Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Year Zero

I’m currently with the mother, stepfather, aunt and siblings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’re on a family holiday in IndoChina. Mum decided that after many years and with all of us “growing-up” it was time for us to have a family reunion of sorts.
The trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The place is something of a tourist haven thanks to its biggest asset – the Angkor Wat. We spent three days visiting temples and trying to discover the Khemer culture and for me, it was a few moments of being able to offer some prayers.
Then it was off to Phnom Penh, the capital city. I don’t know why but it seemed necessary to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. The experience was depressing. As my sister says, “There’s some seriously bad ju-ju in here.”
Unlike the more sophisticated tourist industries of Greece or Italy or even Thailand, Cambodia’s industry is fairly raw. Yes, there is some restoration work going on at the Angkor site but by and large things are left pretty much as they’ve been for the last few centuries. If you look at the Acropolis in Athens you can’t tell the restored stuff from the originals. You’ll get to see lots of reenactments of people in ancient costume. You don’t get any of that in Cambodia. Things are as they are.
I guess that made Tuol Sleng all the more harrowing. There were no sophisticated audio visuals or wax works depicting things. There was just an old building, filled with empty iron beds. There were a few signs telling you what went on and boards of a few faces, telling a few stories.
Somehow, this lack of sophistication created a realistic connection with the ghost of people who had been murdered because some mad man they never met decided that they were people he didn’t like.
I’m not going to retell the story of the Cambodian civil war. Plenty has been said about it. What I will say is that history only hits home and becomes relevant to you, when you feel the ghost of the lives that history has claimed. Tuol Sleng is inhabited by spirits who cannot rest.
The events that took place in Cambodia were not that far away. They’re a little under 40-years ago. They’re about my age. For all the complaints I have about Singapore, I bless the fact that I was born there. Say what you like but I grew up in a place that there is a peace of sorts. I could have been born a few hundred kilometers north – in a place that gave us the Killing Fields. That little accident of history gives me the opportunity to bitch about the things I haven’t done as I approach my 40th birthday. Had I been born in Cambodia instead, I might be blessing the fact that I’m going to see my 40th birthday.
However, I’ve not gotten over the fact that Singapore was opposed to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the invasion that removed Pol Pot and his goons from committing possibly the worst genocide in human history. For years, we cheered on the US and China in the UN for recognizing Pol Pot’s regime and the legal government of Cambodia.
I guess our political leaders at the time felt that it was the lesser of two evils. Perhaps it was the right decision in some sense of keeping the two big powers of the day (USA and China) on our side.
However, on a personal level, there’s something very wrong about this. Pol Pot wasn’t exactly secretive about his activities. Unlike today’s politicians who are all competing to create “economic growth” and “investment opportunity,” Pol Pot was very clear that all he was interested in was turning the clock back to the “Year Zero.” Whatever progress Cambodia had made from the moment he came to power was reversed.
Let’s leave the economics aside and think of the human cost. Sure, he killed less in absolute numbers than Hitler, Stalin and let’s not forget his patron in China – Mao. However, if you look at the total population of Cambodia (13 million according to the 2008 census), he killed a far higher percentage of his own people than any of the previous gentlemen.
I’ll give Western civilization this much – they’ve made it a point to try and remember their sins. The Germans have been exceedingly cautious not to let history repeat itself and the Western world won’t let them.
By contrast, we in Asia tend to ignore those sins. The Japanese, for example, don’t bother to appologise for their crimes and the rest of Asia never did much about it (with the exception of a few protests whenever some official visits the Yausukuni War Shrine). The reason was simple – Japan had the cash and we wanted her investment to “bring us into the modern age.”
Well we’re not going to shed any tears over Cambodia too. I guess you could say its all part of this thing called ASEAN unity. I’m glad we have it and I do think its better to move forward than back. However, I worry that in our mad rush to become rich and successful, we forget the human horrors that were inflicted on a people.
The Germans became prosperous and peaceful despite Auschwitz. Europe has not allowed them to forget that moment but it’s also allowed them to prosper.
What can be said for Cambodia? I entered Vietnam relieved. The Vietnamese are a more aggressive group of people. They are more pushy and in a way less given to the spiritual. Like the Chinese, they tend to pray for luck rather preparation for the afterlife. However, they are a people who have hope and a pride in the ability that future is theirs for the taking.
By contrast, I fear that the Cambodians are going to be in for a rough ride. The rest of Asia (lead by China) will prosper out of Cambodia’s official corruption. Western “do-gooders” in NGO’s will revel in their ability to help poor “brown people” and Western Business interest will compete with the Asian counterparts to screw the people. In the mean time, Cambodia is left with nothing much other than hope that the world will continue to have an interest in an ancient culture that once stood on their soil.
I think of the faces on the Bayon Temple and remember someone telling me that it reflected the spirit of the Cambodian People – smiling despite the horrors that ravaged their land. I only wish that the smile won’t have to hide the tinge of tragedy one day.

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