Two schools represent distinction with a big difference

IMG_5604The complex in the photo above was called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge.  Today it is known variously as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia.

The facility had been converted from a public high school to an incomprehensibly brutal prison in 1975-79, when up to 2 million Cambodians died.  Of the 14,000 ordinary citizens believed to have been incarcerated there, only seven survived the starvation, inhuman living conditions, torture and outright execution.

Toul Sleng is a 10-15-minute walk from my home, and I have occasion to pass by regularly.  It is wholly visible from the roof of my 15-story building.  Seeing it Continue reading

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Holiday unknown to me gives access to French Embassy

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The imposing main building of the French Embassy greets visitors just inside the gate.

An annual series of events around the world under the umbrella of European Heritage Days had escaped me until this year, but last Saturday’s activities in Phnom Penh allowed me and hundreds of others to enjoy access inside some otherwise private international venues.

I learned about the possibility of seeing the French Embassy only the day before by reading a one-inch item in a local English-language daily.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about also being able to tour the British ambassador’s residence, UNESCO offices and a restored colonial-era building where the high-end Van’s restaurant operates.  (I had dined expensively at the restaurant once and have felt no need to return.)

Still, visiting the French Embassy proved to be notable for Continue reading

Visit to Khmer Rouge Tribunal sparks old memories

Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia yesterday. ECCC

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, testifies at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in June. Source: ECCC/Phnom Penh Post.

The idea was not so much to report on testimony given at what is officially named the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, or ECCC, a U.N. funded organization that otherwise is known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  It was a sense of obligation.

The courts’ multi-million-dollar mission since its creation in 2006 has been to prosecute ultimately just a few of the individuals involved in the genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s.  That the government is filled with former adherents of the Khmer Rouge has resulted in years of negotiations, stalling and the resulting freedom from trial of thousands and thousands of killers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held onto his position for 31 years, acknowledges that he once was a relatively senior member of the Khmer Rouge before he changed sides.

Having already borne witness to the atrocities committed by Cambodians against Cambodians at a high school that became the notorious S-21 prison — referred to as Toul Sleng — and the killing fields, I decided it was high time that I observe the trial taking place 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown Phnom Penh.  My goal was less to recount testimony but more to share with readers how it felt to get and be there.

It was an unexpectedly chilling experience because Continue reading

Thinking out of proverbial box could better Cambodia

You can be sure that participants in this protest against the ruling party a while back collectively represent unfathomable need.

Modern history has demonstrated that, indeed, there always is something new under the sun.

Under this nation’s punishing sun, perhaps some possibly new ideas could improve the lives of the heartbreakingly numerous Cambodians unable even to hope for a better life.

As I make my way around the country, various Continue reading