Thursday, July 28, 2016

KHMER ROUGE COUNTRY

Dusty Anlong Veng, former base of Khmer Rouge radicals
I'm walking through a town full of battle hardened men. Many of them now wear uniforms of the current Cambodian Army, but in truth they are all Ex-Khmer Rouge fighters. The giveaway: some still wear the red and white scarves long used by the radical communist movement.

I'm in Anlong Veng, in the extreme north of Cambodia, and I do mean extreme. These men were tough fighters; they held out battling the government army for years. They finally made peace, when they were integrated en masse into the regular army, the very army they had been fighting. With the war ending, this allowed them to stay in their territory, and still have a job.

As I walk down the dusty streets, the town's Khmer men stare at me stoically. Some of them look at me rather threateningly. Throwing them off guard, I smile at them and wave. Their cold stares quickly turn to smiles, and they wave back. The local women in this former red town are even less defensive. I only look in their direction, and most ladies smile straight away. Though the war is over, few white westerners ever come here. The few foreigners that do come to this town, are Thai traders from across the nearby border.

Gasoline is sold in old Johnny Walker whiskey bottles
There’s not much infrastructure here in Anlong Veng. Most roads here are rutted and unpaved. Dust raised by passing trucks causes a higher than usual rate of respiratory infections among the local populace. Looking around, I see no tall buildings in town. The largest structure on the horizon is a cell phone tower. Even though Anlong Veng is poor, they still manage to have mobile phone coverage.

Since this was a Khmer Rouge holdout for so many years, the economy in this part of the country lags behind the rest of Cambodia. I spot a World Food Program 4X4; with all the poverty here, they still support nutrition programs in the province. A small tractor chugs by behind; it hauls a wooden cart loaded with palm fronds.

Sitting on shelving by the roadside, are bottles of Johnny Walker Black and Johnny Walker Red. But the liquid inside, is green. These bottles are not filled with whiskey at all, they’re filled with gasoline. With no petrol station in town, this is how some shops make extra money here.

Billboard teaches children to beware of old landmines, and not to use grenades for fishing
In a country full of memorials, the town's only roundabout surrounds one of the strangest looking monuments I’ve ever seen. It consists of a bright golden deer, golden nagas, (mythical snakes) and a golden bird. In the center of them: a pyramid. The golden inscription in Khmer translates as, “This monument was donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen.” Oh really?? Somehow, I don’t think that the old dictator donated the money for this monument out of his personal savings.

As a former rebel base mired in poverty, Anlong Veng's ex-communists hope to make some money here by drawing more tourists. A large billboard in town  promotes a non-existent Khmer Rouge museum. This is the work of Nhem En, former photographer of the notorious S-21 prison, a.k.a the Tuol Sleng torture center.

His portraits of S-21 prisoners are the most memorable visual reminders of the Khmer Rouge victims. “The world should thank me for my work,” the deluded former commie photographer said in a documentary titled, “The Conscience of Nhem En.” 

Bizarre monument installed by the dictator
Of course he downplays the fact that he himself was Khmer Rouge. He dubiously claims that he never witnessed the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge. He must have been the world’s first deaf and blind photographer, since abuse and torture were daily occurrences in the prison.

Nhem En has attempted to explain his museum idea, “We don’t praise the Khmer rouge, but we will preserve the history of the Khmer Rouge.” This tourist attraction would not be a public museum, it would be owned by Nhem En himself. But the word in town is that he has had very few donors or investors. Apparently the ex-communist knows little about fund raising. Hopefully, this ill themed museum will never be built. That would be akin to building a museum for the Nazis.

Another nearby billboard has a more important message targeting children. Using tiger and rabbit cartoon characters, it cautions children not to play with unexploded munitions left over from the war, as explosives are all over this province. They remind them not to uproot minefield signs, and I remember my friend Mali, who lost a leg to a landmine outside of town here. The sign also reminds children not to use grenades for fishing.

Strolling down the main street, I enter the, “HUN SEN ANLONG VENG PRIMARY SCHOOL”.  I chuckle at the self-serving title. It’s as if Hun Sen is still trying to create a new cult of personality. This used to be, ‘Ta Mok School’, named after one of Hun Sen's former comrades. Ta Mok was one of the biggest butchers of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Ruins of an ancient Buddhist temple, destroyed by Ta Mok's Khmer Rouge thugs
School is done for the day, and passing some students lounging on motorbikes, I walk out back. Here I find a strange looking pile of large red and grey rocks. Looking closer, I see they are bricks, some with carved designs.

Then it dawns on me. These carved bricks are many centuries old. This was once an ancient Angkor temple. Now it’s not even a ruin, it's just a pile of rubble.

Wanting to learn more of what happened here, I enter a nearby thatched rooftop  restaurant for students. I order a drink from a woman wearing a blue and white Khmer scarf wrapped around her head. As she hands me my soda, I ask who destroyed the temple.

Broken blocks are all that remain of the Buddhist temple
“Ta Mok,” she answers bluntly. 

Why did he destroy it?” I ask, trying to find some reason for the senseless act. This time there's no reply. She’s not going to discuss a sensitive local issue with a strange foreigner. Whatever answer she might have told me, it still would have been insufficient. 

Nobody can explain the logic of madmen. The Khmer Rouge were extremists; much like the Taliban that destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Khmer Rouge had no respect for Buddhist religious sites.

Unlike the other picturesque temples of Angkor, it's unlikely that this small temple will be restored anytime soon.