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Bewitched by Battambang


Three years: from what I had read, the Khmer Rouge commander of the Battambang front line area had gone over to Hun Sen in 1996 – ending the long guerilla war that had begun with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 – which would have given this fellow about three years to see how things were sorting themselves out before he took take the vows.

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about what happened here a long time ago?”

“Ask anything you want to ask.”

“Were you here when the Khmer Rouge were in power?”

“Yes, I was in Battambang. It’s my home. I live here.”

“What was it like?”

He said Battambang was one of the early places to go over to the Khmer Rouge; they were very strong in the area. He said the first thing they did was collect all the people and move them to central locations; Wat Ek Phnom had been one of those places. In the daytime they would take them out and have them work the fields.

This would have been part of the plan to reinvent the grand agrarian dynasties of the Angkor kings, the primary remnants of which can be found in the wonder of Angkor Wat. As for the results, all the sad terminology and statistics of more recent times indicate that countless people died due to the folly of an ignorant few. An example: about 50 miles from where we were sitting rests Kamping Poy, a lake where one can still see a huge dam running for about 8 km between two hillsides. Records say that about 10,000 people died in its construction. There are two local theories about its purpose: one, that the Khmer Rouge intended to situate all its enemies below the dam and blow it up; the other, that it was just part of the plan for a massive irrigation system that, again, would have returned Cambodia to the kind of farming society it beheld during the great Angkor dynasty.

William Shawcross discusses the evolution of the Khmer Rouge and their ideas in Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia. His premise is that the evolution of the French-educated Khmer Rouge leaders from boys with high ideals into genocides was in part based on a radical change in mind-set set off by the massive and mindless bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War – not to mention countless other atrocities common to that time. That is one theory. What does seem certain is that the Khmer Rouge, and the resulting Cambodian genocide, would never have happened had it not been for that Southeast Asian conflict. When I took advantage of a pause to mention the point, the old man shrugged and said he had heard something about that.

And he continued: everyone was brought back to the temple at night. Noone was allowed to leave or go about on their own. It wasn’t a lot of room for that many people to live in, nor was there a lot of food. In such conditions, the population began to thin out. The Khmer Rouge were only interested in people who could work.

Our translator stepped in to say that there was another temple about 11 km away where the Khmer Rouge had killed a lot of people. The bones are still there, in a cave; pointing up to the hole at the top of the room we were in, he made a quick, bludgeoning motion, and then an indication of rapid descent, which made everything clear.

The old man paused to allow the interruption to continue if necessary; my driver lowered his head and the old man continued: these days he liked to come up to the temple in the afternoon and spend his time here. At night he went back down to the new complex to sleep. That was all.

“How close is that other temple?”

On a hill, about 30 minutes away by bike, my guide reported.

“Thanks.”

The old man gestured between a nod and a shrug.

“We can go to the temple,” my guide said.

“OK.”

My guide suggested we take a picture before leaving. The old man was amenable, and I duck-walked behind the flowers, where the picture shows us smiling, in each our own country’s fashion, and clasping hands.

“Thanks.”

“Goodbye,” said the old man. “It’s going to rain.”

And it was getting dark fast also, but the momentum of the talk led us quickly down a small dirt road between some fields. It ended, hopefully, at a highway, lovely concrete and all, but we zipped right across that and found another dirt road, this one not marked as much by signs of human occupation or even frequent travel. The potholes were numerous and often gaping, and I was reminded of my motorcycle accident in Laos two years before, on a road much the same: I had dodged one large rut only to go front wheel first into another twice its depth. There had been an amusing view of the tree line as I did a brief handstand on the handlebar, and then there was not much to be amused about at all. Luckily, I had only been going about 15 mph at the time, and the good medical offices of the Laotian, and later, Thai governments saw me fit enough to hobble back onto the road in about a week’s time. But it had not altogether been a pleasant time, and this road was bringing back those memories with alarming clarity.

“How much farther to go?”

“We will see the temple soon.”

It began to rain – big monsoon drops of August Cambodian rain. The afternoon was rapidly falling away, and the clouds hung dark and low, and we were riding into the rain, lashing down as it tends to do in that season, and I was wavering as we turned a bend and there was the temple, looming on the hill yet some distance away, as if some clever author had conjured the scene entirely from the notion of injecting drama and meaning into a work that previously had seemed to be going nowhere.

Along that line, I might write that we forged on through it all, until the bike could go no further and from there slipped, huffed and puffed our way to the temple, where a group of children led us safely past the artillery guns still protected by mines. That it had stopped raining and was dark now except for the slow-rising moon and we were led in silence to another part of the hill and down a dark staircase, where my guide flared his lighter to a room full of skulls and bones, and the skylight above where the suffering ended for some before the final drop.

But we did not go to the temple. The road was getting no better and the rain coming down harder and that was a reason to go back to town. I tapped my driver on the shoulder and he nodded, ever the steady fellow. An hour or so later I was back at the hotel with no election observers in sight – then fed, showered, warm and dry, watching all the daily English language news worth seeing as determined by someone or another far away from Battambang. The report on who would be running Cambodia for the next while was not in that mix.

All the same, I was glad to be in my room that night; I might add that I did not take the opportunity of seeing that temple – called Phnom Sampeau – up close the next day. I have been to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and walked through the torture halls of Tuol Sleng, and that is more than enough for one lifetime. For the traveler with a more valiant interest in cadaver heaps, there is little to fear. The bones are yet piling up all around our planet, and Cambodia is notable in this respect only as our best, sad museum.

The election results:

The Cambodian elections of July 2003 resulted in a stalemate—none of the parties won the two-thirds majority required to govern alone. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) took 73 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, Ranariddh’s Funcinpec won 26, and the Sam Rainsy Party earned 24 seats. Ranariddh refused to form a coalition with Hun Sen, calling him an autocrat and accusing him of corruption. After months of negotiations, Ranariddh and Hun Sen agreed in June 2004 to form a coalition, with Hun Sen remaining prime minister. The power-sharing agreement cleared the way for Cambodia to enter the World Trade Organization.

In March 2003 the UN and Cambodia announced that after five years they had finally agreed on a system to try senior Khmer Rouge officials on charges of genocide. Both parties were only cautiously optimistic that the breakthrough would ever yield results. Most recently, Cambodia’s ailing King Norodom Sihanouk has issued a statement of abdication following nearly a year of self-imposed exile. (News bite from wire reports and www.infoplease.com)

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