eyes are open to this modern day genocide, what to do?
A UNICEF survey concluded that unscrupulous brothel owners In Cambodia alone hold almost twenty thousand children captive, which is fully one third of the total amount of sex workers in the country.
Driving out of Phnom Penh towards Siem Reap, the scorched rice paddies await the first downpour of the monsoon from clouds that billow overhead; occasionally the sky is raked with fingers of lightening. Lining the roadside are ponds of farmed lotus, their pink flowers so favoured by Buddha. In a matter of weeks, these same fields will be as vibrantly green with new life as the emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace.
I say a silent prayer that the children of modern day Cambodia can rise up also untouched through the muddy Killing Fields like the eternal bloom.
Published in The Christchurch Press 14 January 2008

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Kathmandu. A little piece of peace

If Kathmandu is the face of a nation emerging from the chaos of a people’s war, her bruises are yet to fade.

Just eighteen months after a massive uprising of the people forced an end to the Royal Coup that gave rise to the Mao insurgency which often saw the city blockaded or shut down for days, it is hard to tell if Kathmandu is crumbling or struggling to rise from the ashes of the smouldering piles of uncollected rubbish littering the city streets.
Tourism and foreign aid are the first industries to enjoy the fruits of the optimistic peace promotion; visitors are up thirty percent but a quick scan of the daily newspapers reveals the cracks behind the thinly papered walls of peace. It is a peace that reads like lawlessness.
Almost twenty months of an interim Government with no election date in sight, the Mao are not giving up the ‘back to the jungle option’, doctors threaten to hit the streets to protest ‘government apathy and Mao high handedness’, Tourism operators are protesting the revival of forcing donations from trekkers by Mao, a temple is shut in protest over Mao behaviour. Jimmy Carter arrives on a peace junket, the Supreme Court announces that it will employ its own security personnel to guard courts in the districts and a Disappearance Bill is to be passed by the government in response to the surge of abductions in the country.
The news is reported in an almost clinical fashion, like an overworked intern discussing symptoms of a critical patient. The legacy of press censorship in Kathmandu is a thriving rumour mill, often the chief source of information and opinion in a city where journalists fear for their lives and democracy moves in and out like the tide.
I put the paper down and take to the streets, heading for the tourist area of Thamel where I have arranged to meet a friend living in the city after twenty years living abroad. Every foot step must be negotiated in the narrow alleys; I swerve in the slipstream of a bicycle, swivel my hips to avoid a direct hit from the side mirror of a motorbike, dodge a porter carrying a bed on his back, veer past groups of children sniffing glue, and pause at every street corner before small temples smeared with red powder and garlanded with marigolds beside which piles of uncollected rubbish fester in the afternoon sun. Shops sell gold and trinkets, pashmina shawls and the many masks of god, next to it another shop sells Nike, turn left down an alley and raw meat hangs in rusty tin shacks.
A small alley by a stupa leads me to Kantipath, a road that runs towards the Narayanhiti Palace. On the corner whispering widows with small babies and empty bottles beg professionally, UN vehicles flash by and street hawkers offer tiger balm and trekking. Nearer the Palace, the roads widen into broad avenues that saw the funeral procession of the entire Royal Family in 2001 after the Crown Prince allegedly went on a rampage over his parent’s refusal to allow his love marriage.
While the official story is that Prince Dipendra (who was right handed) shot himself in the left temple after a shooting spree that left ten members of the Royal Family mortally wounded or dead, the true story is never likely to be revealed.
Every conspiracy theory in Kathmandu centres on the Murder at the Palace.
“Did you hear,” says a Buddhist nun as we wait at the traffic lights by the Royal Palace. “That over one hundred members of staff at the royal palace were also murdered that night? They say the Ghats at Pashupatinath burned all night.” “No witnesses survived,” she mutters darkly before disappearing into the swirl of people and traffic.

“Indonesian commandos,” says my friend. We break straight into the rumour mill as we wait for coffee and chocolate mousse in Thamel. “They did the executions on behalf of...well, take your pick. The King, the Indian government, the CIA, there are theories for them all.” “And the palace staff? Did you hear...?” He nods, confirming the rumour at the traffic lights. “Only high ranking army who are loyal to the Royals survived.” The interim government? “Organised chaos designed to fool the outsiders; it’s just another farce of democracy. The fact is that the Mao had an ideology but are not really educated enough to understand or support the path to democracy. As for the old rule, the systems of privilege they belong to are ancient; they are not going to hand over their power so easily. So they bicker and fight inside the halls of power while we wait and speculate.”
“What about the story I heard about the American embassy?” I ask. The newly built US Embassy is directly opposite the Palace and twice as large. “Every brick, every nail was brought in from America!”He says, slapping the table. “And did you know that not one Nepali was employed in the construction?” “Nepal is paradise lost. Everyone is making money out of our situation except for the Nepali. Can you believe that a poor country like Nepal needs five or six casinos? NO! So, why?”
“To launder money?” I am warming to the conspiracy theories.“Even the beggars come from India!” He laughs in the way of glass splintering. I part with my friend at the edge of Thamel, taking the route that will lead me through the ancient Hanuman Dhoka square where the virgin child chosen as the living goddess Kumari is held in palatial cloister, nearby the glue sniffers of the afternoon are comatose around the temple steps, and the hijari ply their ancient trade beside the old palace walls.
A lone motorbike weaves its way around idols and temples as the noise of the city begins to fade into the mists of an early winter night. Kathmandu has finally exhausted herself.


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