The Aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng
When twelve Griffith students on the Cambodia trip raised their hands to be included in a trip to the district of Anlong Veng, we did so in hope of producing images that could affect change.
Images that could enhance living standards, inform the world of a colossal injustice, and make people care about the victims of war. What we found however, was far more personal, and ingrained far deeper into the district’s history.
Situated in northwest Cambodia, Anlong Veng is known to most – if known at all – as the last stronghold of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and resting place of its leader, Pol Pot. However, to those who know the area well, it is a place with a gruesome history that houses the remnants of an organisation that systematically destroyed an entire country for decades.
It wasn’t an easy truth for our group to grasp. Consider this: when the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, most of our parents had yet to meet. In school, in university, and in our own homes we are taught that war is mostly a necessary evil; a good guy verses a bad guy. In Anlong Veng we discovered how pathetically simplified and incorrect that theory really is.
In 1970 when General Lon Nol seized the country from Prince Sihanouk during the Vietnam War, Cambodia became a puppet of the United States’ military and a mass ethnic cleansing of the Vietnamese inhabitants ensued. The United States also launched a series of airstrikes that dropped approximately 2.75 million tonnes of explosives – largely consisting of cluster ammunitions – on the countryside, with the intent of slowing the surge of communists.
Naturally, an uprising occurred in the form of the Khmer Rouge, lead by Salath Sar, who idolised the Maoism branch of communism. Under the name Pol Pot, he later conquered General Lon Nol in 1975 and renamed the state Democratic Kampuchea.
Thus begins the conflict of reality verses what we’d previously been told about war; we know the Khmer Rouge to be an evil regime responsible for millions of deaths, yet they consisted mostly of farmers and children who joined in rebellion against the Lon Nol regime.
After seizing power however, the true intentions of Pol Pot came to light. Within days two million residents of Phnom Penh were forced to either decamp to the countryside or be killed. A purge within the Khmer Rouge itself also occurred; anyone found to be in favour of moderate-communism was executed as a potential traitor or threat.
The genocide began. In his bid to create a peasant utopia, Pol Pot unintentionally shot his regime in the foot by mass-murdering the country’s educated citizens and thus
preventing development and improvement. In 1979 the Vietnamese put an end to Pol Pot’s reign by seizing Phnom Penh and forcing the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge to the district of Anlong Veng, where they dwindled and finally laid down their guns in 1998.
Anlong Veng is an extremely secluded area, despite the number of residents. As Cambodia attempts to forget and move past the atrocities that crippled its population and development, Anlong Veng is shunned and largely ignored due to its perceived ties with the Khmer Rouge.
We were accompanied on our trip by Tun Channareth (Reth), co-Nobel Peace laureate of 1997 and outreach team member of Jesuit Refugee Services (JSR), one of the only non-government organisations that frequent Anlong Veng. Reth was one of thousands living in Thai refugee camps who were forced into military service in order to secure food. It was during this service in 1982 that Reth lost both his legs to a landmine.
As an ex-soldier and landmine victim, Reth’s presence not only bridged the language barrier, but also granted us access and permission to speak to several members of the community with ties to the Khmer Rouge.
It was in the homes of these ex-soldiers that we perceived the true legacy of war. When America dropped over two million tonnes of explosives on Cambodia they not only killed civilians as well as soldiers, but also crippled the country and its people’s chances of development.
When we picture war, we envisage the young Vietnamese girl fleeing from a napalm attack, or men landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day 1944. When we picture post-war images, we think of the now-flourishing Germany, the French poppy fields, Saddam Hussein’s statue being dragged down. We don’t picture starving men forced to fight other starving men for reasons unknown to them, or farmers rising up with a rebellious party and carrying out orders of genocide under threat of death if they refused. We certainly don’t picture the banal reality that confronted us in Anlong Veng.
We were not met with crying babies and weeping mothers, we were not met with crowds of people on the roads marching in search of water and food security. We were met with small huts and bare dirt. We were met by men who fought for the losing side and have been brushed aside as a result. We were met by families who simply wake up, go to work, and hopefully earn or harvest enough to eat. There is no crying out for help, no dramatic uprising and certainly no weeping. It is just life, and it is lived accordingly.
Kong Chaeap, 46, lives on a 44m x 84m block of land in Taulparsat Commune, Anlong Veng. He was a farmer who fought with the Khmer Rouge until he lost his right leg, right eye and several fingers when he stepped on a landmine while fighting the Vietnamese in 1988. It’s hard to imagine travelling for half a day to reach medical help when a large portion of your body has just been partially exploded, yet his story is not unique. Kong Chaeap and his family then lived in refugee camps until they were repatriated to what was then the Khmer Rouge-controlled Anlong Veng in 1993.
When asked why he remains in Anlong Veng where his family is barely surviving, his response is matter-of-fact and quiet.
“A lot of injured people move to villages where it’s easier to make a living, but I have no land there and cannot sell this with nowhere to go to,” he said via Reth’s translation.
Kong Chaeap and his wife Choem, 46, are eagerly awaiting installation of a toilet by JRS. Though a seemingly modest luxury, Reth knows first hand how difficult a simple toilet trip can be for an amputee when the only bathroom facility is the ground. He talks enthusiastically with Kong Chaeap and John Rodsted, an old friend and renowned photographer, about plans for the toilet building and construction time frame.
Having been involved in the area for years, John is privy to far greater insight to the situation as a whole than the accompanying students.
“Remember, a majority of the Khmer Rouge were not homicidal maniacs, they were farmers. They were uneducated peasantry who’d been vacuumed up into one faction or another,” he explained.
Hence the banal overtone of each community visited; no homicidal maniacs here sorry, just ordinary people trying to survive in a country that wants to bury the very memory of them.